DANDORA, Kenya - As dawn neared and the light grew, the scene at a municipal dump outside Nairobi, Kenya, was hard to imagine.
Otherworldly sunlight filtered through biogas steam and smoke from burning chemicals and plastic. The smell of rotting debris from 4 million people, piled up over four decades in this dump, overpowered the nose and carried with it substance and density that clung deep inside the throat. Thousands of scavenging, prehistoric-like storks cawed and spread their massive wings. Pigs, brawling dogs and a menagerie of lesser birds picked through the garbage side by side with hunched-over men and women. This hardly seemed like a place for humans to live and work and eat.
I came all this way to better understand Kenya's Dandora Municipal Dump Site, the only waste site in Nairobi, East Africa's most populous city. For the people who work here, the conditions are among the worst I've ever seen. The neglect and disregard for their lives should be unacceptable. Yet the mountains of garbage that sustain them are also endangering their lives and those of their children.
To search for recyclable material to sell, Rahab Ruguru rummages through the smoldering debris with a piece of rebar she uses as a makeshift rake. Ruguru and the other pickers - an estimated 6,000 people - scavenge the sprawling 30-acre dumpsite from 5 a.m. to sundown. They make about $2.50 a day. They exist on the lowest rung of the economy, an informal chain of middlemen and women, working in horrific conditions, doing the dirty work for recycling companies. They sort and place into large sacks material that cannot be eaten, but can be sold for recycling. Metal, rubber, milk bags, plastics, bones and electronics tend to be among the most sought-after material.