Obey Sibanda, Features Reporter
AT the crack of dawn every morning, 42-year-old Ms Nomsizi Mauto drags herself out of her shack at Bulawayo’s infamous Ngozi Mine dumping site and joins scores of jobless women, who sift through piles of garbage to collect valuables.
Ms Mauto — a qualified teacher — says she could not be absorbed into the profession she trained for after Government froze recruitment and went into dumpsite scrounging “where there is infinitely more money to be made.”
“In a good month, I can make about $2 000 from what people throw away. I might fall sick because the conditions are unhygienic, but my children are well taken care of,” she says and casually glances at urchins running around the dump.
Ms Mauto looks older than her age and the elements have scorched her skin to a leathery blackness. Dirty, barefooted children — who know no world beside the garbage heap — sprint along the dusty wasteland, their raggedy clothing flapping under the scorching sun.
Ms Mauto is part of a group that relocated from Harare to take advantage of relatively uncrowded dumpsites in Bulawayo. In groups of fours, mainly made up of women, teams scrounge through mountains of smelly garbage.
The result of their sweat is sold to waste management companies in Harare. The end product is supplied to different manufacturers who use it to make jeans, carpets, tennis balls and other stuff that finds its way back to the country’s markets as new products. Ms Mauto and her colleagues however, sift through the site without protective clothing. It is back breaking work done at a snail’s pace in the unbearable summer heat.
In their hands are metal rods which they use to gather pieces of tin, plastic, glass and bones. They sort out the garbage with their bare hands. An incessant buzz of green-flies provides a sort of background music as they separate material such as plastic containers, glass and paper. When it becomes too dark to work, they push the unwanted items into a pit and burn it to avoid breeding of germs.
“We can afford to hire trucks to take the stuff to Harare where it fetches higher prices. The local Informal Recycling Assistants (IRA) are paid peanuts. We link them to Harare people to boost our profits,” she says, wiping a dark sweat streaking smudge from her brow.
“The work is filthy and degrading but come to think of it, there are no bosses here, we make our own monies. It’s about seeing the silver lining on every cloud,” she says, appearing immune to the overpowering stench at the dumpsite.
The hot air is rotten with the stench of decomposition, which is made to seem alive by the constant droning of flies. Ngozi Mine is home to Bulawayo’s largest rubbish dump, the final destination for the tonnes of waste the city produces every day and also a home to homeless people.
One will be forgiven for mistaking the dumpsite for a normal settlement. Sprawling shanty huts lean cheek by jowl around a huge heap of garbage.
Beyond the flimsy shacks, lie ditches and pools of filthy, stagnant waters, conducive to the breeding of a particularly vicious strain of mosquitoes.
“It may be difficult to believe, but this is where we make our living,” Ms Mauto says.
She dips a piece of garbage into the putrid water and indicates all the “rubbish” is washed there before transportation to the capital.
“We are entrepreneurs who turn the huge waste people produce every day into money-making products,” she says.
She works as she speaks because: “Time is money.” Mr Bongani Dube, a city council officer who works at the dumpsite, said people in the past found convenient to dump their garbage in unauthorised dumpsites, which ended up blocking drains and causing environmental hazards.
“Residents are becoming more environmentally responsible buy turning waste into money. It’s such a brilliant idea that profits their pockets and the environment at the same time,” said Ndlovu.
“While it may not be one of the most popular business ideas out there, a few smart Zimbabweans are already amassing wealth from waste and creating jobs for fellow countrymen,” he said.
Mkhululi Ndlovu, a man who has lived at the dumpsite for more than 10 years remarked: “Considering the magnitude of unavailability of jobs and company closures, there is no doubt of the positive role that Ngozi Mine dumpsite plays in creating jobs for hundreds of poor families.”
National Waste Collections (NWC) Bulawayo branch operations controller Mr Desire Ndudzo observed that there was brisk business in waste management depending on what one was collecting.
“Waste management people are the last people to be out of business. As long as companies are still functioning and waste is produced we will be in business. Scavengers need to pick the material that can be recycled by waste management companies,” said Ndudzo.
Despite the fact that some entrepreneurs like Mauto are making a killing from the sale of garbage, some local entrepreneurs are reeling in poverty. The successful entrepreneurs thrive on the misfortune of others, making unfavourable deals with the poor and desperate to improve their bottom lines.
“We are forced to sell our products to those with contacts and markets in the capital. These buyers are now setting prices that are very low to us the local people who take waste management as the sole saver from chains of poverty,” said Mr Nkululeko Ncube.
Ms Nomathemba Moyo weighed in saying poverty has left them with no option and selling their products at a low price was the only way they could get some money to buy basic needs.
“We don’t have means of transporting the material to Harare so we are forced to sell our products for peanuts to the middlemen who take all the profit and none of the risk,” she said.
Environmental Management Agency (Ema), Bulawayo provincial manager Mr Decent Ndlovu lamented the behaviour of waste buyers saying they wanted to take the waste for free or pay less to the Informal Recycling Assistants who toil day and night in order to make ends meet.
“We have a challenge of buyers of the waste material. Those who buy want to pay less or get the material for free yet they make a killing from recycling the waste,” he said.
Mr Ndlovu, however, urged those companies that buy waste material to provide protective clothing to the Informal Recycling Assistants since they would be working for them in a way.
“Since these people are working in a dangerous environment, dressing appropriately and using personal protective clothing can help minimise pesticide exposure and reduce the risk of pesticide poisoning,” he said.
Mr Ndlovu urged the Bulawayo City council to segregate waste, which was hazardous to be out of reach of the scavengers.
“In terms of safety, city council must segregate the dumpsite for dangerous materials, especially chemicals and electrical gadgets for proper disposal not to allow people to have free access,” he said.
Responding to distress calls of the informal recycling assistants, Bulawayo City Council senior public relations officer Mrs Nesisa Mpofu said, “The council is finalising a Reduce, Reuse & Recycle (3R) policy document that will address issues of empowering Informal Recycling Assistants and revitalising the recycling industry in Bulawayo.”
Mrs Mpofu said the city council was holding monthly meetings with the Informal Recycling Assistants where issues such as occupational health were discussed.
“It should be noted that Richmond Sanitary Landfill (Ngozi Mine) does not accept chemical waste unless that waste has been analysed in an accredited laboratory and a suitable method of rendering that waste harmless to the environment and humans has been specified and done,” said Mrs Mpofu.
Mr Ndudzo said NWC have agencies at Ngozi Mine dumpsite that were on contract and provided with basic skills and protective clothing.
“If you go to the dumpsite there are people working for us. You will identify them with company work suits and gloves for protection,” he said.
A chemist, Mr Farai Samuriwo said toxic substances found in dumpsites posed a wide range of health hazards such as irritation, sensitisation, and physical hazards such as flammability, corrosion, and explosivity.
“Chemicals are dangerous, differing only in the degree of toxicity, and are potentially dangerous to people if exposure is high. Some are known to cause cancer,” said Mr Samuriwo.