Postcolonial Urbanisms in Senegal: Jan 13th – Political ecologies of garbage and Mbeubeuss

The lecture this morning was on the political ecologies of garbage. The highlight was definitely Madany Sy of the trashworkers union coming in to talk to us. While Madany talked to us, you could see his passion for improving the trash collection system in Dakar. Madany talked about the history of the trashworkers union – how in the 1980s Wade offered jobs to the Senegalese youth in Dakar part of the environmental Set/Setal movement to become trashworkers themselves. Some, such as Madany, took up the challenge despite the social stigma that comes with such a job. Madany then decided to create a labor union to fight for their rights as trashworkers, including better pay and health benefits. The thing that most impressed me about their union was that they also fought to affect policy regarding trash collection in Dakar. They succeeded in buying more trash collection trucks in the city and setting a more regular schedule for trash collection. What they haven’t yet been able to impact is people’s individual trash habits in the city. In Dakar, most people don’t have garbage bins in their home, so forget about sorting through garbage and recycling. People will throw out their garbage any day of the week, not just on the days that the trashworkers will come to collect it. Moreover, most household garbage in the city is organic – it thus festers quickly, especially with the city’s hot climate. The trashworkers recently staged a strike in the city, and the short amount of time that they were not collecting trash resulted in an incredibly unpleasant situation for the neighborhoods that they serve. The trashworkers still face many problems for the future: for one, their salary is still extremely low, which is a disgrace compared to the government’s billion dollar operating budget. Furthermore, they are not paid regularly and whenever they are not paid, they cannot claim their salary. Finally, the trashworkers suffer from chronic health problems, and although they now have health benefits through the union, this will be a consistent problem in the future.

I went to my host family’s place for lunch. It kind of surprised me that Rayne didn’t want to come and the family was definitely asking for her. We had a really heavy lunch of rice with meat in a tomato based sauce, and even though I feel that I ate too much, the family was really concerned about how little I ate. I sensed that this would be an recurring issue. After lunch, we visited a garbage site called Mbeubeuss. It is on the outskirts of Dakar, it seemed that we drove forever to arrive there. I know that the professor and all the other students refer to the place as a garbage dump, but I feel uncomfortable using that term when we actually went there to visit the community that lives on top of the garbage. Anyway, we drove to a sandy lot covered with trash collection trucks. We then visited the community of trash pickers that live on top of the lot. I have actually visited a similar community – Burmese refugees living on top of a garbage site on the northeastern border of Thailand and Burma. Seeing this community, I felt the same emotions – amazement, empathy, and respect. I actually felt more pity in Thailand even though I struggled with that emotion, because the Burmese refugees had been basically forced out of their country through political and military violence. In Senegal, we can see that the trash pickers have no other opportunity available to them and are surviving the best way that they know how. People were very amicable and were socializing with each other. One man was in particular very proud of his metal and rubber collection and was perhaps one of the most prolific and well known pickers in the community – most of the trash pickers saved up a particular material in stock and then sold it to companies to re-use. It is actually a very ecological way of recycling. What is not ecological is the small fires that start on the trash compound. Some stay small, but others burn out of control and end up destroying people’s homes and/or “offices”. This smoke can be very toxic, due to the mixture of waste that exists in the compound, and we passed by about five fires. Our guide said that these fires were accidental, but based on what I have seen in the past, and also judging by the groups of kids gathered around some of the fires, I would also guess that small kids or teenagers start these fires out of boredom and curiosity. That is unfortunate, since it can be dangerous and especially because it is terrible for their health and the health of the community in general.

Questions: 1. Is there a more effective model of trash collection in a country similar to Senegal? A place where funds are mismanaged, and therefore resources are scarce on the ground, but there is a union of trashworkers in place who are passionate about improving trash collection in the cities?

2. What strategies can the trashworkers implement in order to affect behavioral change in relation to household and individual trash habits?

3. Are there simple measures that could be implemented in Mbeubeuss to protect the health of the pickers there? They would have to be extremely low-cost and easily accessible measures. There are times when I wish that I was a Public Health student..

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