On Christmas, we saw how hundreds of families rely on the filthy side of Mzedi dumpsite for survival.
While many Christians were feasting in the comfort of their homes or on the move, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, scores of destitute Malawians were scrambling for “niceties in truckloads of waste emanating from all parts of Blantyre.
In the muck of the city’s main dumpsite, Manesi Sambani and her two children were spotted at the turn-off to the stuffy spot waiting for the rot coming in.
“We have been here since 6am,” said the 38-year-old with a two-year-old baby saddling on her back.
Her eight-year-old son was alert, ready to jump on arriving Blantyre City Council (BCC) refuse trucks, as they posed strategically by the roadside.
“It’s Christmas and we want to grab leftovers from the tables of well-off residents of the city,” she said.
The population in the nauseating setting says refuse, including rotten and expired goods, is almost everything to them.
There are similar sights at makeshift dumpsites in Mzuzu, Zomba and Lilongwe.
Decaying beef and chickens are a daily staple. Some of the desperate collectors admittedly sell the meaty products to businesspersons who vend meat in pubs and trading centres.
But they are not few. Over 2 000 young Malawians were already scavenging at Mzedi when Environmental Concerned Youth Association (Ecoya) started lobbying for reforms in waste management at the dumpsite in April.
“It’s a survival of the fittest,” she said.
Actually, there were fistfights when the refuse truck arrived.
Some of the scavengers suffer injuries as they run after trucks, fight for goods and fall on sharp objects that are all over the place.
When asked Sambani how she stands the pushes and shoves with a baby on her back, Sambani gazed at her endangered baby with agony in her eyes.
“I have to do it for my children,” she replied. “If I don’t, even the baby will starve.”
The youth organisation, with funding from Tilitonse, believes the children deserve a safe place than in the rot.
In their setting, the scavengers do not seem bothered about the ill effects of consuming expired goods.
“I know that the food is hazardous, but what else can I do? We all live by God’s grace,” the woman told us.
Some of the goods from Mzedi go back to the townships where they come from.
Some young men confessed cashing in on the expired goods.
“Some of us sell the discarded meat to kanyenya vendors in various townships and markets,” said Gift.
This affirms a silent public health crisis.
Besides the costly health implications of ingesting expired goods, the desperate community, including babies and the youth, are constantly at risk of diseases resulting from poor sanitation.
“Poor waste management of Mzedi dump site is a major concern which is putting lives of scavengers and surrounding communities in danger,” said Ecoya project officer Ned Mlonya.
Recent assessment of water quality at Moto Village near the dumpsite by Ecoya and Society for Friends of Environment and Technology (Sofet) confirmed numerous physical, biological and chemical threats.
The concerns include high concentration of nitrates, a common contaminant of groundwater in rural areas which causes blue baby syndrome or blood inability to delivery enough oxygen to the body. Children are the worst hit by the disease.
The investigation, from June 9 to August 13, exposes the silent effects of poor waste management by the council on shallow water sources.
The water samples were found not fit for human consumption and domestic use when compared with Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) specifications for drinking water and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum requirements for raw groundwater in boreholes and shallow wells
The samples also contained excessive calcium which increases hardness of water, meaning the nearby population needs more water to wash away soap from laundry and more hours to cook food. Calcium also affects agriculture.
According to Mlonya, Mzedi dumpsite is a deathtrap for children who stay away from school to forage for putrid goods.
“The place is accident-prone and a woman identified as Mrs Namwera lost her son at this place,” he said.
City residents surrounding Mzedi have had numerous unfruitful meetings with BCC.
On March 8, they marched to Blantyre Civic Centre where they demanded an immediate closure of the dumpsite.
The marchers included traditional rulers, scavengers’ leaders, activists and relatives of a pupil who died at the dumpsite.
“The chief executive officer Alfred Chanza assured us that a sustained clean-up operation would begin right away, but nothing has happened so far,” recalled Mzedi Community-Based Organisation director Ernest Malata.
The council reportedly promised to identify a recycling company to start generating electricity using the garbage.
The residents demand an immediate closure of Mzedi of the council cannot manage the waste its trucks keep dumping in the area. n