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Waste and Contentment: What Landfills Teach Us

Trucks line up to offload rubbish at Olusosun dump in Nigeria’s teeming commercial capital Lagos, April 18, 2007. A fire tore through a makeshift village built atop the dump site on Wednesday, razing hundreds of shacks and leaving many people who scavenge waste material without shelter. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly (NIGERIA)

The scene opens with what looks like the largest and dirtiest rubbish dump on the face of the earth. It is huge, with rubbish piled so high that satellites would have registered its presence. Many gigantic trucks continuously roll in to spew out tons of festering and stinking garbage, not in big black bags, but in big heaps – to the utter delight of over a thousand human scavengers looking for recyclable materials. This is Lagos, Nigeria, where three quarters of residents live in slums.

The documentary I’m watching is about Olusosum Rubbish Dump, a sight that tourists will not be visiting any time soon. It sustains a thriving community of over 1,000 “entrepreneurial” people and their families who live on the dumpsite. Their little sheds and tents are complimentary creations made of garbage. Curtains, linens, rotting wood pieces, metal bars, and furniture scraps form their interior design.

Eric, aka Vocal Slender, is one of the many people who live on the Olusosun rubbish dump in Lagos. From the BBC.

As the trucks arrived, excited scavengers rushed to greet them and clung on to them like cleaner fish to sharks in the ocean. They hung on to the trucks and jogged alongside as though they were staking their right to some of the contents. There was a surreal kind of joy and hope as the trucks emptied their deliveries. Armed only with rusty hooks and gloveless bare hands, they quickly got to work, wading waist-deep in the reservoir of waste and stench. Finders Keepers! What a job!

For urbanites, city living always ends with waste. It is the end of the line, our unconscious raison d’être. Waste and excess define life in Hong Kong. Still, we make haste to get rid of it and certainly don’t want to see it. For the denizens of Olusosum, garbage is the foundation and source of their livelihood. Where we see filth and disease, they see cash and their future. We think it is heartbreaking. They see it as an honorable way to make a living and are, as far as I can see, content living from hand to mouth. Yet, they are happy. What about us city-dwellers?

The difference lies, as so often, in perception and attitudes.

Joseph Orji has worked in the Dump buying scrap pieces of brass, copper, steel, rubber, tin, and aluminum from scavengers. He humorously likened himself to a Wall Street commodities trader “minus the tie, suit and fine shoes” because he says that when the dollar goes up, his prices go up and vice-versa. He went on to proudly proclaim: “I am not ashamed that I work in the Rubbish Dump. Everyone knows where I work. I don’t rob. I don’t steal. I am honest. I love my family and if there is a stinkier dump than this one where I can earn more, I will go there so that my family enjoys life. The government does not see us as human beings, only miscreants and vagabonds. But we are ‘tyres’ moving the nation forward.”

Another young scavenger, Eric Obuh, scoured and sifted furiously for plastic bottles, cans and broken glassware because he needed to buy a new T-shirt. Suddenly, his eyes spotted something twinkling in the sun. Could be a diamond in the rough? He plunged his hand and dug it out. Breaming with pride, he showed a very small, empty glass perfume bottle to the camera crew and exclaimed, “Now, this is very expensive!” Perhaps he had found a gift for his girlfriend? He was in a very good mood and cheerfully chatted on: “I am actually a singer and song-writer but it is just that no one has heard my songs yet.” He later confessed that he believes that one day he will be as famous as Daniel Craig (someone might need to tell him that Craig is an actor).

The community has barbershops, food stalls, makeshift cinemas and even a mosque, catering for basic human needs. How can a self-policing and harmonious society grow around a dirty rubbish dump or landfill? Yet they do sleep and eat there, and share in the “common riches” offered by the garbage. Somehow, there is true fraternity, honor, dignity and love in all of this. Perhaps their hardships mean there is no room for luxury, including self-pity. They do not see themselves as victims of our society but as beneficiaries of our wasteful habits. They do not brood, but just get on with their lives and because they know how to be content.Yet in Hong Kong, we live in flats that cost millions and have access to anything that money can buy: international cuisines, beautiful things, services of unparalleled convenience… And still, we complain about “loads of rubbish.” 

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