I grew up pushing waste laden wheelbarrows in Lagos.
And no, it was not to earn money. We lived fifteen minutes from the International airport in Lagos State, Nigeria. Oshodi was and still remains one of the major conduits for anyone coming into Lagos by road. For all it's glory as Nigeria's former Capital, a lot of things didn't work outside of the former seat of power on the Island and the state Capital in Alausa. One of these was waste management. I grew up watching my elder brother and other boys his age create tyres out of aluminium milk cans and fix them to what were very rickety, skeletal looking wheelbarrows that they'd constructed themselves to take our waste, laden in old 50kg rice bags to the local dump site. Usually, after the ride was done, one of us would sit in the wheelbarrow, taking the place of the recently disposed waste while the other would push us at breakneck speed(as much as a wheel barrow with aluminium tires would allow) in a race back home against other kids from the neighborhood.
With time, our waste disposal chores were outsourced to dedicated ko-le ko-le waste couriers. Their wheels were made out of Motorcycle tires and their barrows were big and rectangular and made of metal. And so for a paltry fee, they rid us of the inconvenience of foul smelling waste, but not entirely. Because these ko-le ko-le would not get very far before unloading all the waste they had gathered. And as it became a viable business for indigents random dump sites were created all over the city, such sites included the canals, an uncompleted building, the end of a street with poor untarred roads and the likes, government effort was lukewarm at best until the introduction of PSP(Private Sector Participation) in waste disposal in 1999/2000. With waste trucks that would collect waste and transport them to the proper waste disposal plants the mini dump sites were soon eradicated.
I've barely seen any of the ko-le ko-le individuals since then, but I've seen strange mounds of waste appear regardless at the oddest of places, like in front of my office in Maryland, Ikeja just beside an Investment bank right off the expressway. The waste disposal company is always happy to take care of it, but there always a fresh mound every week.
Fast forward to last week after moving to a new apartment in a part of Lagos that is equal parts far and near all the places I like to frequent in and I'm confronted with sacks filled with stuff that should be thrown out. After a week of observing the environment, I came to the realization that the perks of a proper waste disposal service (something I enjoyed and often times complained about both at my former place and office) were not available here.
Instead there was Sanni, and another guy I'd call Baba, and a host of other ko-le ko-le that dominated this area and helped residents out with their never ending trash. While I was still enquiring if govt waste disposal projects like the PSP initiative ever did get here, I saw one of such trucks pull up to a paper factory in front of me and spend time loading up on trash. It was then that I was made to understand that in this part of town, each house negotiated individually with the waste disposal company serving that specific local government council and more often than not, tenants refused registering because the wheel barrow waste disposals were cheap. This was in contrast to other areas I'd been in where you woke up and got handed a waste disposal bill at the end of the month and threatened with a fine and a visit from the Environmental services unit as well as discontinuation of waste disposal services if you didn’t pay. After deliberating on whether I should or shouldn't attempt what would eventually be a long drawn registration process on behalf of myself and my neighbours, my immediate needs forced a quick fix. I had bags of waste on the corridor, on the staircase, on the inside of the compound just before the gate and it needed to go, like right now, and so along came Sanni.
Sanni smelled like the material he relieved people of on a daily, wanted what seemed like an extravagant amount and didn't have a phone in case I was around and needed more trash taken care of. When I asked him about the final resting place of all the trash they collected, sanni pointed vaguely to the back of the community bordered by a Canal.
Having worked on a documentary on Waste Management in Lagos I knew that dump site was illegal. The only one properly run and managed in this Local Government area would have been too much stress for any man hauling a dirt filled wheelbarrow on foot. Like Sanni, Baba's knowledge of the trash he collects ends with where he dumps them.
He doesn't know about or is likely not bothered about the illegality of the dump site, at worst if he is caught, he will simply have his wheel barrow confiscated and part with 'settlement money' and as expected, he has no clue of the environmental implications of dumping non biodegrade waste indiscriminately, especially as some of these dumps are mere feet away from residential structures. I ask if the pay from this line of work is good and if he wouldn't rather seek employment with the local Waste disposal company but his answer is dodgy at best. Remembering an interview I had at a dump site a while back with a scavenger who tells me how he's supported his family for close to twenty years from scavenging for plastic and other such recyclables I ask Baba if he's tried scavenging at any of the dump sites around and his answer is that there are people already doing that and he is best suited to this kind of work as he hurries off to another house to help with their waste, but not before we exchange numbers.
While Lagos has focused on managing its most prominent and visible dump sites, or shutting them down in favour of creating recreational facilities (like the planned conversion of the biggest dump site, the Olusosun dump site at Ojota Lagos, into a Golf course, although it remains to be seen how feasible such a plan is) it has largely overlooked the activities of men like Sanni and Baba who are ignorant of the harm and potential health hazards they cause by dumping waste so close to residential areas by not administering a trickle down approach to tackle habits around waste disposal and present safe viable alternatives to every strata. With the fragmented nature of the waste disposal system from one Local government to another, overall laxity of public health officials in stemming such practices and failure in enlightening people as well as low income earners favoring the use of the ko-le ko-le entrepreneurs, we may not see the last of them anytime soon and our attempts at overall sanitation will always fall short.