Christmas Appeal: No money, no jobs - welcome to life on the scrapheap

In the latest in our series on the work of our chosen charities, Meera Selva reports from Kenya on a Practical Action project
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Amid the broken glass, used condoms, plastic bottles, and scraps of wire and video that lie in the untreated open-air dump site three miles outside the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, 31-year-old Jacton Mwakere has made a life. The stench is so unbearable that most visitors cannot remain more than a few minutes. But Mr Mwakere lives there.

His house is a tiny hole in the rocks on the fringes of the dump, protected from the elements by a torn sheet of plastic. His ragged clothes and shoes are salvaged from the site, and he cooks food thrown out by local hotels in tin cans on fires built from old rubber tyres.

With a few years of schooling and no formal training or job prospects, Mr Mwakere moved to the Gioto municipal dump site 10 years ago to eke out a living. "I gather plastic and sell it to scrap merchants, I eat the food that people throw away and if it rains, water comes into my cave and everything gets wet," he says. "I want to be a carpenter and have a proper job but it is just not possible right now."

Mr Mwakere is a "salvager", one of the 120 people living on the rubbish tip that has been the main dumping ground for Nakuru's waste for 30 years. Many are women with children, forced to move after their husbands died and left them with no property or land. Others are young men who have fallen out of the system. Without formal national identity cards, they find it impossible to get even casual labour.

In this unpromising environment, a few people have tried to set up businesses. Some gather metals and plastics to sell to scrap merchants, others make charcoal briquettes out of charcoal dust and paper pressed together.

Two years ago, a group of women set up the Mewarema co-operative, making compost to sell to the numerous flower, fruit and vegetable farms that cover the surrounding countryside. They also wove plastic bags into brightly striped baskets and fashioned whatever handicrafts they could out of the most unlikely materials. The schemes rarely make much money, barely 50 Kenyan shillings (38p) a day, but they give some structure to the work that the women do.

Despite these bouts of entrepreneurship, life on the rubbish dump is nasty and brutish. The young men muscle their way on to the trucks that come to dump rubbish and grab the best morsels of food. The women and children are left with the rotting scraps. Rape and physical abuse are very real dangers, especially after men have drunk the potent, home-made beer, known as changa.

The council considers the land unfit for human habitation and is reluctant to provide facilities such as running water or sewers, which might encourage more people to set up home on the dumps.

Julia Nduta, who moved to Gioto with her two children after being widowed, has thrown herself into various money-making schemes, but is frustrated with the slow progress. "I turn plastic bags into baskets, make compost and sell every bit of scrap metal I can find but I can still end up with nothing at all to feed my children," she says. "If I got the slightest bit of help, I would leave here tomorrow."

Practical Action, one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal, began working with people on the dump sites in May and has had to find ways to improve the quality of life for these salvagers while also enabling them to move off the dump and build a decent life elsewhere. One key step has been to organise formal national identity cards to enable people to get into the workplace.

"In Kenya, it is hard to get even casual work without an identity card," said the project manager, Patrick Mwanzia. "Employers want to make sure you can't just disappear with their money."

The charity also supports the building of a school for local children, so another generation will not grow up with no choice but to live on the dump. It has provided compost bins and machines to make charcoal bricks, so the Mewarema women collecting the raw ingredients can make money faster and hopefully save up enough to move off the dump site. It sets up ad hoc medical clinics to treat infections that the salvagers catch from eating rotting food and walking barefoot on land scattered with used hypodermic needles and razor blades.

The local council has already said it plans to turn the dump into a landfill site, and set up a new dumping ground elsewhere in a few years. Practical Action wants to make sure that by the time it does, the families living on the site have the skills and confidence to find a cleaner home.

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