Tragic End of Addis Ababa’s Cleaning Heroes

The life of waste collectors in Addis Ababa is not dissimilar to a burning kindle. They make the capital clean and bright while their very lives are hung by a thread. Each day, they move from door to door with pushcarts to collect garbage, just to get ETB0.71 per kilogram of collected waste. They have families but are homeless and excluded from social structures.

However, even that has become luxury for the close to 400 residents of a garbage collection site who recently lost everything in a fire accident and have to return to the streets with babies, elders, and pregnant women. Ironically, the city administration, local officials, and NGOs are all silent even a month after the major fire accident damaged all that they had. The fairy Addis Ababa is deaf to a number of flaws in its urban texture, all the while being a diplomatic hub. EBR’s Mersha Tiruneh investigates how the lives of hundreds of Addis Ababa’s cleaning workers have gone down the dust bin. It was Friday around midnight on February 26, 2021. Meseret Molla, a mother of five at the age of 28, was breastfeeding her five-month old baby in her small shelter-house near Bambis bridge, in Kirkos district. Her tent is one of 34 slummed together on a sizable piece of open land used as a collection site for solid waste for the district. Close to 400 people live in tent homes at the waste site—children, women, and men who work at the dumpsite.

Suddenly, a violent fire broke out from one of the homes, lighting the half-hectare dumpsite lacking electricity or any infrastructure. The silent night is filled with cries, chaos, and people fleeing the tent houses to save themselves.

When the fire brigade arrived Saturday morning, six hours after the fire broke out, two people had lost their lives and all properties were burnt. One of the deceased had four children, who currently see no opportunity to go to school. By March 16, 2021, Meseret and the others who lost their dwellings were sleeping on the street, while others set out for their relatives. Most of the women have babies while others are pregnant. Some are raising eight children without a husband.

Except from trying to find out the cause of the fire, none from the city administration or Kirkos district have provided support to reestablish their lives. “Many NGOs came and took our pictures. But none have tried to help us,” revealed Meseret.

Most of the people currently back on the streets, including Meseret, were street children. When the Addis Ababa city government introduced the dry waste proclamation in 2007 and called for jobless people to form bands and collect dry waste, they opted to change their lives by organizing as a microenterprise. But since they have no place to live, they erected shabby tents at the land allotted for dry waste collection. Over 100 people opted for the job and joined the dumpsite. Currently, 95 workers are employed there. The workers are mostly men who then bring their partners to live in the shelter- houses. All have a minimum of two children each.

Each day, the working men go door to door collecting dry waste, aggregate it at the site, then load it onto rented trucks to be transported to main dumpsites on the peripheries or outside of the capital city like the Koshe dumpsite.

When Meseret came to live with her boyfriend at the dry waste site ten years ago, they had planned to save enough money to have their own house and leave the waste site soon. But they realized the payment they get, i.e. the governmental tariff, for collecting waste was very small and not enough to save. Disappointed by the deteriorating work and absence of any attention from the city administration, Meseret’s husband left the dumpsite last year, leaving her to raise five children on her own. She then began to wash clothes for others to get some income.

“We are under a lot of psychological pressure. We deserve respect for the work we do. We are patriots, collecting waste door to door every day and cleaning Addis Ababa. However, the community and the city administration need a reminder on how to treat its patriots,” said Tseganesh Demeke, another member of the dry waste collection center. She is among the survivors of the fire disaster currently living on the streets.

The city administration pays ETB0.71 per kilogram of dry waste collected from homes and businesses and transported out of the capital. Tseganesh and her colleagues collect an average of 600,000 kilograms of dry waste each month according to Daniel Negash, aged 32 and co-Founder of the 10-year-old Bambis Dry Waste Collection Association. Prior, Daniel worked the same job on his own.

Calculated at the 71 Ethiopian cents per kilogram rate, the association earns ETB426,000 per month, according to Daniel. Of this, ETB100,000 is spent on renting trucks, 15,000 for drivers, and 4,000 for guards. Dividing the rest with 95 active association workers, each working member receives between ETB2,500 and 3,000 per month.

“Each worker has a wife and numerous children. The money is not enough to feed all of them. Many are exposed to disease and there is no healthcare service. Many have died at the site with no health official in sight. There are no safety precautions when collecting and transporting the waste to centers. We cannot afford medical care,” laments Daniel. “The government has totally ignored us before. Again, it is happening when all of us have lost everything we have in the fire. We have to restart life from scratch. We have nothing to install our tents on and save ourselves from sleeping on streets. We must buy equipment to cook, clothes to wear, and carts to transport waste. But nobody is helping us. Many street kids living in tents at this dumpsite have become mothers now. But now they have nothing to feed their children.”

Citizens involved in garbage collection assert they deserve respect which has not been forthcoming from the government or the community. This is indicated by the absence of anyone trying to rebuild their properties destroyed by the fire.

“We cannot help them because they are considered private workers. They are neither public servants nor the poor of the poor who receive aid from the government,” said an official at the Kirkos district, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

According to Samuel Tefera (PhD), Associate Dean of research and technology transfer at the College of Social Sciences at Addis Ababa University, the city administration needs short- and long-term solutions to relieve such segments of society from further psychological and social crises. “These people are part of the social worker scheme, not private businesses or daily laborers. The government must provide basic services immediately until they recover from the fire and rebuild their properties. They can easily summon businesspeople and contractors in the city to develop prefabricated housing camps made of movable metal joints. Their living space must also be separated from the dumping site. Children should not be raised on a dumpsite.”

The tragic life and accident at the Bambis solid waste collection site prompts another tragedy at the Koshe garbage dumpsite on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where 115 people living near the site lost their lives when the dump hill collapsed.

In fact, the 2007 solid waste management proclamation, ratified by the House of People’s Representatives, states that solid waste collection and disposal sites must be installed and audited periodically. But currently, waste collection and dump sites are being used as settlement sites by a substantial number of low-income households who are outside of formal urban settlement and social structures.

For the long term, Samuel says the government must revise the waste management proclamation, not only for Addis Ababa but for all urban areas. “The city administration must revise its compensation scheme for the waste collector. The current pricing was formulated 13 years ago but inflation has grown by 20Pct this year alone. Since the waste collectors are ambassadors and keepers of the capital city, they should be part of the city administration and treated as front runners equal to the mayor. Government must provide them with a number of incentives such as special medical care packages, safety equipment, and free schooling for their children. Perhaps, the target of such workers in developed cities is not just collecting waste, but also recycling the waste. They should invest in and run recycling plants in joint ventures with city administrations or districts.

Some assessments undertaken five years ago indicate the average per capita waste generation in Addis Ababa is 0.32 kilogram per day growing by 5Pct annually. Addis Ababa’s waste management is described as irregular, inadequate, and inefficient. This denotes sporadic and inconsistent collection, low coverage, technical frailties, and a lacking enforcement of laws. Only 5Pct of total dry waste is recycled, unsafely at that. EBR


9th Year • Mar 16 – Apr 15 2021 • No. 96

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