The Sun News

Scavengers’ goldmine

Lagos refuse dump where trash pickers make a fortune

By Job Osazuwa

The stench perpetually chokes. At every time of the day, it is capable of landing anyone in the emergency unit of the hospital.  From the site, thick smoke slowly ascends to the sky, giving the air an unpleasant shade.

Welcome to Olusosun Landfill Site at Ojota in Lagos. It is the home of refuse. It is the place where hundreds of scavengers work, eat and live.

At every interval, the light wind freely spreads a unique kind of smell around the environment.  There is obviously no breath of fresh air around this refuse site that puts food on the table of hundreds of youths.

Obviously, the environment is glaringly offensive. But this is where many of the workers have found a home, a home where no house rent is paid to any landlord. The labourers inhabit inside and under any available unserviceable truck or those scheduled to load “useful” waste products the following day. 

The site shares a tall fence with a massive LAGBUS depot/servicing centre close to the former tollgate.

Every now and then, PSP vehicles arrive at the site to discharge their contents, which are assorted kinds of waste. The arrival of a new vehicle usually sparks a sort of excitement in the camp of the scavengers. To them, what the vehicles bring are not just waste products; they also bring wealth.

As soon as the PSP trucks offload their cargo, the hardworking scavengers descend on the heap of garbage. They work very hard, sorting out what could be sold to the waiting buyers. Very many of them used their bare hands to separate one junk from another. Some do the job barefooted.

Any types of used cartons, polythene bags, cellophane, expired tyres, broken plastics, iron rod and metal objects are seen as gold by the army of scavengers who work tirelessly to pick and gather as much as possible. The rule is, the more you scavenge, the richer you become in the hand of the standby vendors who purchase them.

The scavengers are mainly northerners, with few from other parts of the country. 

When the reporter visited last week, just one lady was sighted among the hunters of trash.

They appeared unperturbed by the nauseating environment. With speed and seemingly excitement, they carried on with their activities as if that was the last day they would spend on the site. They conversed in Hausa, yelled at one another and laughed intermittently.

In a chat with the reporter, some of the scavengers said they were not ashamed of their job. They argued that it was better working as a scavenger than being a thief.

This Thursday afternoon, the sun scorched the earth, but that wasn’t enough to stop the scavengers from continuing with their job. All wore black clothes, or clothes turned black by the circumstances of their jobs. Expectedly, their clothes and virtually everything about them were black and dirty. 

One of the workers on the site, Ibrahim Yanusa, told the reporter that he had spent six months there scavenging to earn a living. According to him, he hoped to go back to secondary school as soon as he realises a reasonable amount of money that would see him through school. He confessed that working and living there sometimes made him feel less human.  However, he said he had no choice, as Olusosun made him smile to the bank every week.

Yanusa, who couldn’t tell his exact age, said he found himself in Lagos through his uncle’s friend. He said the man told his parents in Katsina that he had discovered a place where Yanusa could work and make good money for himself. Without asking questions, the young man apparently in his early 20s jumped at the offer and was on a Lagos-bound trailer the following week.

He recalled how shocked he was the first time he was introduced to workers on the site who were to put him through the rudiments of the job.

“The work is not easy, but l thank Allah. I am now used to it. After the first week, I fell sick and was rushed to a pharmacy to buy some drugs. The workers l met here were laughing when I began to vomit. l later understood when a new boy came later to join us. I thank God because the job is better than those who rob,” he said.

When asked why they buy foods and eat in such nauseating surroundings, Yakowa Ibrahim said it was not possible for the workers to come out from the site and go as far as Motorways or cross the expressway just to buy food. He added that since the scavengers were always dirty throughout the day, it was not possible to mix with people outside the area.

Said he: “We don’t have time to go outside and eat because the more we work, the more money we make. Some people use iron containers to fetch water from a nearby local well and sell to us here. I bathe in the evening after work and before going home. Some people sleep here but I stay with my friends near Berger.”

It would be very hard to see anyone putting on facemasks at Olusosun, despite the stench pervading the air. Surprisingly, those who spoke to the reporter said they had stayed long enough in the environment to overcome the offensive odour. They said they went about their normal activities without smelling anything offensive.

Ahmed Wukari said having worked for two years at the site, he no longer perceived any stench. He said: “All I smell here is how much I will make. Nothing smells bad to me. Anything I pick turns to money. It is because you are coming here for the first time, that is why you can perceive the odour.”

Useni, who said he hails from Adamawa State, said the refuse site itself has little stench, noting that it is those living in the neighbourhood that feel the stench and smoke.“

“No wahala for this place. Na God dey guide us well well,” he responded in Pidgin English.

Expert warns of communicable diseases 

But a Lagos based Public Health Physician, Dr. Joshua Olabiyi said the scavengers are risking their health. He warned of the likely outbreak of contagious diseases at refuse sites. He said people residing at and near such sites face increased risk of adverse health challenges, including certain types of lung cancers.

According to him, health symptoms such as fatigue, sleepiness, and headaches among those residing near waste sites have consistently been reported at different hospitals.  He explained that the symptoms could be as a result of effects of direct toxicological action of chemicals present in waste sites.

He maintained that there was no doubt that the people that were directly exposed to air pollutants from the wastes would not suffer from one disease or the other. He said the odour and health dangers were right there with the workers, explaining that it was their psychological frame that made them believe that the dangers had been conquered with time.

“Even if those living near the site have little to worry about, the workers who also sleep there are endangered. There have been several studies and reports which link living near waste sites to respiratory diseases caused by breathing in microorganisms and aerosols, but those who live there can suffer different infections, including cholera,” Olabiyi said.

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