by Jinty JACKSON
MAPUTO:- In a foul-smelling, brown fog, hundreds of stooped figures pick their way like ghosts across an ocean of garbage while herons wheel and dive over their heads.
A truck arrives, breaking the lethargy. With shouts and whistles, people rush from all sides. Children throw themselves on and cling to the vehicle’s tailboards.
Clambering up, they tear frantically at its contents, unleashing an avalanche of leftovers, shredded paper, bottles and tin even before the truck has come to a stop.
This particular truck is the one 13-year-old Jason Matthias and his friends have been waiting for. It comes from a posh area with several luxury hotels.
Jason grins as he displays his prize — a cream puff pastry still in its packaging — before wolfing it down. Wrested from the other children in the scrum around the truck, it is a big improvement on his breakfast of mouldy bread.
Asked to name the toughest part of life at the dump, the shy teenager, who visits with his mother, pauses to think. “Hunger,” he whispers.
– ‘Nothing for my children’ –
More than 900 tonnes of waste is dumped daily in this landfill in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, a city of more than a million people.
Over an area the size of 17 football fields, layer upon layer of garbage is piled as high as a three-storey building. In places, it spills over into the surrounding residential neighbourhood.
Illuminated by dozens of small fires lit to burn plastic coatings off wiring, this almost lunar landscape, where garbage forms hills and valleys, is busy day and night.
Jason and his mother are among at least 500 “catadores” (collectors) who depend on what they can unearth here. Most are women and children, the most vulnerable members of society, who have no other options.
Tina Feliciana turned to the dump after her husband died. The mother of three sells plastic by the kilogram to a small recycling operation close to the dump. With few buyers, she must accept what is offered. On average she earns $16 (13 euros) a month.
Even in Mozambique, where more than half the population is estimated to live on less than one dollar a day, it is hard to see how she survives.
“I am suffering, but if I didn’t do any work I would have nothing for my children,” she tells AFP.
– Like a parallel universe –
Maputo’s five-star hotels, new shopping malls and high-rise apartments are only a few kilometres (miles) from the dump but they might as well exist in a parallel universe.
Spend your days here and the only evidence of the frenetic pace of economic growth in a nation rich in coal and gas is that there is more garbage than ever.
The southern African country has been ranked among the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world over the past decade, even before significant dividends from the fossil fuels have begun to flow in.
The average annual growth of 7.5 percent is expected to continue in 2014 and 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But 22 years after the end of a civil war that left the economy in tatters, Mozambique still ranks 178th out of 187 countries on the United Nations annual Human Development Index.
In theory, children are not allowed at the Hulene dump. In practice it is impossible to keep them out.
“When I started here (in 2009) few children were coming in. Now there are almost the same number as the adults,” the dump’s manager, Americo Zacarias, told AFP.
A baby’s cries can be heard above the din of truck engines, coming from somewhere in the garbage. After draping him hastily in bubble wrap for protection, his mother hid him so that she could scramble in the latest truckload of garbage.
To the “tut-tuts” of the older women, the teenage mother slinks back, chastened, to claim the infant.
The dump is the only life Paolo Cunha and his two siblings have ever known. Their father has been stationed at the gate, directing the flow of garbage trucks, since before they were born.
The diminutive 11-year-old spends his days perched on a dumpster. He kicks his feet against the sides — one foot in an oversized boot, the other in a plastic flip-flop scrounged from the garbage.
– Live ammo in the rubbish –
Going barefoot is not an option. Apart from the usual hazards like broken glass lurking in the waste, abandoned weaponry including live ammunition is sometimes unearthed.
“It comes in with the rubbish,” Paolo’s father, Dercio Cunha, says with a shrug.
In an effort to protect themselves from the toxic methane gas that constantly streams from the garbage, many children wear masks, fashioned out of old socks or other garments, with the eye holes cut out.
Just a few hours on the Hulene landfill can leave your lungs aching. Grandmother, Helen Arnaldo, 48, said she had been working at the dump for “maybe twenty years” but still felt “OK”.
Hulene is considered a health hazard by people living close by. Besides the acrid fumes it gives off, in rainy summer months the stench is unbearable and swarms of flies from the dump invade houses. Over the past decade, several public protests have been staged to get it closed.
When Mozambique’s Portuguese colonial rulers chose the site half a century ago, it was well outside the city’s limits. Before 1960, Mozambique was one of the least urbanised countries in the world. By 2010 the urban population had increased from four percent to 38 percent, the UN estimates.
– Engulfed by the city –
During this rapid phase of largely uncontrolled urbanisation, Maputo engulfed the dump, so that it now lies in the heart of the urban sprawl.
In 2007 authorities announced that they would close the dump and move it to a more “sanitary” site, 20 kilometres (12 miles) away, outside the city’s modern limits.
After numerous delays the municipality now says it is going ahead after securing millions of dollars in funding from South Korea, one of the country’s new trading partners.
Even if it goes ahead this time, the new dump will not be ready before early 2016. It is unclear what will happen to the catadores when it closes.
“I don’t know what we will do. Perhaps we will have to become thieves,” says gatekeeper Dercio Cunha as his children run off to greet the next truckload of garbage. “We will have nothing to feed our kids.”