Traveling from Limbe, Blantyre, to Zomba, just past the populous Kachere Township, one is greeted by a pungent smell that comes so strong to the nose that it may as well block it.
This irritating smell comes from the right-hand side of the road. This is a place where Blantyre City Council (BCC) designated as its waste dumpsite.
Surprisingly, the dumpsite is always crammed with people who seem unperturbed with the smell popping out of the rot and waste. They are here every day scavenging for anything that they can lay their hands on.
Most of them are regulars and they include the likes of Joseph Bitilinyu and Stephen Mwanjira, two young men seemingly in their early 30s and mid-20s respectively.
To the majority of people, this place is really a dumpsite but for Bitilinyu and Mwanjira, this is their gold mine.
“This is a dumpsite yes, we agree, but all the people you see here rely on this place for their daily survival,” Bitilinyu says emphatically while looking with keen interest at every vehicle coming from the direction of Limbe in case it is bringing him another consignment of ‘gold’.
Bitilinyu confirms that some of the waste in form of food collected from the dumpsite is used at his home and part of it is sold to businesspeople around Blantyre townships such as Machinjiri, Ndirande and Bangwe among other potential locations.
He adds: “We mainly scramble for chickens and other expired edible goods which others call rotten when, in fact they are still fresh and don’t produce any bad smell. But it is not easy to get them because we always scramble, it is survival of the fittest here.”
“We clean it; put it in a plastic bag before dispatching it to the market. We easily sell our commodities because of the cheap price. Economic hardships force many people to go for cheap foodstuffs like these,” Bitilinyu says.
Mwanjira also concurs with Bitilinyu that most of the products from the dumpsite find their way back into different townships around Blantyre.
“Most of our customers are those who sell fresh chicken pieces and already prepared chicken portions in entertainment places like bars,” Mwanjira says.
Other customers include ordinary people who buy the products for their own consumption.
On the day of the interview, Mwanjira expresses disappointment to this reporter that he has just collected five chickens.
“This is not enough for me, it will sell out within a short time because demand is high,” he says.
As he walks through the slums of Kachere Township, carrying the chickens in a plastic bag, accompanied by this reporter, Mwanjira meets his first customer.
She is 27-year-old Maureen Nyada, a mother of three living in Makhetha area. Lifting up the chicken in appreciation, Nyada says: “This one looks better than the rest.”
Nyada and her husband cannot afford to buy decent meat from authorised dealers. For her, the chicken sold by the likes of Mwanjira is the only alternative of having animal protein in their diet.
“My family has been buying chickens from these people but we don’t get sick. It’s just a misconception that expired meat is harmful and cannot be eaten,” she challenges while thanking the people who bring these cheap products to their homes.
Bitilinyu and Mwanjira are not the only people benefitting from the Mzedi dumpsite. A recent report by Environmental Concerned Youth Association (Ecoya) released towards the end of last year indicates that there are over 2,000 people scavenging at the site.
Ecoya Projects Officer, Ned Mlonya, says this soaring figure of patronage at the dumpsite means that many lives are at risk.
“If you have such number of people scavenging at the dumpsite, imagine the number of people to be reached by supply from these scavengers,” Mlonya says.
Ecoya has been calling for the immediate closure of Mzedi dumpsite for being too close to residential areas, thereby posing health risks to many people. Early last year, the organisation delivered a petition to BCC on the same.
From June to August last year, Ecoya, together with Society for Friends of Environment and Technology, conducted an assessment of water quality at Moto, a village near the dumpsite.
The assessment exposed silent effects of poor waste management on shallow water sources and the water specifications were found unsuitable for human consumption or domestic use.
BCC has come under heavy criticism for failing to properly manage the collection and disposal of garbage.
But the council says it is taking initiatives to address the general problem of waste management in Blantyre City.
Speaking at a meeting the council convened recently at the city chambers, Director of Sanitation and Health Services, Emmanuel Kanjunjunju, said the council is looking forward to partnering other players in addressing the challenges related to waste management.
“The council is engaged in talks with some private firms in a bid to privatise solid waste management in the city under the public-private-partnership arrangement,” Kanjunjunju says.
He adds that the council is seeking funds from donor partners towards cleaning up the city’s major rivers, and streams, which are heavily polluted with sewage, solid waste and chemicals from factories.
But as the council contemplates taking action on waste management challenges, people such as Bitilinyu, Mwanjira and Nyada remain unmoved with the health risks posed by Mzedi dumpsite.
“As long as I have something to sell and eat for my daily survival, I have no problem with the dumpsite,” Bitilinyu says.