PHOTOS: Trash Collectors in Zambia Worry They’ll Be Barred From Dump Site

The trash that many Zambians toss in their garbage cans isn’t trash at all to the scavengers who comb through a city dump in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, in search of valuable items. A plan to wall off the dump worries the people who spend their days there, as access to the site is the only way they can make a living.

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PHOTOS: Trash Collectors in Zambia Worry They’ll Be Barred From Dump Site

Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

John Banda, 11, a scavenger at a dump site in the Chunga neighborhood of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, helps his sick mother search for sacks that are sold and repackaged for farmers and charcoal burners. John says he’s been coming to the dump site with his mother since he was a baby. He finds personal items, as well, including toys and clothes, and the bag he now wears on his back.

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LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — The sound of garbage trucks attracts the attention of the people, mostly women and children, who rummage through the trash at a landfill in the Chunga neighborhood in this capital city.

The group rushes toward the truck to search for the valuables they hope it holds.

There is a terrible stench. Flies buzz and smoke and dust billow around the site, but the scavengers still rummage through the trash, most of them with bare hands.

Jacqueline Mwamba, 56, says she’s scavenged the site for cushions for more than three years. She fills at least 50 kilogram (110 pounds) bags with cushions every day, which she sells for 35 kwacha ($3.61) each to carpenters who build couches.

“I earn my living here,” Mwamba says.

More than 100 people earn their keep at this dump site by collecting cushions, plastic containers, bottles and other items they can sell to recyclers or other people who need the goods. They say poverty pushed them into this work, since it doesn’t require any initial investment.

Lusaka city officials say it’s illegal to scavenge at dump sites and note that the work poses a health hazard for the people who do it. Trash from all around the city, including medical waste, is dumped at the site in Chunga.

The city has sealed off the site many times, but the trash collectors break through the barriers, says Brenda Katongola, the assistant public relations manager for the Lusaka City Council. Now, she says, the council plans to build a wall  around the site.

But the trash collectors say that plan will leave them destitute.

“My brother and I have food on the table because of this dumpsite,” says Alex Zulu, a 17-year-old orphan. “I don’t how we could survive without it.”

Mwamba says she doesn’t understand why the council wants to keep people out of the dumpsite. She says she’s never gotten sick from working in the dump.

“Chasing us from here is as good as killing us,” she says.

Photos by Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia

John Banda, 11, a scavenger at a dump site in the Chunga neighborhood of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, runs after a garbage truck, eager to be the first to sift through the trash in search of valuable items.

Scavengers surround a truck that dumps garbage it collected from all over Lusaka. The scavenged items are sold at markets.

A group of scavengers pick over meat that was discarded and dumped at the site. The meat will be sold to unsuspecting people in Lusaka’s slums.

Jacqueline Mwamba, 56, says she scavenges cushions that she washes and sells to people who build couches.

Jacqueline Mwamba carries a load of cushions she has scavenged from the dump.

Jacqueline Mwamba says she’s never fallen ill from working at the dump site, and worries that Lusaka city officials will bar her from earning a living there.

The cushions pictured here are made in part from cushions Jacqueline Mwamba scavenged from the city dump.

Chris Kabwe and Martin Phiri used scavenged bottles, which they purchased from someone who searches for valuables at the dump, to build their shelter.

Joseph Mwale looks for plastic containers in the city dump site that he can wash and sell in Lusaka’s Soweto Market. When business is good, Mwale says, he makes about 150 kwacha ($15.53) each day.


Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.