On 11 March, at least 82 people died after a mountain of rubbish collapsed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Is rubbish a ticking time-bomb in the county?
One’s trash is indeed another person’s treasure. That has been the story of Koshe, a 54-year-old area, known as the dumping ground of the capital. Home to too many people and a destination for dwellers that frequent the area scavenging for food and goods to sell on the open black market, it became known by its nickname, literally meaning “trash” in Amharic. The British academic, Caroline Knowles, described it as the “redistribution center which indexes the differences between people’s life journeys, refracted through material cultures at their point of disposal.”
Then, the tragic landslide episode from a week ago managed to change its narrative forever. It has also become a dumping ground of the dead, as more bodies are recovered and the death toll rose into the hundreds. No longer just home of trash to an outsider, it is now a classic example of human-made disaster.
As more than a hundred people perished and are being laid to rest and the blame game is certain to begin, broken lives, the broken dreams have become the black eye of the tight-knit community. It has all the marking of a modern community in transition in an Ethiopian society that is considered as one of the fastest growing economies in the world and where the poor has been pushed to the brink to accommodate the urbanization of a once struggling and doomed nation.
There is a mixture of extreme poverty and middle-class wealth, the working class and the elitist, the mini mansions and the shantytown, the old and the young. Heartbreaking yet still standing, poor but striving, home to the dying but the living – Welcome to Koshe.
Its fabric is still rich, with kind people, modern homes, dotted buildings, some finished and most partially completed aging buildings, busy bars, donkeys and modern automobiles competing for space, far from the international boutique hotels of the capital, yet only 30 minutes away.
The public roads, with crumbling pavements, are full of people selling second-hand clothes, anything and everything and struggling to survive. There are two room bars, calling themselves “hotels” and one roomer as “clinics”. It looks like this is a community in need of direction and compassion.
Even from a distance, the odour of the dump is overwhelming.
But this home for many people and was home to the more than hundred that have perished. In the shadow of a national declaration of mourning, what is left of the community are mourners dressed in all black or the beautiful Ethiopian scarves worn upside down, to demonstrate the sadness, the loss of the moment.
In a rush to find survivors and connect lost families, it seemed all is lost. Perhaps, this is the Tsunami of Addis Ababa. The local hospital, Alert, has accommodated many, Abune Aregawi church, which is located next door, has provided a refuge to mourners and became a resting place for many victims in an unmarked grave. “There are too many mourners to say each person’s names”, an official told mourners. “But all will be missed”.
But, they have a name, a story, and a family. They were loved, respected and valued. In reflection of all the mourners, there were too many, and enough to celebrate and remember the lives well lived. Dented in poverty, weak to cry and scream, but nevertheless crying and fainting in sorrow, is how I saw the community in mourning.
There was a sermon reminding the mourners to cry and hurt less and told them the victims were now in heaven, out of their misery. Dozens of people have been buried on each day this week. The utter sadness, the rush to bury and accommodate more dead bodies was the scene of a busy mill factory scene rather than real life. But that is the life of this community these days.
There was no CNN, no New York Times or BBC to report. They have all decided to share the same article from the Associated Press from a distance. There is no Angelina Jolie, nor George Clooney to catch their attention. This episode will soon be forgotten; no pity will bring back the dead, construct broken lives.
Before Saturday’s disaster, the landfill was home to more than 300 people, some of whom lived in makeshift cardboard and plastic shelters near its edges.
Hundreds more climb the mounds of trash each day, looking for items they can use or sell as vultures circle overhead. There is always more trash to inspect, as the city adds about 300,000 tons of waste to the dump each year.
The death toll has risen to more than a hundred and ten and rescuers are still discovering more.
But who is counting? Even the rescuers seemed overwhelmed, untrained and not equipped to answer the demands of the task that is before them. No trained dogs to locate bodies, little equipment to support the effort, no scant media attention from the world. Even at the transition ceremony of the leadership of the African Union, there was absolutely no mention of this tragedy.
Boris Johnson, the flamboyant and controversial British Foreign Minister visited Ethiopia this week, but decided to do a photo-op with Olympian Haile Gebreselassie, rather make his visit worthwhile by visiting the location and paying a tribute to the dead on behalf of the British people.
The garbage is a mountain and it will take a while to navigate it fully and completely. There was a pause to store more garbage here last year as the dump became dangerously high. In 2016, authorities decided to close the site and relocate dumping to a new landfill site at Sendafa, Finfine Special Zone, Oromia Regional State but opposition by local farmers caused the rubbish collectors to move back. Consequently, Koshe started accumulating more garbage months ago. The poor still gather to sleep next to this dump still and collect anything worthwhile to own and sell.
How do other nations handle their garbage?
Famine, war, extreme poverty are not new to Ethiopia, another tragedy of the nation is a footnote, a page in its progress forward. An official told CNN how, “This is the result of the search because this is a vast area. It is also deep. The amount (that) collapsed, it is deep, it takes time”. But time is the essence to these people. Crippled and lost lives, missing bodies and nowhere to go are everywhere here.
Indeed, broken lives, broken dreams.
“Instead of suffering the stench of the waste disposal site sitting at our home, we can sit with added electricity in the grid, that gives us light at night,” Tewoldeberhan Gebregziabher (PhD), director general of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority promised in 2013, with the help of the United Kingdom.
According to Cambridge Industries, the Koshe waste to energy facility will be the first of its kind in Africa and process around 350,000 tons of waste annually. Once the facility is operational, which is located alongside the 50-year-old dumpsite, it was expected to power as many as 30 percent of the Ethiopian capital’s households.
What happened to that promise?
Back at Koshe, the memorial service was overwhelming. People cried, fainted and prayed. The pictures of the dead, the child who is missing and the old was burying the young and it looked like a war zone. Parents, teachers, children have all perished. So overwhelming and the community looked like a ghost town for a moment. But it is not.
How did she survive? She was at work, laboring to bring her 1,000 birr salary to fruition. She cried a mountain of tears, but she can never afford to mourn for long. She has no home, no family, and little future.
“I buried my parents, my uncle and my siblings”, one woman told me. “I have no one, I have no home”.