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Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Oct 4 2008 (IPS) - Each morning, Mariama Kamara and her two teenaged sons walk to Freetown’s main rubbish dump. Their mission: to dig through the mounds of garbage in search of scrap metal.

Kamara, 38, lost her husband nine years ago, when rebels of the Revolutionary United Front invaded the capital Freetown, at the peak of the civil war. In the carnage that followed, hundreds of civilians were killed, among them her husband.

Since then, Kamara has had the sole responsibility of bringing up her boys, now aged 14 and 16, as well as looking after six other members of her family, including her elderly mother. The family is crowded into a rented two-bedroom shack located in one of Freetown’s sprawling ghettos, a half-hour walk from Bomeh, the capital’s dump site.

“We spend roughly eight hours each day sweating it out at the site in search of scraps. It is a very difficult and painstaking job,” explains Kamara.

“The kids plough through the garbage and when there is a find, I pile them up together and sell to scrap metal buyers. It is not all the time that we succeed; sometimes, we work the whole day without finding even a single piece.”

On average, Kamara and her boys make 30,000 leones, about $10 a day. This amount, Kamara says, is barely enough to feed the household, and pay rent. “It is definitely not enough to feed the family and then send the boys to school, so they have both dropped out.”

The huge dumpsite resembles one of the overcrowded diamond mining sites in the east and south of the country; but here, it is not gemstones that are being sought, but scrap metals which have become a thriving trade in the West African country.

Each day, dozens of families troop out to the dumpsite, armed with pick-axes, hoes and shovels. Youngsters aged between 13 and 30 are in the majority. The country has a youth unemployment record of more than 70 percent according to officials of the Ministry of Labour and Employment.

Sixteen-year-old Michael Tommy says: “I pay my own school fees because my parents cannot afford it. Both my mum and dad are unemployed; and it is through hard work here at Bomeh that I make some money just to survive.”

But the chairman of the scrap metal dealers association at Bomeh, Ballah Kamara, told IPS that children working at the site have more commonly abandoned schooling.

“Sometimes I am forced to turn away kids who are as young as 10. They all come here to dig for scraps, some with their parents,” he laments. “Many kids have stopped going to school because of the petty cash they make here.”

Kamara would not tell exactly how many kids visit the site. He admits, though, that on average, more than 50 go there each day. “I often face difficulties with their parents, sometimes we really get into nasty confrontations because they insist that’s the only way they can fend for their families and that I cannot provide for them if the kids are sent away,” he adds.

When confronted with the issue of child labour at Bomeh, the deputy minister of social welfare and children’s affairs, Jenneh Kandeh, told IPS her government is concerned about the development.

“We now have in place a child rights act which seeks to protect children and so using them as labour force is a crime punishable by law. We are trying to discourage parents from taking or sending kids to the mining fields, whether at Bomeh or the traditional sites, in the provinces,” Kandeh says, adding that a sensitisation campaign will soon be launched by her ministry to convince parents to stop the practice.

But Ishmail Dumbuya, 49, an unemployed father of six, believes the problem has little to do with awareness, and much more to do with the lack of job opportunities in the country.

“How can they stop the kids from digging [for scraps] at Bomeh? Let the government create jobs and see if anyone will send kids to the garbage site to search for scrap metals. After all, these kids are our breadwinners,” he opines. Dumbuya has three sons who dig for scrap metals at Bomeh and insists the entire family depends on income they bring back home for their sustenance. All of them have dropped out of school.

There are no regulations to mine for scraps at Bomeh, nor do government officials patrol the site. All it takes is for a willing person to identify a plot on the site and start digging. The scrap metal trade has become lucrative, with Indian and European buyers exporting an average of 40 containers out of the country monthly.

But if there is no shortage of buyers and work, the health implications are serious. Bomeh is where the city’s human excrement is emptied, along with the tons of garbage. The diggers take no precautions against possible injury or infection; they eat their food right on the site, surrounded by pigs, rodents and other vermin.

Jonathan Abass Kamara, the public relations officer of the ministry of health, told IPS the situation is pathetic:

“It is an eyesore to see humans digging through the waste just to eke a living. Of major concern is the health hazard these people are faced with because they do not use any form of protective gear,” Kamara says.

For the scrap metal dealers at Bomeh, though, it is all a question of survival. With living conditions getting increasingly tough in the impoverished country, it will take more than just persuasion to move these miners of the city’s rubbish off their hazardous field of operation.

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