Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Slim pickens

George Packer's amazing 2006 article in the New Yorker, which I have shared with many people already, was a huge part of what inspired me to come to Lagos in the first place.

So I knew that sooner or later I would visit the municipal garbage dump Packer describes so vividly in his article. In fact, there is a large body of research out there on waste pickers/scavengers as members of the informal economy, although a more appropriate and respectful term would be "recyclers," since that's what these people do, as this article points out. In some places, they are organized -- there was even the First World Conference of Waste Pickers last year in Bogota.

Anyway, I went to the dump in Olusosun yesterday. It's much like Packer described -- vast rolling hills of garbage, with thousands of people scattered about carrying huge bundles of plastics, paper, metal and assorted other scraps. In some ways, I liked it. In Lagos, where everything is so tightly packed, it was nice to be out in the wide-open spaces, even if they were made of garbage. Away from the trucks, it was quiet. And it didn't smell so bad, either -- although everyone told me that on market days the smell is much worse.

Two guys showed me around -- Tare (aka "teacher") and Anayo (aka "little cool"). Anayo, pictured above, is actually not a trash picker, but a bread hawker who followed me down into the dump and hung around a while before we got to talking. He's 18, from Ebonyi State in the South East of Nigeria. He wants to be a musician.

Tare is a picker. He's 38, and he's trying to save $1,000 to open a barber shop in his home state in the Niger Delta region. As we were walking, he was constantly scanning the ground for anything that might be valuable. It takes skill to be a good garbage picker. For example, you have to be able to distinguish at a glance between a flip flop with a rubber sole, which may be worth a few pennies, and one with a synthetic sole, which is worthless. I sure couldn't tell the difference.

At one point Tare reached down excitedly. He'd found 1,000 naira, or about $7! He thanked God for looking over him and thanked me for bringing him luck. Good things happen to good people, Tare.


  1. Amazing, Sean--Thanks for posting on this. So here's the intersection b/t the informal economy and environmental renewal (well, maybe that's a stretch, but...) This is the kind of thing that I was not thinking about when you left on your trip, so am really intrigued.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on women and the informa economy--whether it is different from the role of men, or the same. I know that there are female street vendors, but I'm curious RE hierarchy and other types of work.

    Hope all is well.

  2. Quite a story, Sean - take care.

  3. Thanks to you both for commenting.

    Let me do some thinking about how women vendors are different from men in the informal economy, Juhu -- and let me also take a trip to the Mile 12 wholesale vegetable market, where most of the market women buy their produce.

  4. Hey Sean, this is just the larger version of those homeless street guys who search dumpster in Brooklyn is it or am I just dreaming?