In the middle of the sprawling residential district of Bakoteh, heaps of trash loom large in the Gambia’s biggest open-air rubbish dump which harbors the garbage of hundreds of thousands of residents of Kanifing Municipality. Garbage here has been disposed of indiscriminately and often uncontrolled for three decades. The rolling landscape of trash is filled with fly-infested waste shrouded in swirling thick dust clouds and harsh fires. It’s a health hazard to anyone nearby.
Many decades ago, this dumpsite was a quarry for stone excavation. Today, all that remains on the 17-hectare piece of land is waste 25-meters deep.
The Bakoteh dumpsite has been one of the country’s most pressing health and environmental challenges for decades and it remains a notorious symbol of urban misery. The site literally spills into the households of tens of thousands of people in the community who drown in growing heaps of garbage. Among them is 20-year-old Mariama Jallow who lives with her family just two blocks away.
“Imagine having to live in the middle of this madness… the terrible smell, the pollution, the dirt and everything else,” she tells The Chronicle, staring hopelessly at the dumpsite from the gate of her compound. “Our water is contaminated and we’re forced to walk long distance just to fetch water to drink and do house chores.”
According to Mariama, the odour nuisance and the smoke from the site gives her breathing problem.
“I’m a cardiac patient and inhaling this heavy smoke is not helping me at all. My sickness worsens when the smoke grows.”
Amadou Ceesay, a resident of Bakoteh has been fighting for the past two decades for the dumpsite to be relocated elsewhere. “We’re treated like animals. How can anybody justify having this trash field in the middle of our community, our homes? Why us? We are treated like second class citizens and that’s sad.”
For him, the only solution is for the authorities to close the dump site and relocate it elsewhere.
In July 2018, the Mayor of Kanifing Municipal Council, Talib Bensouda tweeted, “I invited the President to visit Bakoteh Dumpsite …The President pledged his full support in all initiatives regarding the eventual transfer of the site!”
But almost a year down the line, moving the dumpsite to another location is not an option on the Mayor Bensouda’s table. “If you close the site, the question is; where are you going to dump?”
In an exclusive interview with The Chronicle, he said closing the site and start dumping somewhere else is not the solution. According to him, “that’s like moving the problem to other Gambians rather than solving the problem.” He admitted though that the dumpsite is his office’s biggest problem.
“I always say if I fix the Bakoteh (dumpsite) – which I hope I will before my term ends, I’ll have a stature in Westfield because it’s such a big problem (chuckles).”
For Mariama, there’s nothing to chuckle about. Until the Mayor finds the solution, she and her family will continue to suffer. “We’d have moved out of this area completely but right now we have no choice. It’s a family of ten people and we’re poor. Politicians have been coming here since many years ago promising to solve our problem, but the problem is still here and we’re still here suffering,” Mariama says, with tears dropping from her eyes.
Mayor Bensouda is hopeful though that he’ll make a difference. “We believe we’ll fix Bakoteh before the year 2020 ends. That’s our target.”
His office is starting feasibility studies to determine the best way forward, whether the ultimate solution will be “waste to energy or engineered land field or composting.”
While the solution-finding process is on, people near the dumpsite are battling it out with the trauma of being next to the dirt. The joint Bakoteh Proper Lower and Upper Basic Schools is very close to the site. The school authorities are frustrated by the smoke from the dumpsite.
“The issue of the dumpsite is our major concern because we have more than three thousand pupils and students attending this school who are all under health threat directly or indirectly as a result of the dumpsite. Most of the kids are vulnerable and inhaling the smoke from the site may have implications on them in the future,” says Saihou Ceesay, the headmaster of the school.
Recently, the school was forced to close after harsh fires at the site sent thick black smoke on air.
For Ceesay, the facility should either be closed or be properly managed by the authorities.