ONUKOGU KANAYOCHUQU JUBAL & EJURA ADAMA followed a group of scavengers for a couple of days. Here, they tell their stories and how they make a living from your refuse bin.
The story of scavenging is one most of cities of the world can tell over and over again. Nigeria is not different. Her cities are strewn with scavengers of all colours and sizes, with one thing in common; an unending search for a goldmine from your refuse bin.
Scrawny, gloomy and not in the least as neat as you would love them to be, they go around, bags slung around their weary backs, metal hooks held in their sinewy hands, ready to pick out the metal which stands the most chance of being sold for what it’s worth.
Scavenging contributes to reduce the amount of solid waste to be disposed and also helps to save the natural resources that leads to sustainable development. It creates jobs and extra income for people, especially the poor.
Scavenging encourages family members to sort out materials from wastes in exchange for money. Besides, it supply raw materials for a lot of recycling enterprises and this creates more jobs for people as well as useful products for the society.
In Mararaba, a suburb of Nasarawa State, these scavengers, who are a common feature of the region and popularly called baban bola, can be seen assaulting road-side refuse heaps, as they find their pick, reach out sinewy hands holding rods, lift them and drop them into the sack. Deal done, they move onto other refuse dumps.
What could so many people be looking for in a heap of rubbish? Simply put, they are looking for scrap metal, plastic and aluminum to resell to re-cyclers for a token.
Mukhtada Jamiu, who has been scavenging for as long as he can remember, has come to know what to look out for.
He started out from the city of Kano, when he was eight-year-old, going through the city’s many refuse dumps with a fine tooth-comb and making a killing, until he discovered that there were becoming too many scavengers in one place and it was causing unnecessary under-valuing of their goods.
“I had to leave and seek greener pastures and I heard that people here throw away a lot of things which can be sold for good money,” Jamiu confessed.
Today, the 20-year-old has come some distance and, though he started with the dump in Mararaba, beside the road, he has become so popular that he has hired kids who want to make a few quid. All they have to do is go scavenge and bring him something, whether metal, drink cans or broken plastic and, in exchange for their sweat, he gives them some money. Everyone is happy.
How does he make money for himself, though?
“When these things are brought to me, I take it to where they are weighed. I am paid and I go in search of more scrap I can buy.
“Here,” he shows SI the weigh, “1kg is N100 and 10kg is N1000. That amount is quite small, so I make sure I get scrap which can weigh as much as 100kg, which is very much. I do that constantly and it helps me send some money to my parents and younger ones who are still in Kano. At least, it is better than begging,” he said, smiling at how he almost resorted to begging when things were too bad for the family and he could not bring himself to go to school.
Not all of them in the stronghold in Mararaban Gurku are scavengers. While Jamiu makes some money from scavenging, a silversmith Usman Ismaila, who hails from Mangu local government area of Jos, Plateau State. I’m from Mangu local government area of Jos, is the one in charge of the weighing.
Though he still shares a shop with his elder brother – who taught him the trade till 2013 – he weighs the scraps to make a little something for himself.
“It took just a year to learn the trade before I became independent. Although, when I started mine I was shaky financially hoping I’ll become stable but, life had other plans. I decided to co-own a shop with somebody, so that we can split expenses. That’s why I’m still with my brother.”
His main duty, though, is making the three-legged silver pot (called tukunya in Northern Nigeria) from silver drink cans.
How does he get the cans?
“I buy the cans from scavengers. If you want me to make a pot for you, I charge you for the cans and the work. But, some women bring their own cans, so I only get to charge them for my sweat,” he said.
He corroborated Jamiu’s story about the weighing and how much each kilo costs.
“For instance, 1kg is sold for N100, it was previously N50, so 10 kg of scrap cost N1000. When I weigh what is brought to me, I pay off the person and, since I can’t sell the plastic, I keep it aside and put the aluminum cans to good use. Making pots.
“Now, as to making the pot, it takes as much as 27kg of scrap and one hour to make the largest size of tukunya,” he revealed.
It does not make it easy work, though.
“This pit,” he said, pointing to what passes for a bellow, “contains the hot coals which is connected to the wheel inside (pointing to it) for melting the cans.
“The cans are poured into a pot and the fire is fanned, until the cans begin to melt. When everything is melted, the slush floats upwards, while the main aluminum stays down. We sieve them and separate both. The rest is channeled to the mould inside. Immediately the molten aluminum is poured in, we remove the mould immediately, because it hardens almost immediately. If it is left too long, the mold cracks and it is a waste of time.
“We don’t have lots of designs,” he told SI, “but, if we want to make patterns on a pot, we make a mould with the design we want,” said the silversmith.
Ismaila evener had the opportunity to go beyond primary school, but he thinks he is faring better than he would have done if he had taken to begging.
His five other siblings can now go to school, because they have got him and the elder one looking out for them.
“There is profit enough to cater for my needs. Depending on the season, the biggest size of pot goes for N13, 000. But I can’t tell you how much profit I make in a month; I don’t want to draw attention to myself and I do not want toile. Also, it is very diffucult to keep a record of that, but, I can say that enough is left after expenditures have been paid for,” he divulged, just as he confessed that he should be able to break free and have his own shop before the end of the year.
“Just think of how many pots me and brother can make and sell if we have two separate shops and more hands,” he enthused.
Also, he told SI that the heavier metals are moved out via ‘911’ trucks to Kano, Aba, Onitsha, Kaduna-Abuja Expressway and all other destinations where manufacturers buy them and put them to good use. In most cases, they are sent abroad.
Ismail might be having a ball and enjoying his trade, but not so for Jamiu, who wishes people can stop placing negative labels on scavengers and the police could leave them be.
“Many of the lads who bring stuff for me to buy, we have their names in a roster and we always want to know their whereabouts, because of the way the police harasses us.
“In spite of this, they arrest daily, sometime, without reason. They do this because they know that we will pay for bail if we want the lads to be out and about their business the next day.
“In some cases, we go to some community refuse heaps and some people send their dogs after us. Some look at us disdainfully and others scream bad things at us, but they are just being scared, we are not bad people,” he said, wondering why anyone would think that.
“We just want to make a living like other people, because we are not interested in begging (becoming almajirai). Is there something wrong with that?”
Without being such a kill-joy, Nigeria’s recycling industry needs some regulation. The amount lost by the Federal Government, due to poor coordination of the recycling sector is one which can only be imagined.
If the government gets interested in regulating and coordinating the activities of recyclers, it would only result in healthier recycled objects/usables, more revenue for the nation and open up the sector to willing investors.
Daily, we lament the culture of waste which our beloved country has come to be known for; great things start from small beginnings. Perhaps, if we begin from curbing and recycling our wastes, we would have fewer refuse dumps, turn waste into wealth, be healthier and worry less about land pollution.
It is a many-fold positive for the country and her people – if and when we desire to go the way of cleaner, healthier recycling.
This work was first published in SI Magazine