This is the story of a family with about 10 members, parents, children and even some grandchildren. For many years they have been working and living in this dump on the outskirts of this city in southern Angola.
The landscape is desolate and bleak, almost comparable to a post-apocalyptic scenario. The trucks that collect the garbage in the city dump their loads here indiscriminately and randomly, in piles that take up more and more available space in the dump. Aside from the garbage that accumulates as far as the eye can see, the horizon is dotted with fragile shacks built with sticks and tattered pieces of cloth, where the scavengers live. A thick, dark fog resulting from the burning of the garbage extends to the mountains, which rise up in the background as if establishing a barrier, the barrier that divides this place from the city where those who produce the garbage live, the reason for the existence of those who live and work here, the forgotten ones.
Besides being forgotten they are also invisible, because they cannot be perceived from the only road that passes by here about 2 km away. Who would imagine that there are people and entire families living and working in this amalgam of garbage, dust, and smoke where it seems that the only destiny that exists here is to survive in such harsh and precarious conditions?
Attentive to the arrival of the trucks carrying the precious cargo, the family rushes to get to the unloading site first and earn their right to the remains of the day. Most of the time they have to run after the trucks because they can never predict where the trucks will end up. If they don't, other groups in the vicinity quickly take over the trash heaps. Even here, they have to fight and develop strategies to get to work, only the strongest survive.
Urban garbage collection is one of the most critical problems in Angola, where there is no practice of garbage differentiation nor its treatment in landfills after being collected. A study conducted in 2016 points to a total of 3.5 million tons of garbage produced annually in the country, of which about a third (approximately 1.3 million tons) is produced in the capital, Luanda. The same study also stresses that, with the existing demographic growth rate, the authorities admit a challenging scenario by forecasting an increase in the volume of waste production in the capital of 146% by the year 2025, and it is certain that the collection and treatment capacity will not keep up with this growth rate.
In every pile of garbage deposited here, in the open air, you can find all kinds of waste: plastics, cans, cardboard, clothes, glass, food leftovers, waste from industries and livestock farms, and even animal corpses. The smell is nauseating, the air is hot and saturated with toxic fumes from burning tires and plastics, flies abound and are a constant presence.
The family sifts through the piles of garbage with admirable efficiency using irons with a slightly curved tip. They eagerly search for anything that might have some value, which their years of living with garbage have taught them to recognize even when night threatens to come. Cardboard and aluminum cans are scrupulously collected to be sold to some industries that take advantage of them for recycling, but they are also on the lookout for some other treasures that they take advantage of for themselves, such as clothes, old shoes, or even food scraps. They divide the tasks, the men climb to the top of the piles and send what they find to the ground, while the women work at the bottom and make piles with the garbage properly separated. It is still the women who wrap the cardboard and aluminum cans in cloths that they place over their heads to carry to the tents where they live, to sell them the next day. What they keep for themselves, such as tattered pieces of clothing, rags, and food scraps are often traded with other groups at the dump. Here, inside the dump, there is no circulation of money, there is only a barter economy among the scavengers. Even the water they drink is exchanged for work. The trucks that bring waste from poultry farms and cattle ranches also carry water for the scavengers to wash their containers here before returning and it is this water that they use to drink.
They work in silence and in an almost mechanical way, as if all the words had already been said and everyone knew what to do without any further need for questions or comments. The only noise that can be heard is the cavernous coughing of almost all of them, denoting lungs affected by the unhealthy environment and by inhaling toxic fumes for several years. The permanent smoke and heavy silence add to the feeling of desolation, as if we were walking through the trenches of a lost war. Yes, it seems like the end of the world, because it is hard to conceive of such harsh and adverse conditions for a human being to work and live.
Still, it is easy to stumble upon a smile, open, frank and true. Even so I felt safe here at the end of the world, where people are after all good on the inside but miserable on the outside. Yet I found and witnessed unity and mutual help in this family, despite the hard work and obvious fatigue.
Ana, the youngest daughter is pregnant. She doesn't know how long she is pregnant, she just keeps working until her day comes. Jorge, the eldest son, is practically blind after having had conjunctivitis for more than 3 months. The father, the one with the most persistent and cavernous cough, blaming the inevitable lung disease that has most likely already affected him. One of the granddaughters, only two years old, knows only this life and this landscape and no longer reacts to the dozens of flies that land with impunity all over her body. Everyone bears the marks of wounds that took too long to heal, even the dog that faithfully accompanies the family.
Work here is ruled by the shuttle of garbage trucks, even when it rains. The last unloads happen just as the sun is setting on the horizon, when the family is transformed into indistinct silhouettes that resemble soldiers and the garbage is an amalgam that is difficult to distinguish. Only after the last pile is finished do they retire to the flimsy tents set up right next to them, where they make campfires to cook something they have gathered during the day, ward off the jackals that prowl around the camp, and light up the dark night that falls over the plain.
More than during the day, they are even more forgotten at night, when even the garbage trucks don't come here.