Olivier Asselin for The New York Times

Trash lies everywhere in the fields, lots and buildings where children play in a Guédiawaye neighborhood. Residents buy refuse to build up low-lying areas that are prone to flooding in rainy season.


Published: May 2, 2009

GUÉDIAWAYE, Senegal — Aba Dione, 7 years old, met his end six weeks ago in the trash-filled corner of an abandoned dwelling here, as good a place to play as any, it seemed, when the other options were garbage and more garbage.

The New York Times
Water lingers for months in Médina Gounass’s dirt streets.
Except that in this case the thick carpet of crushed plastic bottles and bags, clothing shreds, old flip-flops and muck was deceptively floating on several feet of water; unknowing, Aba fell in and drowned.

Garbage might have seemed safe to the boy because it is everywhere in this forlorn, dun-colored slum abutting Dakar, the capital. Delivered on order for a few pennies a load by rickety horse-drawn carts speeding through the dirt streets of the Médina Gounass neighborhood of Guédiawaye, it is as pervasive as the hot midday sun in which it bakes. The people use it to shore up their flood-prone houses and streets in this low-lying area near the Atlantic coast; they have no choice.

Garbage, packed down tight and then covered with a thin layer of sand, is used to raise the floors of houses that flood regularly in the brief but intense summer rainy season, and it is packed into the dusty streets that otherwise become canals. The water lingers for months in the low-lying terrain of this bone-dry country.

Garbage is a surrogate building material, a critical filler to deal with the stagnant water — cheap, instantly accessible and never diminishing. The plastic-laden spillover from these foul-smelling deliveries pokes up through the sandy lots, covers the ground between the crumbling cinder-block houses, becomes grazing ground for goats, playground for barefoot, runny-nosed children and breeding ground for swarms of flies. Disease flourishes here, aid groups say: cholera, malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis.

Ten miles away in the capital, piles of refuse are merely an intermittent feature of the dusty cityscape. Garbage in Dakar is dumped under tattered signs warning “Dump no garbage,” and trash fires burn all night in neighborhoods by the beaches. Torn black plastic bags festoon Dakar’s shrubbery, trees and fences in a metropolis of often do-it-yourself services.

But here in Médina Gounass, the unrestrained garbage tide finds its apotheosis.

“It’s not the best way,” said Pape Yabandao, a mason who was working on the walls of a house here. “But what can we do?”

Garbage had been an indispensable building tool for him, too.


“I don’t have the means,” he said. “If you don’t have other solutions, and if everybody here uses garbage, you have to, too. There’s water in the house and in the rooms.” As he spoke, a garbage cart charged up a street in the distance to deliver its load.

“It’s a problem of money,” said Zale Fall, standing nearby. “The people who live here don’t have the means for sand or rubble, so they are obliged to call the cart-drivers for filler. It’s for our children’s sake. Better to have illnesses than death.”

Ami Camara, Aba’s mother, was not the first to lose a child to the hidden bogs of Médina Gounass. Hanging her head in the courtyard of a four-room shanty where she and 15 family members live, she quietly recalled bathing her young son after lunch and sending him out to play. Then his friends found his shoes, and his body.

“Everything that happens is the will of God,” said the boy’s grandmother, Yaline Ndaye. “We can’t do anything about it.” She turned away.

Mrs. Camara’s four remaining children were playing in a corner. Almost cater-corner was another darkened, abandoned house filled with water and garbage, nearly to the roof.

Local officials accept this near-worst-of-several-worlds with almost the same fatalism. “We wanted to stop this, because it is risky,” said Amadou Gaye, deputy mayor for Médina Gounass, which has a population of around 85,000. “But the people are too poor. If these areas are filled in, there’s less risk.”

One risk quickly replaces another, however. Living in garbage — eating, washing and playing in it — “has harmful consequences,” said Abdou Karim Fall, of the antipoverty development agency Enda — Tiers Monde, which is based in Dakar.

“All the diseases come with it,” he said, “and they are so far advanced in these neighborhoods. Children are the most exposed. People live all year long right up against stagnant water and garbage.”

In an upside-down world where garbage is sought for and dumped among homes, not removed, “people have no alternatives; they are left to themselves; they can only count on themselves,” said Joseph Gaï Ramaka, a leading Senegalese filmmaker, who made a documentary about an incomplete government effort, the Plan Jaxaay, to build modern housing for people in vulnerable neighborhoods.

“These are people who are proud of being clean,” said Mr. Ramaka, who now lives in New Orleans. “When they have to buy garbage, it’s because they don’t have any choice. The garbage, at least, allows them to sleep with their feet out of the water, and in their own house.”

The practice has persisted for years. Médina Gounass was first settled in the early 1960s by rural people flocking to the city’s outskirts, people who were not “educated in the culture of trash disposal,” said Fatou Sarr, a socioanthropologist at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, who has written about the area. Blessed by a marabout, or Muslim holy man, the territory attracted more settlers in the 1970s during a period of great national drought, when the problems of flooding seemed nonexistent.

Over the years, layer after layer of garbage was added, sometimes as much as 13 feet, to keep floors above the floodwaters, said Mansour Ndoye, an official at the Ministry of Urban Affairs, Lodging and Construction who helps run the Plan Jaxaay.

“These are people of extremely low income,” he said. “They put down garbage, and they built on top of it. And they are still putting down garbage, in order to live.”

Back in Médina Gounass, Mr. Gaye, the deputy mayor, poked one of the deceptive bogs with his foot. “You see, it’s not filled in here,” he said. “If someone fell in, it would be all over for them.”

Published: May 2, 2009