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By the river of Msimbazi, a health crisis looms

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Heaps of garbage line the banks of the Msimbazi River where it meets Morogoro Road near Jangwani in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | ELIZABETH McSHEFFREY 

By ELIZABETH McSHEFFREY

posted  Saturday, April 11  2015 at  19:00

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  • They have nowhere else to put the garbage, and it just so happens that garbage is the cheapest way to fight the floods.

I will live here until I die,” says Mussa Kibwana, crouching in an ankle-deep pile of decaying garbage. The main road in his neighbourhood is made entirely of trash — plastic bags, bottles and far more sordid kinds of waste.

Kibwana lives in Magomeni, a small ward in the Kinondoni district of Dar es Salaam. The garbage is left over from last year’s rainy season, deposited there by the flooding of the Msimbazi River.

“When the rain comes, it floods the river and there’s a big chain reaction,” he says, wrinkling his nose from at the stench of the refuse. “The trees around this area block the dirt in the river, and when the water can’t pass through, it rises and flows into people’s houses.”

The Msimbazi is severely polluted, he explains, and its bacteria levels are as dangerous as the flooding itself.

But the pollution is both a gift and a curse to communities by the river — when the flooding starts, their only protection comes in the form of “waste walls.” They use trash found in the Msimbazi to build barriers along the banks which help keep the rising water at bay.

It’s a toxic cycle, says Kibwana, but the urban poor have no escape: They have nowhere else to put the garbage, and it just so happens that garbage is the cheapest way to fight the floods.

The Msimbazi is the longest river in Dar es Salaam, and flows roughly 36 kilometres from the Kisarawe Hills to the shores of the Indian Ocean. More than 65,000 people live downstream of its most polluted areas within 200 metres of the river bank. Based on census data, this means up to 232,000 living in adjacent wards also face serious health risks, as their food and water may be contaminated by the river.

“Fungus infection is very common,” says Happy Shaibu, clutching her six-month-old son Hemedi as she strolls through Hananasif, a ward next to the Msimbazi. “When there is water everywhere, I tell my children to stay in the house. I teach them not to go into the water because it is toxic.”

Abdul Omari, a river bank resident who has been infected many times, holds pollution directly responsible for his recurring illness:

“It has to do with the pollution because it stops the water from moving,” he insists.

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