KEETMANSHOOP – Life is really tough for 32-year-old Elvis Plaatjie who is one of many less fortunate Keetmanshoop residents who live or survive in a rubbish dump.
Plaatjie and others frequent the municipal dumpsite to scavenge for saleable items among the rubbish. “I prefer to stay here between the rubbish than living inside a community that has rejected me several times,’’ Plaatjie tells New Era.
Many other destitute residents, facing socio-economic circumstances beyond their control, have made the dumpsite their new home. The oldest man in the group is 62.
Plaatjie said they are 11 men and one child staying at the place for the past seven months. “As a means of living, we are collecting scrap and recyclable materials and then sell it in town to buy food,’’ he then explained.
The destitute, however, complained that people at times do not come to discard their refuse, leaving them to sleep on empty stomachs. The group’s spokesperson added they collect water from the nearby Krönlein stadium and cemetery, while they prepare their food on an open fire on the premises of the dumpsite in front of their makeshift structures.
“Unfortunately, we are forced to relieve ourselves in the open spaces as we do not have access to ablution facilities, although we know it is not healthy,’’ he added with worry. It was really heartbreaking for this reporter to experience first-hand how these fellow Namibians wearing torn clothes, mismatched shoes and sleeping on mattresses and bedding which are in deplorable conditions have to endure to make ends meet.
“We are really living in harmony here, sharing whatever we can lay our hands on whilst protecting the younger ones against victimization,’’ Plaatjie emphasized further. He added that most of the people living at the dumpsite lost their jobs due to economic hardships caused by Covid-19. He then explained that it is better making an honest way of living there than getting involved in crime.
“I was in and out of prison several times, but the day I decided to make this place my new home, I believe I am now rehabilitated after learning the hard lessons of life,” he said. He also narrated to this reporter how they slept in freezing weather the past winter as their structures do not provide much protection against the cold at night. “We are aware that it is not healthy to stay here between these hazardous materials, but we have no choice as we must ‘zula’ to survive.”
He added that they were fortunate to receive facemasks from a local church whilst they are sanitising their hands with soap if it is available. When asked on the maintenance of the Covid-19 social distancing, he explained that it is not always possible especially during the night when they are cramped into a small makeshift shelter. The spokesperson also said they are at times, when emotions run high or when feeling like outcasts forced to take solace in substances like alcohol and drugs.
“Although harmful, this is what puts us at comfort and calamity when these episodes of depression and anger come up.’’ As a message to the rest of the community, he advised the fortunate who have no shortcomings in life to appreciate and value what they have, although they only have the basic needs of life, as it is not available to everyone.
“If you experience and endure hardships and difficult times in life, do not turn to illegal activities, stand firm on your feet and challenge it, otherwise it will cost you dearly at the end,’’ he advised. Sharing his ordeal, 14-year-old Johannes (not his real name) narrated he recently joined the group at the site.
“I decided to come here as I am suffering in the community since my father passed away and my mother is unemployed, also needing to care for my baby sibling,’’ he said. The minor also said he has been suspended from school due to disciplinary issues and prefers to stay with this group of people where he was accepted with no prejudice.
“Apart from contributing from whatever money I generated here to the group for our food, I also buy powder milk and nappies for my baby brother who is staying with my mother,’’ Johannes explained. He also said he is more than willing to return to school if there is someone outside who can take care of him and his family.
Keetmanshoop mayor Gaudentia Kröhne who handed out sausage rolls and fruit juice sponsored by Shoprite to the group last week commended them for making an honest living rather than turning to committing crime to survive. “I personally know some of you who I believe lost your jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic bringing some businesses down on their knees,’’ she said. The mayor also said she will look into the Mayoral Trust Fund to see in what way they can assist the group. “It is therefore my clarion call to the business fraternity and those having resources to join hands with government so that we can as a team address the plight of these fellow Namibian brothers of ours,’’ she stressed.
Clinical psychologist Shaun Whittaker when approached said it is quite disturbing and unacceptable that Namibians should still be de-humanised to such an extent that they are forced to stay at dumpsites.
“These are desperate, unemployed, starving and homeless people who are at times forced to eat leftover food dumped and live under the most deplorable circumstances,’’ he added. “Namibia as a country has so much wealth in that it is blessed with rich mineral and fishing resources and this (dumpsite living) is not something that should happen here.”
Whittaker further strongly recommended that government should implement a basic income grant to cater specifically for this group of people. “Through such an intervention, these destitute can at least satisfy their basic human needs,’’ the psychologist emphasised. He added such a grant can easily be realised if government adjust and re-align the current taxing systems in order to secure the needed funds for such a grant.