The Picker
By Jim Dandee

“We should turn here, I don’t want to go that way.” Michael “Obama” Odhiambo has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen, but it was not to be found at this moment. He said very little to begin with and moved so quickly that I had to sprint in order to try and capture his movements with my camera, so this abrupt change in behavior was particularly odd. I was in Kisumu, Kenya and didn’t have the slightest idea where we were much less where to go, so I obliged him and kept on. It wasn’t until after we got moving again that I found out the reason for his change of course—a group of men who regularly threaten to kill him were in that particular direction.

Michael is a “picker” for the BAMATO, an environmental and sanitation project in Kisumu run by a man named Mr. Valentine. He walks along the roads with a large, Santa-sized burlap bag and collects plastic, glass and metal for recycling. Picker was coined to replace the negative connotation that comes along with the other word usually used to refer to people who do what Michael does—scavenger. That’s a small example of the changes that Mr. Valentine has made and wants to make for the less fortunate in the Nyalenda, a slum in Kisumu. He began the project itself with funding from SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency) because of the intense littering that happens in the area.

From here Mr. Valentine wants to buy land in order to build housing for the pickers because most of them do not have places to live or bathe. He wants to create zones for them to work in so there aren’t any issues with turf between the pickers. He wants ID badges because he believes it will give the pickers legitimacy and then maybe the residents of the area will treat them with more integrity, because as of now they are seen as thieves and hooligans. This brings me back to Michael’s need to reroute himself during my time with him.

“They said if I keep coming around they’re going to kill me.” Michael was referring to a group of men who provide transportation via motorcycles in the area. “Others (pickers) have been killed before. They think we’re doing this as a disguise so that we can break into their homes and steal from them.” He has already had one violent encounter with the men in the past when they stoned him so badly that he had to go to the hospital and pay for it himself. I asked him if he thinks they’re serious. He nodded.

Michael, now 29, has been a picker in one form or another since he was a boy. When a machine in another area broke down, he came to BAMATO and Mr. Valentine. He does his work twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening because those are the times that provide the biggest haul. He said that he wants to save money in order to buy some land and build homes to rent out. When I asked if was to get away from the men and others like them, he said “no,” that he just wanted to stop picking and create a better life for himself. He gives money to the foreman of the recycling center to save for him in order to achieve his goal. I can only hope that he follows through before they do.

But there’s an issue that’s looming over BAMATO and Michael’s future. Due to unreliable electrical grids in the area, there was a power surge that destroyed some wiring and a motor for the machines that process the recycled materials. BAMATO uses those materials to make and sell water basins and other items, the proceeds of which go toward paying pickers like Michael. Even without a way to generate income, Mr. Valentine still pays the pickers in order to avoid discouraging or allowing them to fall on harder times. He cannot afford the repairs alone and has contacted United Nations Development Program, as well as the SIDA, but has not received responses for either.