Giving Birth in Trash

Juba County Dumpsite, South Sudan

By: John Kazaklis, March 2016

I didn’t know what to exactly expect when we headed towards the main dumpsite for the capital and largest city of the youngest nation in Africa. After decades of civil war with its northern neighbor, South Sudan was now facing its own internal civil war as intertribal tensions have caused famine, displacement, and thousands of deaths throughout the country. The multiple layers of this civil war had somehow manifested itself in different ways as we visited the place where Juba’s trash was placed.

We made our way to the Juba County Dumpsite for a second time in two days, but this time we went during the late afternoon to catch better light as the sun went down over the arid climate. What we ended up seeing was the most overwhelming and intense visual of life taking place on a parcel of land that looked and felt like hell on earth. There was no sign of any recent rain or relief from the sun. 

As we entered deeper and deeper into the dump, the air got thicker and heavier with toxic methane gases from burning trash surrounding us. We probably had about one hour left of sunlight as the heat of the day was still excruciatingly intense with temperatures soaring past 105 degrees. It felt like the trash-covered land all around us had been recently scorched and quenched of any possibilities of life, but somehow, scores of people lived in the midst of all of this. Children were everywhere. People were everywhere. One could see bare naked feet walking on charred waste while children played in a lethal playground. This forsaken piece of land had been embraced by families looking for hope and survival. 

As I was taking the group photo below, I all of a sudden heard some crying in the background and it sounded like it could have been a baby. I wasn’t sure where to look but really didn’t think it would come from group I was taking a photo of in front of me. I was perplexed and spun my head around in search of this crying noise not expecting it to come from the shredded, canvas sack that was being held on the back of the woman in the photo. I continued to hear the crying and I finally turned to the woman and pointed to her back. She through me a huge smile and turned around so that she could show me her recently born child that she toted around on her back as she scavenged the dumpsite. We then found out that her child was less than 6 weeks old. What’s more is that she told us she delivered the baby herself on the dumpsite with no assistance. I was speechless and took a moment to myself.

Media coverage on South Sudan during this time was minimal. While we were focusing our attention on the refugee crisis in Europe and the presidential race in the United States, there was a civil war going on in one of the darkest corners of Africa where a woman had no choice but to turn to a dumping site for livelihood. Even though I had been exposed to trash dump communities in third world countries from my line of work, I had never stumbled upon a situation where a trash dump was not only a source of food and livelihood, but a place where life began. That was the case for this 6-week-old child.