Maymuun Hassan Hajji’s day is filled with both hope and despair. She is a garbage collector who cleans one of Mogadishu’s busiest streets, sweeping away piles of rubbish on the road connecting the State House to the international airport. Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia known locally as “Hamar”, is considered to be among the oldest cities in the Horn of Africa with a history dating back to the 9th century. The city, once said to be safe and welcoming, has now been the stage for violence, killings and bomb attacks for the last 35 years.
In the early 1990s, Somalia descended into a clan-based armed conflict that fuelled extremist and violent ideologies. The lack of centralized government control, conflicting political interests and institutionalized corruption continue to make the country a breeding ground for extremism. Despite the violence, Mogadishu has a population of over 2.5 million people, including a large number of internally displaced persons, who are in need of basic public services, including waste management.
In 2012, in an attempt to improve the living environment of the residents of Mogadishu, the government hired thousands of women to clean the streets. In Somalia, collecting rubbish is viewed as ‘women’s work’ and is connected to deep cultural perceptions of assigned gender roles. At home, at schools, in hospitals and even in public places it is only women who clean and collect the garbage.
Making a Living
Like many women in Somalia, Maymuun, a 40-year-old mother of eight, must provide for her family. “I was overwhelmingly excited and happy when I was told to get ready for my first day, because my husband was unemployed; he still is. I had to take care of the family,” she said. Getting the job was not easy for Maymuun. “We all know that in Somalia people are hired for jobs based on who they know inside that company or organisation, not because of what they know,” she said. “I am very professional, yet it took me four months to find the job, thanks to one of my colleagues who added me to the list of women who were selected by the district authorities for the work.”
Maymuun says her work is tough and physical. Women have to load the baskets of rubbish they collect onto trucks (driven by men) for disposal outside the city. “Some of the women are as young as 16, while others are elderly or pregnant and shouldn’t be working so hard. And the pay is too low”, she added. The women earn around US $90 per month, though Maymuun’s salary doesn’t always arrive on time and when it does, it is not enough to feed her family. “After four months we were given only the salary for two months and were told that we will be paid the remaining two months. But they never paid us the outstanding two months,” she said.
Working Under Threat
Maymuun’s job is not only dirty, but dangerous – garbage collectors in Somalia are targeted by militant groups and members of the public alike. In November 2008, a bomb planted inside a pile of trash exploded and claimed the lives of 21 garbage collectors, a major incident which terrorised the residents of Mogadishu as well as Maymuun and her colleagues. In August 2014, a similar explosion killed three garbage collectors and injured seven others, also in Mogadishu. Maymuun, who knew one of the victims, was traumatised by the loss of her colleagues and her friend. “She was a mother too. Someone intentionally put [the bomb] there. Luckily I was not there on that day, but since then I have had depression and too many sleepless nights. I remember everyday that landmines can be planted under the garbage and might explode at any time,” said Maymuun.
Maymuun wears a niqab (a veil covering the head and the face, usually worn with a loose black garment that covers from head to feet) while working to protect her identity. She has to because of threatening phone calls and SMS messages from militants who believe that the government who hired her is illegitimate and anti-Islamic. Anyone working for the government, therefore, is considered to be non-Muslim and is sentenced to be “shot on sight.”
“I wear the niqab so that nobody, including my own family members, can identify me. There are some of us who don’t wear it, and they say trusting in Allah is more than enough, and no one can kill us. I trust Allah too, but I am not that brave.” It isn’t only militants that target the women who clean the streets of Mogadishu. They are verbally and sexually harassed by passers-by and treated with a general lack of respect despite the important work they’re doing to improve their capital city. Speeding vehicles are also a major problem. “At night, we wear night vision jackets so that cars won’t run over us,” Maymuun said. “There is no traffic system here. Cars can drive on the wrong side of the street. There are some government vehicles full of armed men passing at a fast speed. It is not a matter of ‘if’, it is just a matter of ‘when’ you will be hit.”
Maymuun says no one has ever asked her about the challenges of garbage collecting. “You are the first person who is concerned about what we are doing,” she said. “Even our supervisors, who are men, never talk to us about our work. All they care about is making sure that the job gets done on time. That is it.” Despite the many obstacles, Maymuun is determined to continue with her job, which she says makes her stronger. She feels she has an obligation to serve her community as a sort of national service to help repair a shattered nation.
Years of displacement, hunger and losing loved ones have made Somalis’ resilient, she says, and working with her colleagues as a team helps her through the many difficulties of the job. She remains an optimist, expects things to get better and hopes that one day her children can enjoy the beauty of a clean city. “God has granted us the strength to move on, no matter what happens to us, and that is what is keeping us strong. We need a beautiful environment and clean city for our community,” she said.
Abdifatah Hassan Ali