Life & Death on a Garbage Cliff

Four years ago, the town of Dessie decided it was no longer a town. Garbage piling on the streets signaled the transition. Previously Dessie the ‘Town’ had not been concerned about its waste, which seemed to be washed away with the rains, picked through by the poor, eaten by grazing goats or carried away in the mouths of hyenas at night. One day, however, the garbage stopped disappearing, and Dessie the City had to address waste management.

Dessie the City

Dessie the City

Dessie—located in the Welo highlands of Northern Ethiopia—saw its population grow from 90,000 in 1995 to over 220,000 today. The city’s engorged population spilled over the city’s natural boundaries between the highland escarpment to the west and steep cliffs of the Tossa Mountains to the east. Overrun with humans, garbage appeared in empty lots, in rivers, and almost anywhere garbage could find space to accumulate. The garbage piled too high for even the town’s goats to gulp down. Dessians needed a system to collect and dump city-style garbage in order to keep the streets free from rotten fruit, bones, plastic bags, and the rest.  Increasingly, there was also the problem of the odor.

As a result the city government designated a garbage truck and small fleet of workers to comb Dessie’s street twice daily. After scouring the city, the truck drives to Arzua Mountain on the edge of the escarpment on the city’s southwest side and dumps the garbage over the side of a cliff, paying tribute to the adage out of sight, out of mind.

The Dinner Bell on Arzua Mountain

The Dinner Bell on Arzua Mountain

But out of one’s sight often creeps into the mind of another…

In another time, geologic perhaps, Arzua Mountain would have been an eco-paradise. Deep slot canyons separate forest-capped basalt monoliths and powerful waterfalls plunge down the escarpment winding west towards the great Awash River. One might imagine early man trekking from the Rift Valley—fewer than 100 kilometers away—up into the Dessie highlands for hunting and leisure, an escape from the heat of humanity’s cradle.

Garbage BBQ

Garbage BBQ

In today’s Ethiopia, the forests have long been devastated for human consumption and much of the nation’s water has been diverted to sate the thirst of humans and fields. Experts estimate that only 3% of the country’s original forests remain, and many communities—including the country’s capital Addis Ababa—rely on the eucalyptus tree and its ability to grow quickly, tall and strong.

Beyond the country’s widespread deforestation, today’s Arzua Mountain presents a grimmer image of a nation in development. A dusty pile of scree has been converted into a wall of garbage, which smolders and smokes as it anaerobically decomposes.  The trash heap now sustains an array of opportunistic life forms including goats, dogs, donkeys, baboons and humans, and at night the ubiquitous hyena. If Dessie is a modern Ethiopian city, Arzua Mountain is its toilet.

“Nobody complains about this place. It’s part of life and it gives some people a job to look through the garbage,” says a neighbor who lives in Menagesha Amba near the garbage cliff. He comes to watch the scavenging and the hawks soar through the billows of smoke. “Really, I just come to get out of the city.”

On the Edge...of Garbage

On the Edge…of Garbage

Fifty meters down the slope of trash, 10-year-old Mifta wanders knee deep in rotten mango and banana skins and combs the surface with a broken stick. In the other hand, he carries a green plastic bucket. Gelada baboons eye Mifta warily as he steps down the wall’s tiered sections. The troop’s larger males are steadfast and unimpressed by Mifta’s size but several gelada babies erupt in a frantic course, half in play, half in fright. Mifta wades through the festering groundswell of garbage and pokes the stick through the heap to probe for solid objects that could possibly be made of metal or contain pieces of metal. Metal is money.

Each time he strikes a hard object, Mifta pushes his face down into the garbage to get a better look. Looking deep into the ocean of debris, Mifta squints as the smoke blurs his vision and his tiny hand pulls out a belt buckle. A wide smile breaks over his face, Mifta sizes up the buckle below his stomach and realizing he has no belt throws it in the bucket.

After ascending the garbage wall, Mifta meets his friends and shows them the rest of his loot: a dull scythe, a half dozen nails, a broken tap, various keys, a razor blade and a shiny belt buckle missing its centerpiece. In the buckle’s previous life, factory workers in India or China had placed a cheap trinket in the polished aluminum between two large dollar signs. How the ornament ended up on Arzua Mountain speaks to our species’ behavior and its role in a wasteful world where future garbage is born and dies in the hands of the impoverished.

The entire treasure bucket weighs almost a half-kilogram, and Hailu, the metal-monger in Dessie, pays 8.50 birr (half of a dollar) per kilogram. Mifta takes the profit home to his uncle where he has lived for the last 2 years after his mother suddenly died. Mifta’s uncle won’t send him to school and won’t support him, so he must work. Money is better collecting a kilogram of metal from the trash than shining shoes on Dessie’s main avenue, so Mifta spends his days on Arzua Mountain.

The troop of geladas that share the mountain are completely unaware of Mifta’s struggle. The humans that come to Arzua Mountain come for the metal. Their search is disgusting and often dangerous. The gelada baboons also live off the mountain, but a day on Arzua is much easier to swallow. The troop of baboons comes for the fast-food. The geladas forage at the bottom of the garbage wall collecting fruit skins and peels that escape the lips of the goats perched on the cliff. All signs suggests that life is good at the bottom of the trash heap.


The Guidebook's Gelada Baboon

The Guidebook’s Gelada Baboon

The gelada are most often associated with the Simien Mountains National Park in northern Ethiopia. Those geladas congregate in large groups (100+) and graze the natural grasses growing on the cloth of the afro-alpine ecosystem. Male geladas have long flowing hair and don a majestic red-heart on the chest harking the nickname the “bleeding heart baboon”. Practically every visitor to the national park meets a gelada troop and watches them gracefully moving and grazing across the mountainside. The experience is intensified by the troop’s social behavior and the animal’s ability to produce a wide range of sounds that mimic school children in an elementary school cafeteria.

The Landfill Gelada

The Landfill Gelada

The city’s garbage dump, however, is no BBC Blue Planet nature documentary. The Arzua troop of gelada spends little time foraging beyond the dump because they effortlessly meet their dietary needs from the human refuse pile. It isn’t unspoiled nature, it isn’t picturesque, it’s just adaption.

In the early morning, the troop moves across the slope towards the lower area of the garbage cliff where they wait for the first signs of food: the hum of the dump truck and the beeping of reverse gear. Dessie has ‘solved’ its newfound waste problem, and the gelada have found a new solution to the question of survival on a deforested mountainside. The noise of the dump truck is now the clarion call of the dinner bell.




A short video by the author:


  1. Tony T April 10, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

    Love the video and your interaction with the kids. Keep up the great reporting bro.

  2. bpovey April 10, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    Amazing how one adapts. Hard for me to comprehend how those children live

  3. PItter April 10, 2013 at 11:37 pm #

    Great job, Nico!

    I love the movie. Cool music, too. It’s funny. I’ve also been thinking about making a short film with a Kontradiction soundtrack.

    Well done.

  4. Hilo April 12, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    Nico! Me ha encantado. Está de puta madre.

  5. Vin April 12, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

    Excellent coverage man… and I love the video and photos accompanying too – really enhances the reporting and makes it feel all the more real, especially for those of us a million miles away… Fantastic!

  6. Abdu Nurhussien April 18, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    The story is well done.The situation is unbelievable and very surprising. do not you think this should go to the attention of the health officials of the place? Risky for the community near to it and even to Dessie city in the future

  7. raquo April 23, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    Nichoooo tu en verdad eres increíble…como me hubiera gustado verte y que alguien más tuviera la cámara. Pareces uno de ellos…me encantan esos niños…