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Kenyan students plant bamboo to offset huge trash dump next door

The Dandora Secondary school, next to a mountain of garbage and smoke from burning trash at Dandora, the largest garbage dump in the capital Nairobi

The Dandora Secondary school, next to a mountain of garbage and smoke from burning trash at Dandora, the largest garbage dump in the capital Nairobi

Armed with gardening hoes while others cradled bamboo seedlings, students gathered outside their school in Kenya's capital.

They hoped the fully grown bamboo would help to filter filthy air from one of Africa's largest trash dumps next door. More than 100 bamboo plantings dot the ground around Dandora secondary school, which shares a name with the dumpsite that was declared full 23 years ago. Hundreds of trucks still drive in daily to dump more trash.

Allan Sila, 17, said sitting in his classroom is like studying in a smelly latrine. Acrid smoke billowing from the burning of trash fills the air every morning, hindering visibility and leaving some students with respiratory issues.

"Asthma is a disease that is commonly known," Sila said.

The school's principal, Eutychus Maina, recalled being greeted by the smell and smoke when he was posted to the school last year. He knew he had to do something.

"My motivation for initiating the bamboo project in the school was to mitigate the effects of the dumpsite. It really pollutes the air that we breathe," he said.

He said he researched online and came across the use of bamboo. He believes it will help reduce the cases of respiratory infections in the community. The fast-growing bamboo has been promoted by the United Nations and others for its high uptake of carbon dioxide.

Aderiana Mbandi is an air quality research and policy expert at the United Nations Environment Program, based in Nairobi. She said the impact of air pollution is felt in all parts of the body including the brain, and the best way to reduce its effects is minimizing exposure.

The seedlings the students began planting last August are already nine feet (three meters) tall. The giant bamboo variety is expected to reach 40 feet when mature, depending on soil conditions.

Students hope the bamboo will help transform the school compound into a green haven in the litter-strewn Dandora neighbourhood. The publicly funded school relies on donations to afford the seedlings that retail at 400 Kenyan shillings ($3) each.

But the school management is determined to keep going until bamboo lines the 900-meter wall that separates the school and the dump site.

The Dandora dump occupies about 50 hectares (123 acres) of land and receives more than 2,000 tons of waste daily from around Nairobi, home to 4 million people. Its stench can be smelled kilometres (miles) away.

UNEP, in partnership with the Stockholm Environment Institute, deployed sensors to the Dandora neighbourhood from October to April to monitor pollution levels from the dump site.

Out of the 166 days monitored, only 12 had a daily average of excellent air quality according to World Health Organization guidelines. Nairobi's air is also polluted by emissions from secondhand cars that make up much of the city's transport. Other pollutants include smoke from industries that are often located near residential areas.

The Dandora school is also planting trees including jacaranda and grevillea. Student Josiah Nyamwata called them easy to obtain and easy to plant.

"The other advantage is that the trees will be helpful in order to boost our air circulation around our school," he said.

The air isn't the school's ' only challenge. Vultures from the dumpsite are a nuisance at mealtimes. Students guard their plates from being snatched.

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