Rutted muddy roads lead to the mountain of garbage at the edge of town. Our driver swerves to the left, then to the right, then back to the left to avoid the huge potholes filled with water. Red pools of standing water remind me of Exodus 7, where God turned the waters of Egypt into blood.
The smell of smoke mixing and swirling around with the stench of garbage, assaults the nostrils even before we open the doors to the van. We stepped out of the vehicle, into a world that we’d never imagined, and now will never forget.
Dogs, chickens, goats, and pigs root in piles of trash for food. Humans, also, plunder through the mountains of cast-aside thrown-out hauled-off refuse. Seeing one so much like me -- scraping through garbage just to find a morsel to eat -- sent powerful waves through every nerve in my body. Even the tips of my fingers felt that flash that comes with a great shock.
A pile of cans, stripped of their labels, sit by the path. Their naked shiny surfaces fade to rust, matching the rivers of mud. Mountains of paper -- labels, boxes, magazines, office dregs -- slowly soak into the earth. I wondered about the people here, stripped naked of dignity, slowly sinking throughout their lives into the depths of the earth.
Paths are blackened with oil, ashes, soot, animal droppings. Standing water reflects a rainbow-sheen of oil floating on top. We follow the littered trails deeper into this village, this village in the dump. Shanties and shacks, constructed of tarps, scrap lumber, bits of tin -- whatever can be patched together -- provide shelter from beating rains, scorching heat. A place to lay one’s head at night can provide at least some resemblance of security.
We learn that particular area of the dump village is called “Airport” because this is where the airport’s garbage is brought. The airport brings the “best” trash -- leftover meals and refuse from recent flights and the terminal. Because of the quality of this particular garbage, folks must pay a fee to plunder in this area. We never found out exactly who is paid the money -- but the people themselves know. I am stunned when I see a huge bag of trash emblazoned with the logo of the airline that brought me here -- and I thought of the food left on my dinner tray. If I had known earlier where it would end up, would I have eaten as much? A flash of an unnamed emotion spread through my body -- was it shame for having eaten most of it? Pity for those who grovel for the morsels we leave behind? Gratitude that I don’t have to live like this? I still don’t know, exactly, but the feeling came to rest like a rock in the pit of my stomach.
Families struggle -- most are single parents with their children, scratching through the refuse of society trying simply to survive. A mother, dressed in rags, with her baby on her back, pokes through the latest offerings brought in by truck. Women, clustered around a small fire, cook whatever scraps they can find to feed their children. A small boy, eyes oozing with disease, gazes without a smile at the strangers passing through the midst. A tiny naked girl, toddles by, sucking the stickiness out of an ice cream wrapper, long-ago discarded.
We amble through, seeing hopeless eyes gazing into our own. And I wonder about these people that society has discarded, like the ice cream wrapper. How did they end up in this hell-on-earth? And what of the children born into this place? Will they ever know of any other kind of life? And why am I here? What right do I have to come poking into their lives? What will I do with this knowledge? Is there anything I can do? These are questions I must petition to God, and seek His answers.
We do not linger here much longer. We are, after all, intruders into their lives, observers who come and thn go. They think we leave empty-handed, but they are wrong. Our own minds are crowded with all that our senses have taken in, hoisted like too-full backpacks onto our shoulders, and then we turn to leave.
And we surreptitiously squeeze the liquid sanitizer in our palms, rubbing our hands together to dispel the germs, hoping that none of the villagers see this act that could translate into disgust.
But there’s no sanitizer strong enough to eliminate the pictures in our own minds.
And we load up in the van and make our escape from the smells and the sights of the dump.
But there’s no route out of that mud-mired place in our own minds.
And we fill our stomachs with good fresh foods and clean water.
But their swollen bellies growl from hunger and the sounds echo throughout our own minds.
And we enjoy a hot shower and clean clothes that make our bodies feel cool and comfortable.
But the naked child, sucking on an empty food wrapper plays forever in the memory pools of our own minds.
And at night, we rest our bodies on our comfortable beds with fresh linens, closing our eyes for rest.
But sleep is interrupted by the things that we have seen in the dreams fabricated in our own minds.
And life goes on for us all…
copyright 2009 Anita Tarlton