One of the most breath-taking moments that I ever experienced in El Salvador was on an early trip. We had seen the poverty of San Salvador (so we thought) as people spend their day hawking items at stop lights or trying to scratch out a living selling fruits at a roadside stand. (What a risky living, to try to entice people flying down a highway to stop and buy your wares- while watching your children.) We had seen other forms of poverty, especially following the earthquake, when people lost their mud-brick-and-stick homes and were living under plastic strung from trees. I thought we had seen it all, until we saw the community living at the garbage dump. (I am not intending to use the word 'dump' dismissively, but that's what the NGO herself was calling it)
A garbage dump. Just when I thought I had seen it all- a garbage dump.
When we hear that unemployment is over 50% and underemployment is much higher; when we hear that people are landless; when we hear that people have to be creative in finding ways to provide for their families- that means things like a community that lives in a garbage dump. They came to forage through the garbage, looking for items that could be redeemed by pulling it out, cleaning it up, and taking it to town to sell on the street. They stayed because the did not have another home and by staying the could get first dibs on new piles of garbage. They found scraps of plywood or tin to lean against each other, pieces of string and plastic to hold things together, and they made them into their homes. There were children living there, old people dying there, and of course there were numerous health problems festering there because of the toxins that inevitably seep into the rivulets of water that form during the rainy season.
An NGO worker told me that she was part of a group that advocated on behalf of this community. The city government of San Salvador was going to close this dump and start using a new one, which was bounded on all sides by high fencing and barbed wire. And the people of the dump protested. It might be festering, it might be an eyesore, it might be heartbreaking, but they called it home and work and it was their way of providing for their families. The story that I heard at that time (I don't know the current status), was that they agreed for half the trash to go to the 'old dump' and half to go to the new one. A small victory, according to the NGO worker.
I think we saw this dump on our most recent trip. We stayed at a different guest house and so we saw a part of San Salvador that I had not seen in the last few years and I am pretty sure that we passed the dump on our way out of town. It is the dry season right now, so the puddles and mud were not there like the first time I saw it. And it might not be an active landfill- it didn't have that look to it. The biggest difference for me was that I felt guilty staring at it and tried not to. I was telling my van-mates about the earlier experience, but I had this extreme feeling that I was falling into the trap of the 'poverty tour' if all I did was to gawk at how horrible this place was. It is their home. They emerge from those shacks as clean as possible, trying to keep their dignity intact. They are living there, eating there, making love there, birthing babies there, teaching the alphabet there, dying there, dreaming there. And I have to respect that.
Shortly after my first encounter with this dump, while back home in the States, I met a missionary who had been in El Salvador for a couple of years. We shared stories and interests and I liked him immediately. Then he told me that he was part of a program that was trying to get the city of San Salvador to close a garbage dump where people were living in horrible conditions. It was the kind of story that I would normally applaud and support. But, the wisdom of my NGO friend forced me to ask him, "Do the people in that dump want to be relocated?" (I know, it sounds like a stupid question, almost like when Jesus would look at bent over, ill people and ask, "Do you want to be healed?")
The missionary just stared at me for a while and mumbled, "Well, I never really asked."
In the end, I don't know if people ought to be living in a garbage dump. I don't know if the NGO worker was doing them a favor by helping them to stay there or if the missionary was doing them a favor by trying to get the dump closed. But, this much seems clear, if we view the folks living in the dump as real people, God's beloved children: We ought to ask.