Whenever trash accumulates at the care center where I work, we have to take it to the city dump. I have accompanied Peter on a few of these trips, in which we load up the back of the bakkie (truck) and go to unload the rubbish. Each time I visit the dump I am struck by the intensity and enormity of the place. I am also struck by the people who are amongst the trash, living, and doing what is necessary to survive.
As you enter the gates of the dump and approach the dumping area, the sights and smells begin entering your sensory system. The typical ‘trash’ smell fills the air, and bulldozers moving garbage can be seen all across the complex. The birds fly around the compound searching for their next meal, and the plethora of hills of garbage fill the horizon. But what was unexpected for me was the presence of people, many people.
As we get closer to the dumping area, people swarm our vehicle trying to be the first at the newly arrived “goods.” This can be a bit intimidating at first, but this is an environment of competition where the concept of ‘first come, first served’ really runs true. After they see if there is anything worth grabbing right away or not, you continue until you are ready to dump your trash. As soon as we are done emptying the bakkie of trash, people come and inspect what we have just disposed of.
These are images I cannot get out of my mind. Everywhere I looked there were people rummaging through the garbage, searching for things that will add to their daily fight for survival. My mind wonders to the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” But I wouldn’t say that we are delivering ‘treasure’ to these people. This is simply their last effort to survive, and they are willing to do what it takes to make it until the next day. I’m sure if you asked them if they thought this stuff was treasure, they’d just laugh at you.
And as I gaze around the compound, I see little stands with small umbrellas providing shade to women sitting under them. I realize that these women are selling cool drinks, snacks, sweets and whatever else they may have. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There are so many people living amongst the trash and spending their days searching for things that there are food stands for them. The entrepreneurial motivation is both intriguing and upsetting. It is great to see such innovation but also so incredibly sad that there is a market for this at the city dump.
Every time we drive away from the dump I cannot help but think about the lives of the people who live amongst the garbage. How I can complain about not liking food when some have no choice? How can I complain about there being ants in my house when some have no roof over their heads? How can I complain about not having ‘enough’ when some people don’t have anything? Seeing people jump for expired food and eat it as if it is their first meal in days is not an image I wish to see daily. But it is one that continues to light my fire to fight for social justice. If we are to believe the concept of Ubuntu, or the idea that ‘people are people through other people,’ than we cannot sit idly while our brothers and sisters are forced to live in such heinous conditions.
The village of people living in the Mangaung dump are not people who will show up on a census. They will occasionally be greeted with police raids to disperse them from the dump and may never experience the luxuries I’ve had my whole life. And if nothing is ever done about it, the social and economic inequality will continue to get worse, and the village on the dump will continue to grow.