28 July 2007
I don’t usually recommend going to trash dumps with strangers within the first hour of arriving in a new country. This, I would advise you, is a bit sketchy. My friend Lindsey and I are sitting in a tiny café in Managua, Nicaragua waiting for the rest of our team to arrive. We’re here as Spanish translators with a team setting up a health clinic in El Crucero, Nicaragua. We flew in from a previous mission in El Salvador working at an orphanage so we have a few hours to kill as the second team arrives. Out of nowhere, Brad Corrigan, the former lead singer of Dispatch has just sat down at our table to chat. Who is this guy? I’ve never heard of a band called Dispatch. He is also, randomly, from Colorado and comes to Managua a few times a year to help lead the Love, Light and Melody ministry giving concerts for kids who live in the city trash dump, La Chureca.
Lindsey and I have known him a total of 10 minutes but he seems legit. (Again, kids, please don’t try this at home). He and his friend Kacey are on their way out to the dump and ask if we are interested in joining them to meet the people that live there. Obviously, we say yes.
We pull up to a landfill teeming with flies, burning with fires and with a stench I’ve never encountered before. It’s much hotter in here than outside the front gates and the tiny trash particles floating around in the air are sticking to my sweaty skin. I feel itchy. Brad and Kacey on the other hand, seem quite at home. They jump out of the car to talk with a friend of theirs who is covered in dirt and picking up trash with her hands. She doesn’t seem older than 10. After talking to her for a few minutes, they climb back in the car with solemn faces. They say she has lost at least 50 pounds since they saw her a few months ago. She now has HIV, HPV, and syphilis and has become a crack addict. She is 16. Kacey used to work with a program here where they removed the girls from the dump with their parents’ permission and put them in school with food and medical attention. The government shut them down and the girls had to return to the dump.
We continue on, weaving through trash piles and people covered in grime, the fires rising up above the piles give me a good idea of what hell might look like. We pull up to some sheet metal stuck together and it takes me a few minutes to realize that it is a “home”. Five adults and six children live in this 10×10 space with no door. The children’s bellies bulge with parasites and their hair is red from malnourishment.
Lindsey and I are still overwhelmed with the story of the girl we just passed and we don’t know what to do when Kacey and Brad leave the car again. Kacey starts picking up the kids and playing with them. They are completely naked and I feel really awkward. What the heck am I supposed to do now? After a few moments in the car, I get this feeling that tells me it’s all just going to be fine. Get out of the car because you only live once, right? I jump out and start meeting the kids. I pick up one tiny little guy and put him on my hip. He smiles an enormous smile. One of the women is pregnant and due pretty soon. She needs a sonogram and Brad offers to take her to the doctor when she is ready. Soon, I’m swinging the kids around like rag dolls, which, they absolutely love.
The Ortega government has tried to move these people out of the dump twice in the past but they keep moving back because it is their only home. While the government offers no other alternative for housing or work, they will always return. Now, there are organizations and missions groups that are building within the dump. There is a school and a food distribution center and soon there will be a clinic. It comes to no surprise that the process is slow since in Latin America, the agenda of most politicians does not include caring for a population with absolutely no voice.
We’ve been playing with the kids for a while now and I’m getting pretty lightheaded. The sun is beating down and the fires are starting to feel suffocating. I’m covered in dirt and flying trash and some huge bug has bit me on the arm. I get a pang in my stomach when I see that these tiny kids don’t notice the bugs anymore. They have flies crawling in and out of their nose, ears and mouth and don’t even twitch. The stench in the dump is so overwhelming and I feel like it’s time to go.
Drug use is a huge problem here in the dump. On our way out, Brad talks to a guy teeming with flies. He stands there looking at me and saying, “I thank God everyday that I’m alive”. I swallow hard. I don’t think that in these conditions I would wake up and give thanks to God. I’m taken aback with this man’s words. It hits me as something to ponder at a later date when I can process everything I’m experiencing here. Brad talks to him about laying off the drugs. Glue sniffing is very common here among adults and children because it reduces the hunger pains. Some mothers even give glue to their kids so they will stop crying from the discomfort of empty bellies.
One thing that I took away from this very hands-on lesson is humility. The residents at the dump are walking around in complete filth. Every inch of skin is covered with dirt and grime, bugs and sweat. Yet even in this state, some of them are better off than I am. Spiritually, many of them are on the right track. They treat each other well, as part of a community and their trials bring them closer together. I don’t think I need to live their life in order to change my own, but this short glimpse taught me a lot. We can’t choose where we are born. We can’t choose our family or social status. What we can do is appreciate a little more what we were given and value more what we achieve, without thinking our accomplishments aren’t enough. We are enough. What we have is enough.