Ani is approximately 55 years old. She has six children and lives in a small one-room shack over the sewage canal right across from the main entrance to the trash dump. She has lived in this community for almost ten years. I met Ani for the first time about three years ago when she came to one of the free medical clinics my organization conducted in her community. She is usually one of our best participants and whenever she is around, always comes to say hello. Ani is one of those people in the community that you can tell gets a little more grace than most people.
I have found that generally people are quite guarded talking about the structure of the trash dump, but Ani was excited when we started to ask her about her life and her job.
The trash dump is owned entirely by one “big boss.” He rents out large sections of it to several “bosses,” which in turn each rent sections of their plot to a few “little bosses.” Each little boss hires approximately five to six full time workers to sort through what the trucks bring to their section of the dump. Ani explained that it is a highly organized system with lots of bosses.
However, there is a segment of people who collect trash who are “independent workers.” They do not work for any one of the bosses—rather they are allowed to pick through the leftovers that the official crews have cast aside. Generally, Ani explained, they pick one type of trash that they want for that month and then if they collect something else, they exchange it with other independent workers. For example, if she is collecting plastic aqua cups and another person is collecting toys, if she finds a toy she can exchange it for a certain amount of aqua cups so that they can more quickly reach their goal to collect the same type of item so they can get more money. In addition, if the official worker crews find fresh fruits and vegetables or items good enough to be sold, often they will give it to the independent workers for either very little or even free.
As Ani explained the arrangement of independent workers at the trash dump, it occurred to me that this sounds very similar to the Old Testament principle of gleaning. In the Old Testament, the harvesters were to leave some grain or barley behind so that the marginalized could come behind them and be able to collect grain and barley to be able to survive. Through gleaning, the gleaners were able to survive, while maintaining the dignity of working for their survival rather than just being handed free charity. This is very similar to what the trash crews do. They leave some trash to the side so that those who cannot work as official trash crew can still work to survive. The trash dump community has created their own system for caring for the marginalized in a way that retains their dignity and self-worth because they are still earning an income and providing for their families.
What an incredible lesson in development! How often do we create programs that give people free handouts, rather than work within the system already present in the community to help them, while still allowing them the dignity to provide for their own families? Work is important because providing for one’s family gives them dignity and self-worth. Ani was incredibly proud that she could provide for the school fees of her children through her trash collection. It would be easy to just give free vouchers for the school feels—but wouldn’t that rob her of the ability to have provided for her kids herself? Isn’t what the trash crews are doing, letting her go behind them to collect, more compassionate? They are showing mercy in a way that builds her confidence and self-worth.
As we develop programs in communities, this principle of modern-day gleaning reminded me that we need to be careful to in our pursuit of “help” not rob people of their dignity. This is why developing programs the community identifies as important is a good starting place. As they identify their needs and are a part of the solution, their confidence is being built as they realize that they have enough value and worth to determine their own future.
Ani. Personal Interview. 5 August 2017.