Life Truths that Garbage Pickers in the Developing World Have Taught Me

I am about to tell you a statistic about friends of mine that is going to blow your mind. These friends do dangerous, honest work and the world largely doesn’t even know they exist. Often, they would be overlooked as examples of valuable contributors to the health of the world — even though they are. They are garbage pickers.

But first, let me explain how I ended up in this world.

My dad has owned and operated different waste collection companies since I was in middle school. But even then, garbage wasn’t real to me. It was barely handled by human hands after it left mine.

It was garbage, but it had no bearing on how I viewed my connection to the world around me.

As time moved on, I eventually found myself starting a youth empowerment charity that has moved into different areas of the world. One of the first places I stumbled upon as I began to work in the developing world was the garbage dump.

From the first time I stepped on the property of that dump, my life was forever changed.

There were homes along the ridge surrounding the massive crater. Smoke burned my eyes as I tried to comprehend what was in front of me.

In that hot, Caribbean sun there were mounds of rotting food and unidentifiable piles of sludge. All around us were plastics and broken pieces of toys, kitchen items and glass bottles.

But more than all of that, there were people.

Over 100 of them.

Men, women, children. All of them digging through the garbage, bare handed. Some were lucky enough to wear mismatched flip flops or shoes on their feet. Some weren’t even that lucky.

I was speechless.

How did I not know this world existed? Where the heck did I think my garbage ended up anyways?

These questions — and many more like them — have led me on a new quest of what it means to be human. In places like these, I continue to be humbled and reminded of something that is vital to who I am.

Something that is bigger than any of us.

That something starts with an honest appreciation for the difficult reality of the human experience.

Now, back to the statistic:

In 1988, the World Bank estimated that 1–2 % of the global population earns a living through garbage picking.

Sure, you could argue that the statistic is from 1988, but let’s just assume that the numbers have scaled with our global population for a moment.

That means that right now on the earth, there could be as few as 75 million people that find their income through garbage picking. However, it’s quite possible that there are actually twice that number of people around the world.

Millions of people, quietly helping to sort through garbage.

I’m Canadian. That number is twice — or possibly four times — the population of my own country. It’s not a small number by any means.

In fact, that number represents men, women and children who provide for their families with the only “honest” work that may be available to them:

  • Mothers trying to avoid selling their own children by picking through garbage.
  • Children, whose only young memories may ever be able to remember living, working and surviving amidst the trash of the world.
  • Men who know that at least here they can seek out provisions for their family — without being harassed by the police because they don’t have the right papers to be in the country.

Millions of stories of individual lives.

I’ve had the privilege of working alongside a tiny portion of those millions of faces, lives, hopes and dreams. I’ve visited and worked with people who work and cling to life in some of those garbage dumps around the world.

They have given me more than I ever could have ever imagined. They are just as imperfect as me, but they have taught me truths that transcend our false perceptions of the differences that separate our worlds.

Here are some basic truths I have learned hanging out with my garbage picker friends:

1. Hope happens when you realize you have options available to you.

Even if the best of those options is digging bare handed through garbage to make a living.

Poverty is not merely a reflection of a lack of money; it’s a lack of options. Poverty is insatiable in what it seeks to consume. One of the first places that it tries to hit the hardest is in removing all options for a better tomorrow.

What do you do when you can’t feed all your kids?

Do you sell one of them or do you do whatever it takes to ensure they live to see another day? Do you sit around and hope that today will be a better day? No you don’t — at least not when you are of the same stock as my friends.

Instead, you put one foot in front of the other and decide that you are willing to even dig through garbage to exist. You realize that even though it may not be pretty, you can be a partner in creating your own hope.

2. Ever day is a chance to choose laughter and joy — and by choosing this, you are choosing dignity.

We have hosted pig roasts and dance parties with hundreds of people on the same property as the garbage dump. We have cheered for impromptu fashion shows and baseball games with items found in the dump. We have even sung pop songs together, shaking our booties.

I’ve been hugged with acceptance, kissed on the cheek by old friends, and had goodbye embraces marked with tears of love. I’ve even managed to get a few marriage proposals along the way from the back of a truck as it rolls by ;)

Always, there is a measure of life we can share. This is the stuff that you can’t make up. It’s yours to freely choose.

My friends in the garbage dumps have the same hopes as I do. They have favourite music, people, and memories. They are also helping to make the world better by the practical help that they provide behind the scenes. (More to come on that later.)

3. Learning from someone else and listening to their story helps you learn more about yourself in the process.

The gift of being human is that we can choose to focus on what we have in common.

Judgement and fear separate us. They keep us from understanding each other. They also keep us from recognizing the solutions we can work on, together.

The garbage pickers around the world are often hidden from site because we somehow feel we are not connected.

But we are. We owe a lot to them for what they do to actually help keep the planet a little cleaner. We may largely fail to thank them, but I am sure Mother Earth treasures what the are doing. Every single day.

“When the vastness of God meets the restrictions of our own humanity, words can’t hold it.The best we can do is find the moments that rhyme with this expansive heart of God.” ~ Gregory Boyle, “Tattoos on the Heart”

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