Death to Life

Death to Life

By: Don McPhee

We are surrounded by death…

From on top of a huge cliff I stare below to the famous Guatemala City Dump, the largest of its kind in Central America. To me it appears as Hell’s marketplace. Hundreds race after the latest rubbish from city trucks. The trucks from the wealthy parts of town are the most sought after. Several entrepreneurs set up an umbrella and sell food in the mist of the trash, knowing there are many hungry workers nearby. Tents are visible and they act as warehouses for gathered supplies. Bulldozers scurry, layering garbage and dirt while pushing towards a river. There are many hazards of the job including being pricked by infected discarded needles, or being levelled by a bulldozer. We practise caution from our observation point, as mudslides are common, and tragedies have occurred as a result.

Immediately behind me is the Guatemala City Cemetery. To view the dump, we had tracked through the cemetery to the edge of the cliff. There is no better location for this graveyard as despair can be continuous. Location does matter as well when maintenance fees are not paid on a tomb, as the body is removed and conveniently thrown over the cliff into the dump; from grave to grave. The cemetery is massive, stretching it seems for many square miles. Typical decor includes a colossal wall of tombs with rows of slots for bodies, sealed with a headstone. Most tombs are sub-standard representing the final resting place of the poor. Green moss is common over the surfaces, and everywhere is the foul smell of death. Those that can afford it have a professionally engraved marking, while the rest have some encryption hand written in the cement seal. There are also some upscale tombs with roof peaks, steel barred windows, crosses, and marble decor.  We observe a huge structure reserved for relatives of one of Guatemala’s riches families. On this day there is a funeral and we witness a worker climbing a ladder to place the body in an upper empty slot. He then completes the task with a cement seal.

Up above and all around, flocks of vultures circle and perch. The ultimate symbol of death. They number in the thousands. They rest on the tombs. They take a break on the dead trees. They loop about looking for something lifeless to devour, not discriminating between a dog or human body part, or any other rotten remains.

And straight ahead, on the other side of the dump, lies a ghetto. The ghetto dwellings are called “cobachas” and are the best attempt for a home that can be made from discarded metal, plastic, and wood. Many have dirt floors. We saw our share while in Guatemala. Most furniture or appliances in these dwellings would not be accepted for the poorest of the poor in Canada, there would be an outcry. I never realized a white fridge could turn rust brown.  

Our next venture after observing the dump, cemetery, and the vulture guard is to visit one of these cobachas across the way. We will arrive with gifts and a chicken dinner for two families.  We race back to the truck and began our journey to the other side, our trusted guide, Joel, always leading the way with confidence.

Our entrance into the ghetto does not provide relief for our burdened hearts. Was this a community or just an extension of the dump? To its credit, it was at least a somewhat organized heap. Bottles, plastic, cans, and other materials are separated and usually enclosed in large cloth or plastic bags. But they are all over the place; on the sides of the street, in the homes, and throughout the alleyways. Apparently it is common to sleep on the stacks. Random pieces of litter spot the dump spoils. Packs of dogs are throughout. They are thin and sickly. I observe several drinking from polluted puddles on the streets.

The cobacha we approach is no exception. There are two families living and working in this dwelling. While honoured to be their guest, we are troubled by their circumstances. Masses of sorted garbage are both inside and outside the home. The residence seconds as a sorting facility for the spoils of the day.  My precious friend and missionary partner, Martine, is frozen in time at the entrance of the cobacha. She is still and staring, nervously holding the dinner in plastic bags high in the air, while dogs hover around her feet and flies target the exposed rolls. Her face says it all.

We venture into life. “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” Romans 8:6…

Things turn around dramatically as we meet the dear people, our people of fellowship. Regardless of their surroundings they have resolved to be happy. I am touched, as before we enter, a lady insists on sweeping the floor. I see no point in sweeping a dirt floor, yet, to her, it is her way of glorifying God with her best for others. She makes a path in the house and lays stools for us to sit. The first room in the house contains a rafter on the left where another lady is pleasantly engaged, arranging papers gathered from the dump. A number of scrawny cats within the mess are her company. We are all so impressed with everyone’s spirit of thankfulness. They are a content people. What a lesson to observe.

Martine is now fully active in the conversation, and has also made it her personal mission to minister to the ever increasing legion of cats at her feet by contributing a portion of her lunch. Not only do cats eat French fries, they are Lovin’ It! Joel indicates it would be very acceptable to throw our chicken bones to the dogs outside, which is easy to do when there is no door. If you thought dogs shouldn’t eat chicken bones, well don’t wake these dogs up! My daughter, Courtney, strikes up a special bond with an eight year old girl, Allison, and with her caretaker, a 20 year old Guatemalan princess.

In retrospect, I consider the economy of the dump. To these people it is hope and a way. It provides a means for 20,000 residents. It is a viable alternative to recycling companies. There is harmony in the practise. A system is in place for workers to access their portion of a truck load by laying hands on the side of the truck to claim their space before it unloads. There are no fights, and rights to a truck are respected. Legislation now prevents children from working in the dump. We were also fortunate to previously visit an organization called Safe Passage, and one of their ministries is to remove kids from the dump setting, and provide educational alternatives. All dump workers are licensed, and no entry is allowed on weekends or beyond the 12 open hours in the weekdays. The ecosystem includes a network of wholesalers and retailers of the recycled goods. This is their work, and they do it well, and do it with pride.

I had carried into the ghetto thoughts of hopelessness, while the residents were living life and peace despite their circumstances. While I thought we would be blessing them, they have blessed us.

A sign from above. “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” John 6:63b…

The lady on top the rafters smiles and gestures. Amongst the stack of papers she was sorting, she discovers a prize. She holds up her hand, and in it is a coverless but complete Bible. She lays it aside so it can be kept and treasured.