The carrapide rattles past a garbage truck and then another and another. The air becomes thick with black smog, as the passengers sit eagerly staring out the window upon mounds of plastic, rubber tires, and miscellaneous trash. The conversation quickly fades from words to coughs and gags. The passengers pile out like garbage on a truck except no one approaches this truck. Instead they stare. What to do with this load? Do we engage with it and recover some valuables or is it toxic? The idle cameras of the passengers appear to be bombs ready to go off, infringing upon the lives of the workers. The newly delivered contents cough and jerk as if convulsing. They are human and cannot bear the fumes.
When I was in Dakar Senegal, I along with about ten other students along with two translators went to visit a garbage dump to learn about the issues and possible solutions for waste management in the city. Having been to the dump in New Delhi, a city with 19 million inhabitants, I believed I was prepared to face a dump of a city of 2 million. However, before stepping out of the carrapide, a Senegalese shuttle, I knew the experience was going to be tough. Despite this, I was intrigued to hear about the workers and their plans for the future of the dump.
As we walked over crushed cans, strands of hair, school work, and other items, some workers covered in dust and smog approached us. Soon we were surrounded as we directed questions to the Vice President of the Association de Recupera. Someone told me to watch out for my bag. Having said this myself to others before, I became aware of the signal that would be sent if I turned my bag from my back to my front. I believe I would be sending a signal of fear and distrust. How would I feel if someone walked into my place of work, or my home with a camera, looked around and then when I approached them, they secured their bag? I would be offended.
Site visits are meant to be opportunities of engagement and learning. For me they contribute to the human experience, seeing a person as a person, no matter what their occupation or how they respond to questions, etc. On the day of the dump, I was what Jonathon Culler refers to as a tourist, “He expects everything to be done to him and for him. The tourist is passive” This description of the tourist is one that does not engage when opportunities arise. Partly due to the overwhelming smell and smog, we had a short stay in the dump site and headed to the office of the association. I was a “tourist,” because I was not active in asking for an opportunity to speak with some workers at the association office. I remained passive, hopped on the carrapide and went to the office where I spoke to the President and the Vice President of the association. The interview with these men was extremely interesting, but the entire way home and still today, I was disappointed in how I engaged with the workers.
On the way home, I confessed my disappointment to another student saying “today I was a slum tourist.” I very much felt that way and it is a feeling that I never want to encounter again. Why did I feel like a slum tourist? Partly due to the fact that we as a group arrived coughing and gagging, we ourselves could not handle the conditions, yet some content was expressed with the fact that a medical center was on site. Although we could not control our coughing, it seemed to resemble a sense of disgust for the environment that these individuals worked in. I quickly became aware that many workers did not appreciate the camera around my neck. I was an intruder. To many workers I was there to see the horrible conditions, snap some photos and then continue on with my life. Furthermore, although I stepped out of the truck, I had very limited engagement with the workers that we watched. I do not feel as though there was a real opportunity for the workers to share their stories.
I have learned a valuable lesson. Take advantage of every opportunity and speak up before it is too late. If I don’t ask, I will never learn. If I want to hear a story, I must seek it out and not expect it to always come to me. I have forgotten that I too love to tell my story, but that I, like the workers, will only share it when it is asked for, as I know it will be listened to and not wasted upon muted ears. I can only control my own actions and I failed to act in an admirable manner.
Waste Pickers, they are human and their bodies cannot bear the fumes. They may not be coughing and gagging, but I doubt their bodies have just adapted. We have been able to offer a small form of reciprocity to the waste pickers by suggesting that the government include these individuals in the process of the closing of the dump, an issue that was reported to us by the president of the association, but there story needs to be heard. I cannot be content knowing that I have contributed to the waste of Dakar, and the people handing that waste are breathing in such smog. There is no reason that these individuals should work in such conditions. As I continue to learn and explore, I will remind myself of the stories that I missed out on and seek to hear more. I am a tourist, but I will not be a passive one.