I started this post two months ago, but the emotion of this experience was still too raw. I was finally able to complete it, and hope that those of you reading about Korah will continue to educate yourselves about the situation (there are several excellent blog entries and videos online if you google the name). Now that I am back in the blog mode, check back soon for more!
There is something haunting about the Korah Dump. This is the kind of haunting that weighs on your soul, the kind that is unspeakable. And yet, it must be spoken. In the Bible and in historical texts, there are multiple citations of a place called Gehenna. It was a historical cite outside of Jerusalem also called the Valley of Hinnom, and it was the place where child sacrifices were made, and where the bodies of the unwanted were dumped. It was deemed to be an accursed place, and in the original text of the New Testament, the word Gehenna is used 11 times by Christ as the word for hell. During my recent return trip to Ethiopia, I walked into Gehenna. Just a short distance outside Addis, this place is called the Korah Dump. And it is deeply haunting.
I spent a month in Addis back in June/July, helping to provide leadership to a summer trip for high schoolers. We worked in orphanages, visited HIV-positive women to bring them grain, taught skills and crafts to a group of women, and saw the kind of poverty that is unimaginable in the developed world. In a country where the average yearly income is $90, poverty takes on new meaning. Poverty in Ethiopia does not discriminate. It affects the young and the old, people from every ethnic group, Christians, Orthodox, and Muslim. Poverty is the 6 million orphans in Ethiopia. It is the fact that 1 in 6 children die before age 5, most from preventable diseases. It is a prevalence of malaria and leprosy, in an age where malaria and leprosy should not exist.
Although my heart was broken in so many ways on that initial trip, God wasn't quite done with me. I decided to return to Addis for a long weekend in August, thinking it would be fun to have a little more time with my family. It was a sweet time, but God also brought me back so that I could see something that I could never imagine. When I returned to Addis, I found out that half of the group was planning a trip to a slum area outside of Addis. We planned to spend some time playing soccer with the kids, and then a contact had arranged for us to walk over and see the Korah Dump. So on Saturday, we piled into the bus and headed out. We stopped in front of a church in the middle of the slums, and stepped out into a crowd of children. Immediately, small hands grasped us. Children crowded in, and we were ushered into the church. We sat on small wood pews and started singing with the kids. Within a couple of minutes, I had 3 little girls jostling for a spot beside me. I had already spent a month playing with kids at local orphanages, but these children were different. They was an intensity to their smiles, to the way that they gripped my fingers. They crawled into my lap, and held tightly to my neck. They brushed my hair and kissed my cheek and asked me over and over for my name. And as they squeezed close to me, I felt torn. I knew about this place. It is a place for the unwanted. Korah means cursed. It is an area outside of Addis that was created for the least of the least...the lepers. Over 100,000 people live in this slum area. They are lepers, HIV-positive, orphans, elderly. There is no running water, and no sewers. And to my shame, as these little girls crawled on my lap, I couldn't help but wonder about them. Were those white spots on the girl's face leprosy? What other diseases might they have? And something inside of me broke. And I hugged the girls and let them put their hands in my hair and accepted their kisses. I determined in that moment that I would not see them as cursed or forgotten. And that is why I must speak of the unspeakable...because little girls should never have to live in hell. They should not have leprosy when leprosy is preventable and treatable. They should never have to be held at arm's distance because they are sick or dirty. There is something so deeply wrong with this world, and to me, the Korah Dump symbolizes all that is evil and shattered in our world.
After the church, we began our trek to the actual dump. As we crested the hill, we saw what appeared to be grass, intermixed with some garbage. It smelled a little, but it wasn't as bad as I had anticipated. And then I began to walk, guided by several young inhabitants of the area. And as I began to pick my way across the "grass," I realized that I was walking on decades of garbage, with a thin layer of sickly grass overtop. Underneath, my feet was the accumulation of human waste...not just material, but also biological. I picked my way through the swamp, trying to avoid the deeper rivers of human waste. I suddenly found myself standing on the edge of an impassable pit, the stench overpowering my sense of smell. And then one of the young men from the dump appeared at my side and started to reach toward me- he wanted to carry me over the waste. I was torn between the desire to avoid the cesspool of filth, and utter shame at the thought of this young man, who lived in this every day, carrying me so that I could stay clean. I thanked him and stepped forward alone, and my foot sank into the muck. I trudged along, sweating from the combination of heat and stench. In the distance, we saw a giant brown mountain rising above the landscape. As we approached, we saw cranes on top, and what appeared to be people climbing all over the mountain. This was the fresh dump, the active dump. The cranes labored day and night adding to the pile of trash and human waste, and the people climbing on the mountain were the laborers. These people spend their lives sorting through the waste, looking for materials that can be sold- plastic bags, water bottles, wire, shoes. Most of the laborers were women and children. These are the untouchables, the people from the surrounding slums who are governed by the rich masters (the owners of the dump, living in gated villas around the slum). Many of them are orphans, lepers, utterly poor. They live in this Gehenna, this hell on earth. And my concept of what poverty means was shattered. My knowledge of what is evil and wrong plummeted to a new depth. This is horror. This should not be. The children proudly showed us their finds...plastic bags full of tennis shoes, pieces of wire, empty water bottles. They smiled, and they held our hands, and they proudly showed us their world. On top of the mountains were little cardboard lean-tos...this is where the poorest of the poor live. They don't even live in the slum, they live on the mountain of waste. And yet they also take pride in their world. I don't know how to feel about all this. I was horrified, I was shamed, I was broken. There is no logical explanation for a world that would allow these women and children to live like this. In the wealthy wasteful society in which I currently live, and the wealth wasteful society that I grew up in, there is no framework to understand what we saw at the Korah Dump. And I think that is why it has taken me so long to publish this post that I started two months ago. I have no conclusion, no answer, no witty sarcastic comment. I can only put into words what I experienced, and hope that through my experience others will educate themselves and that together we can find a way to stop this kind of horror from continuing.