Garbage Cities

I’m here in Managua with the sophomore class of Boston College Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program (GPSP).  I come here with the sophomore class each year as an opportunity for these students with extraordinary capacity to understand better the need for human development, social justice and the common good.

This morning we went to a sensational women’s health center, the Centro de Mujeres Acahual, where the students encountered the staff and its challenges.  After the meeting we went to see the neighborhood.  It is where Chureca, Managua’s dump once was. 

Years ago poor Managuans moved into Chureca.  They went there to find what was discarded.   Maybe they could reclaim it, sell it, or even eat it.  As more people worked in the dump, they ended up setting up shacks in Chureca to live there and later they even built a primary school there.  Recently the government realized it needed to remove the dump from what was now a neighborhood.  But the new dump is still in the next sector over. 

Today, as we drove by the reclaimed neighborhood and then the dump, we could see the younger and older people from the neighborhood climbing to get into the new dump, to see what they could still reclaim.  It’s moved, but the people are back.  They still need the garbage dump because it’s their key to livelihood.

Seeing them in the dump is, well, obscene.  It shouldn’t be seen.  But it shouldn’t happen in the first place.  Maybe we needed to see it, so that it won’t happen again.

I thought of the first time I was in Manila in 1991 with a group of seminary professors.  We were on an immersion tour and they took us to Smokey Mountain.  We walked through that garbage city.  After an hour “tour,” the 20 of us got back on the bus and wept.

As I looked on Chureca, I thought of Smokey Mountain.  I am here with a colleague, a Middle East specialist, and she reminded me of the dump neighborhood in Cairo, Garbage City or Manshiyat Naser.

Hmm… People needing to survive by sorting through and living and sleeping in their garbage cities. 

It gave renewed meaning to Pope Francis’ continuous critique of our disposable culture and its discarded people.


James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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