The Garbage People – Lives Not Wasted

dsc_0045This is a piece of writing I did about the truly amazing people that I work with in Vietnam. It is rough, organic and inexperienced which is precisely why I didn’t want to edit it. I have a come a long way since writing this article, but I hope that you will be able to connect with it on some level.

“The authorities here call our community members “garbage people” because we try to save them from life on the dumpsites. But it is an ongoing battle. This afternoon, I visited the site.

On the drive to the rubbish dump, we drove past one of the school children on his way home. He had walked so far alone but it did not phase him. As he walked, he sang.

The drive took about half an hour and I lost myself in the speed of the bike, the wind, the amazing smell of Vietnamese food, beautiful young children playing and the colours of the sky. One thing about Rach Gia that even Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor have acknowledged is that the sunsets here are amazing.

The ride home was a very different experience. 

The roads leading up to the dump are filled with houses that seem to contradict each other. Small huts sit facing some of the largest houses I’ve seen in Rach Gia. Finally, just before you enter the dump you are met by truly beautiful scenery; rice paddies, water buffalo, open fields and trees in abundance.

The gates to the dump are what you would expect the entrance of a government building or airport to look like. And then it hits you. The smell. Before you see anything, hear anything, you are confronted by the overwhelming smell.

I found myself looking down a straight lane, at the end of which lay the dump. It lay there rotting, dying a slow death and taking with it the people who work on it. Killing them emotionally, physically and mentally. 

The dumpsite is filled with waste that spills out of blue bags or lies in diseased piles. The blue bags are from the hospital and the rest are from the market or town people.

I was curious to know how often those who work here became sick. Apparently it happens all too often and the school is experiencing an increasing level of illnesses, which can be attributed to working at the dumpsite. One little boy, for example, had a tapeworm in his brain.

I am thankful I had the chance to speak with Mai. A beautiful Khmer lady who looked younger than her 44 years, which is unusual for people here, especially those that work in such horrific conditions.

What were you doing in 1999? When I think of the 90’s I think of questionable clothing and great music. In the 90’s, Mai was desperate. In 1999 she moved to Rach Gia for the sole purpose of working at the dumpsite. That is 12 years of breathing in fumes from the rotting rubbish, 12 years without a real home, 12 years of hard labour. Life is hard at the rubbish dump. The hours are long and the food is scarce.

Work starts at 7am through to 10am. Then the workers break until 1pmAt 1pm they start work again and do so until 5pm. Those hours didn’t seem so awful to me until someone told me about the final shift. 6pm to 3am. That is 15 hours of work a day and about 3 hours of sleep a night for $5.

The people who work at the dumpsite also pick out plastic which can then be sold on. They separate white and coloured plastic and dry them out. That sounds simple enough right? What it actually entails is opening up rubbish from hospitals, spilling out with used syringes, plasters and tissues, and picking out the plastic. All of this waste is carried on the malnourished backs of the workers. This daily routine earns the families less than a dollar for 1kg of plastic.

Last week Mai lost her father. He was emaciated and sick with dysentery. She could not afford to take the time off work, and without the proper care and treatment, he was dead in two days.  

Perhaps Mai’s husband could have looked after her father? No. He could not have. He spends his days drinking. He is down to five or six beers a day. It used to be 10, and that’s not including the rice wine.

Mai has two children. Her son is 14 years old. He told me that he loved school and missed going to lessons. Instead he spends his childhood wading through waste. Catalyst managed to help her daughter, Hien, who was sent to a shelter in Saigon.

I asked Mai what would make her happy. Her answer was simple and without hesitation. To have happy, healthy children who are well cared for. Nothing more.

Next I met Don who is 20. 20? That is one year older than me. Whilst I have just finished school and am looking forward to university, Don has finished school, has an alcoholic husband and a baby boy called Nhi who she has to leave alone whilst she works throughout the night.

Don was a student in the first year of the Rach Gia school. It is so sad to see an example of what happens when people do not have the right skills or opportunities to fulfill themselves, which is why we need to help.

As Don sat waving the flies from her sleeping child, she told me her story and cried. I asked her what her dream was or if she had any hopes for the future. She said she had none.

After a mere hour visiting this dumpsite, I am no longer weary or sad, but determined. I do not look at these people and feel pity, but admiration, and I will strive to help educate, protect and develop the lives of these beautiful people with whom I share my heritage.”

Photo credit: Lauren Whitney Devine (

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