On The Road Blog
Phnom Penh’s Curbside Classrooms for Child Waste Pickers
Phnom Penh, Cambodia — I feel as if someone is scraping their fingernails down the inside of my throat. The air here is toxic, causing my stomach to lurch, while the hazy mix of sun and smoke burns my eyes. I’ve just stepped out of the van and into the dumpsite at the edge of town, and peering down at my feet, I see used condoms, broken beer and soda bottle shards, rotten black bananas in their first stages of decomposition, plastic containers of all greasy assortments, and everywhere swirling black flies—they land on my eyelids, face, and arms and buzz around my feet as I disturb their swarms with my footsteps. One of the great joys in my life is to climb mountains, but never have I stood atop a garbage peak this vast to behold a view like this one.
I catch the bloodred stare of a hunched-over woman bearing a bag larger than her body, a kram (a Cambodian checkered scarf) wrapped around her head to protect her from the elements. Waste-picker families sort mounds of garbage in clusters all around us. I look for children and young women in the blackened landscape. One woman with long sleeves, long pants, and shin-high green plastic rain boots, her head wrapped in the traditional kram, follows a toddler wearing a faded dress that at one time might have been yellow or even white, and a tiny girl, who turns out to be 6 years old, naked save for her torn skirt, carries the baby for the team. None of the children here have protective clothing, gloves, or shoes. Their faces are grimed with dirt, yet they still have the exquisite charm to pause in their work to smile back at a stranger like me.
I talk to one girl sitting atop bundles of plastic containers who tells me she is 16 and has been working in the dumpsite for one and a half years. Private-company trucks roll dangerously close to her and her companion as we talk. When I ask about her family, she smiles and motions to the group behind her. “They are all here too,” she explains, “down there at the restaurant.” I follow her gaze and notice a group sitting in a circle, indifferent to the flies, eating among the heaps of trash. An older woman who arrives every morning at 5:30 AM collects money for the rice porridge she serves from a large metal pot. The burning smell is stronger than ever, and I see new black smoke emanating from several pockets of waste piles nearby. Two young children are poking at the flames.
Many of the waste pickers are originally from outside of Phnom Penh, coming here in search of work. Heng Yon Kora, the executive director of GFC grantee partner Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization (CSARO), tells me that a 2006 study found that there were 400 families (about 3,000 waste pickers total) at this dumpsite, earning approximately 200 riels (less than 6 cents) for every kilo of plastic collected. To earn one dollar, a family must collect about 20 kilos, or nearly 1,700 empty plastic bottles. Though the city has plans to close the site and move the dump to the Choeng Ek area, it is slow to do so, and the people continue to sort the trash. Heng is currently promoting his idea of forming a sorting center that could employ these folks to sort the containers in a clean, hygienic, dignified manner, ultimately benefitting the city and the public’s health.
Because there are already a fair number of nongovernmental organizations working inside the dumpsite itself, Heng’s organization is focusing on the slums next to the dumpsite, on urban waste pickers who roam the city streets, and on those forcibly relocated from the slums to the outskirts of the city, made to live in areas with even fewer resources. CSARO also teaches community farmers to compost using organic materials and trains women to produce handicrafts from recycled materials.
Earlier in the day, I had the privilege of observing CSARO’s Mobile Education Outreach Program (MOEP), and I see now the appropriateness of the curriculum for these young people. Every week, morning and night, CSARO parks a van, with a retractable side awning to shield children from the sun, by the side of the road in 18 different contact points around Phnom Penh. Children gather for the MOEP, sitting on a plastic tarp under the awning on the curbside, to get a basic education, engage in arts and creative projects, and learn important skills such as how to protect themselves at night, how to handle an emergency (particularly for abuse cases), how to care for their health and hygiene, and how to avoid dangerous materials.
This morning, I saw 25 children, ages 10 to 15 (although because of malnutrition they appear much younger), sitting under the awning on the curbside. Many of them walk to the MOEP or ride their bicycles. They are barefoot and exhibit some of the most common ailments afflicting child waste pickers: severe skin rashes and open sores on their legs and feet, dog bites, glass and metal puncture wounds, and cuts. Sitting on the mat, they listen attentively to their enthusiastic and engaging teacher and identify photos of dangerous materials. The teacher displays pictures of a car battery and smaller batteries leaking acid, broken glass bottles, and medicinal waste like syringes and pills. The children eagerly raise their hands to identify the dangerous items and volunteer ways to avoid them. The children begin the session by washing their hands in a bucket and conclude the session by receiving their share of first-aid goodies—they use small fingernail clippers and apply alcohol and bandages to open wounds. Lastly, the children eat their snack, consisting of a small box of rice, grilled chicken or beef, and a bottle of water.. When I ask about their future aspirations, most of the boys want to be mechanics or motorbike drivers, while the girls hope to be doctors and teachers. A few want to be like Heng.
Heng’s life exemplifies his belief that even the worst situation can be transformed into something beautiful. He miraculously survived the genocide that claimed nearly 2 million Cambodians—including his entire immediate family—in the late 1970s under Pol Pot’s brutal regime. At the age of 14, he was left to fend for himself and so became a waste picker, enabling him to identify on a personal level with CSARO’s direct beneficiaries. His thirst for knowledge and his will to survive took him to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, allowing him today to converse in four languages. He is a self-taught, self-made man who is constantly seeking knowledge and who has a long-term vision for his community.
CSARO is the English acronym for this group, but the local Khmer community calls the organization by a different name, pronounced “skarro” because skarro means “to look for something special, to dig for it.” Community members explain this vernacular name: they had lived their lives digging in filth to survive, and finally they were finding a special way out.
Hoa Tu Duong is GFC’s Program Officer for East and Southeast Asia