The Vocabula Review

December 2008, Vol. 10, No. 12 Friday, April 29, 2016

Culture and Society

The Making of Homo Scavengecus Abbas Zaidi
Web version

Recently, on a visit to Lahore, my home city, I went around with a journalist friend to observe and interview Lahore's scavengers in connection with an ethnographic research paper that I had been planning to write for some time. My friend dropped out soon since he could not stand the stench of the rubbish dumps. I managed to persist, however. After two weeks of research, I was able to bag a few facts. Here are a couple of them: (1) there were hardly any adult scavengers in those dumps, and (2) the number of boy and girl scavengers was almost equal. Based upon my observations, I can claim that the age group of the scavengers is between 4 and 18. I learned from them that since their elders cannot stand the stench of the rubbish dumps, they dispatch or force their children to do the scavenging. Personally, it was very painful to hear a number of little boys and girls say in Punjabi: "I do not feel the stench because it has become a part of my being" (my paraphrasing). The striking thing was that these kids were not just mechanical scavengers; that is, scavenging was not just a routine job that they did thoughtlessly without looking askance at the dumps. Though immune to the stench, they were aware of the filth and dirt that was a despicable and shameful source of their living. But what was exceedingly demoralizing to me was the indescribable helplessness in their tone. I wished they had been furious over their condition. But mine is only wishful thinking because in Pakistan fatalism is a basic component of the nationalist–Islamist discourse. Through the media and the mullahs, the elites have been able to convince the people that their condition is the result of the divine will; if they stay pious and law abiding, all blessings await them in paradise. Hence theirs (the scavenging children included) is what I would like to call passive awareness. This partly explains why poor Pakistanis are committing suicide every day instead of protesting against the system that has mired them in poverty.

From the linguistic point of view, it was interesting — I would say sadly interesting — to observe their speech forms: they cannot speak correct Urdu, Pakistan's national language, and most of their expressions are elliptical. Keep in mind that Urdu is a compulsory subject in Pakistan till the A level. Since these kids do not (because they cannot afford to) go to school, they will never learn even basic Urdu, and hence will never qualify for even the lowest jobs. Their command of Punjabi is functional, but they cannot express their suffering and emotions properly because their lives are mainly spent picking rubbish, eating whatever they can find, and then sleeping in the open or under make-shift arrangements. Since the cruelty of the system has deprived them of language (Punjabi: their mother tongue; and Urdu: the language of media, of power), they cannot speak for themselves. Ultimately, the cause of these speechless entities will be taken up by educated people who will need them to stay in their ignoble, dingy situation so that in their name publicity and funds can be bagged and a few academic landmarks achieved. Pakistan is replete with "liberals" and "human rights activists" who have made fortunes and earned PhDs by taking up different social causes, but the lives of the people, their subjects and sources, remain unchanged. In principle, every child is required to go to school and get a free education and free books. But in practice, this is not the case since — I can safely say — every year thousands of kids join the ranks of scavengers in Pakistan. The human rights and children's rights "activists" will never agitate to force the government to fulfill its "no child left behind" pledges. Of course, protesting in scorching heat is not as convenient as sitting in air-conditioned offices and issuing press releases and holding teleconferences. This is how a lot of money from Western donors is spent.

The second stage of my research was meeting the parents of some of the child scavengers. They all live in tattered tents in any open space available till they are kicked out by the police or the people in the neighborhood. These parents told me that in their childhood they could depend on their parents for food. As little boys and girls, they could also find employment in almost any household where in lieu of manual work they got food and occasional clothing. This partially explains why these elders cannot scavenge in the dumps: as children, they did not have to scavenge and hence they did not develop immunity to the stench.

Another possible explanation is this: the population of Pakistan has exploded over the past thirty years at the national average of almost 4 percent. The population growth among the poor is far higher than the national average. (Pakistan's census does not have class-based population growth statistics.) In Pakistan, like in other third-world countries, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. As a result, fewer households are able to employ children from the lowest stratum, and the parents of these children cannot feed their ever-increasing broods.

Lahore is just a little scratch on the ugly face the world is fast becoming. Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Kolkata, Jakarta, Manila, Mexico City, Mumbai, and Sao Paulo are some of the scavenging capitals of the world where the opinion-makers of the society (journalists, social activists, and others), working for the ruling elites who do not want any meaningful change in the existing class structure of the society, give euphemistic names to the scavengers. In Mexico, they, the scavengers, are called pepenadores; in Argentina, cartoneros; in Brazil, catadores; and in Peru, moscas. What is the purpose of these semi-fancy names? The purpose in my view is to classify the scavengers into semi-academic categories and then philosophize about their plight without actually changing it. To support my view, I wish to refer to other disadvantaged groups in society (any society) who are given hygienic, politically correct appellations so that the real issues are put out of the focus and pushed into language play. For example, the people at the bottom of society are called the less fortunate part of society rather than very poor, dirt poor, or even semi-starving. Are these the less fortunate part of society in any way a "part" of society? No, they are not. They live on the subhuman level living like rodents, and no more. They belong to the dustbin of contemporary and future history. See the absurdity of the hidden agendum: fortunate, albeit, less. How less is less, one may ask? Similarly, I have seen "medical experts" speak of the poor kids of the Pakistan society as being "short on vital vitamins." Short implies a quantity that is not enough, or inadequate. Why not refer to them honestly: bereft of or deprived of the "vital" vitamins? For most of these dirt poor kids, the only source of milk is their mothers', many of whom are themselves undernourished and underfed and unable to produce milk. Instead of talking of the vitamin contents in their diet, why not call them rubbish-eaters, or better, our rubbish-eaters? Why subject them to linguistic tyranny after having crushed them with societal tyranny?

In India, it is the Untouchables who do the scavenging. Just like in Lahore, the population growth rate of the scavengers is far higher than the rest of the society they live in, and the education level the lowest. Whether these scavengers are also passive like their Lahori brethren calls for serious research. But even if they resent their condition, they cannot do much given the economic structuring of the world and their own social position in it. The recent food riots in Bolivia, Burkina Faso Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen were middle-class and lower middle-class protests. The scavengers have been too dehumanized to be part of political activities. Their lives are synonymous with dirt, disease, stigma, and overprocreation.

In the third-world countries, neo-liberal agendas and policies of the likes of the World Bank and the IMF, as well as the role played by hedge funds, banks, and financial groups, are creating black holes of poverty that have been sucking in millions of lives every year while the affluence and power of the ruling elites are expanding with the speed of light. The fast expanding species of the scavengers has a short span of life compared to the rich of the world. For example, in Mexico City, the general population live to an average age of 67, whereas the scavengers live to an average age of 39. In Egypt, one of three children born to scavengers dies within one year of birth. In Manila, thirty-five diseases have been discovered that affect only the scavengers. The fact that the scavengers donate, or are forced to donate, their body organs for a few dollars is indicative of an extremely wicked "free market" of human organs. One must not forget that in 1992 forty bodies of scavengers near Universidad Libre de Barranquilla in Columbia were discovered; their organs had been removed and sold. Within hours after the discovery, all forty bodies were sold to the university for dissection by the medical students. More recently, thousands of the poor in India and Pakistan have openly been advertising sale of their own kidneys by holding up placards on which they write their blood group and any other information to facilitate prospective buyers. The price these kidney vendors ask is no more than $500 — just enough to feed a family for a couple of months. On May 15, the police in Multan — the hometown of Pakistan's current prime minister — caught a thief who tried to steal food from a shop. He had only weeks before sold his kidney to buy dowry for his sister. Once the money was spent, he could not find employment to feed his family; after the kidney-donation operation, he became too weak to work as a laborer. Four weeks before this thief was nabbed, a widow brought her five children to a footpath not far from the prime minister's home. For hours she and her underfed children sat on the footpath where she had fixed a cardboard advertisement: "Children on Sale." Before the police removed her forcibly, she told the media that she was even willing to give away her children free to anyone who would feed and clothe them. Examples of the loss of humanity are countless and worldwide. For example, the "Free World" invasion of Iraq led by the United States has reduced hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to begging and scavenging. If the American-led "Coalition of the Willing" continues to "civilize" the world, we will see the ranks of scavengers swelling by the millions in a very short span of time.

Today, the gift of capitalism to the masses of the third world is the globalization of hunger and inequality while the iron hand of the rich is becoming stronger. Another inhuman downturn of globalization is that, through statistical malfeasances and manipulations couched in PowerPoint presentations, the notions and incidences of poverty will continue to be defined, refined, and mystified in order to discredit or silence protest against the havoc on humanity that capitalism has steadily been causing. It appears that we are knocking at the door of a new evolutionary era in which the majority of the world will be mutated into a scavenging species. Above this species will be a class of technical-vocational-clerical-administrative workers to facilitate the master race of capitalist elites whose lives — lived in splendid, protected enclosures and isolation — will be marked by discovering new worlds beyond, building and attending universities of superlative quality, and deliberating universal fruits of democracy and free market. Playing music, dabbling in the creative and visual arts and writing, attending symphonies and operas, and debating the future of humanity here and hereafter will be the lighter side of their exquisite lives.

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Abbas Zaidi

Abbas Zaidi :: Move me   Abbas Zaidi teaches English in Brunei Darussalam. His fiction and prose have featured in the likes of New York Press, Exquisite Corpse, The New Internationalist, The Salisbury Review, Salt River Review, New Partisan, Arts and Opinion, and many more. He is Asian Editor of New York-based online GOWANUS. A collection of his short stories will be published in 2009 by GOWANUS Books.

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