Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, has a garbage heap where a group of children and young people live. They are labeled “monsters” by the locals. My friends and I from the YWAM center in Herrnhut, Germany first noticed this group of children and young people squatting in the garbage when returning from an outreach.
We went back with our next Discipleship Training School (DTS) a few months later, and found much more than we had expected. The locals informed us this group was a violent gang whose members were addicted to alcohol and drugs. Many warned us not to go to this dangerous place; one person even said, “Those people are monsters, they are covered in tattoos, sleep in the filth, eat garbage, drink poison, and do not die!”
The truth was heartbreaking: our team found 25 children and young people simply struggling to survive. At first, it was not easy to gain their trust. We learned that many people had come before us, taken photos and promised to help but never returned. That is what the “trash kids” expected of us. As we sat with them, celebrated with them and laughed with them, their trust began to grow. Eventually, they invited us to eat with them.
We knew where they got their food: the garbage. Still, we were resolved to eat with them. We had chicken — or rather, already gnawed chicken bones on which a little bit of meat could be found. The same food was spread out for the dogs and pigs. We drank black tea made with water gathered from puddles and sugar was provided in airline packets. We learned that the reports we heard were wrong. Instead of violence, there was friendship. Instead of drugs, we found a strong community. The kids had adopted one another as their surrogate family.
When we asked Brahano, the 23-year-old, self-appointed “father” of the group, what we could do to help, his answer surprised us: he wanted someone to teach them the Bible.
He told us there used to be a man named Mike in the community. When Mike was six, his parents died and he moved to the dump to survive. He attended school occasionally, learning to read and write English. After finding a picture of Jesus and a Bible amongst the rubbish, Mike dedicated his life to Jesus. He was the first Christian in the dump, but Jesus’ message was accepted increasingly by others in the group.
“Every day that we have something to eat, we share it with each other,” Brahano said. “If we do not have anything, then we thank God and go to bed.”
After dinner, we started a praise party in the middle of the garbage heap. We had guitars with us and a few drums were crafted from cans and bottles. The terrible smell of the trash and many smouldering fires seemed to evaporate as we danced and laughed.
As the evening became chilly, broken flip-flops were set ablaze. We tried to warm ourselves without breathing the toxic fumes from the massive black cloud. Some of the girls told us their stories. Many of them live with families who do not have enough money to feed them. They work unofficially for the government, collecting garbage for 30 cents a day.
We spent the night with them. We lay down on a blanket, and they told us we were safe; we could only wonder what they meant. It was a cold, sleepless night and in the morning, we were covered with painful red flea bites. But we experienced the nightmare only once; the children and young people experience this bitter reality every day.
After a breakfast involving more tea and scraps from the hotel, our team led a Bible study. We talked about God’s love and one of the youth asked, “How does it work that we love God? How does that look?” We discussed loving other people before we prayed together. A few of our group talked about their relationships with Jesus.
Since February 2009, YWAM teams have been going in and out of the garbage dump. Much has happened. Trust has grown, but circumstances are difficult. A gang set fire to the hall where the boys slept and informed the police the children were planning a coup. As a result, some of the boys were arrested, although all have been released. We spent many hours in conversation with Brahano and local Christians working out a plan. We hope to teach the group how to raise chickens as well as continue to teach them the Bible and English. We have rented a house at the other end of the city where the girls can come to use the showers, eat, and work on sewing projects to earn money. A team has already moved to Addis Ababa with the intention of helping this group.
Though the society around them considered them as repulsive as the garbage in which they lived, we know these children and young people are cared for by God. We want to offer them a hope and a future.