The following reflection was written by Kristin Jack, Servants’ International Coordinator, about his recent visit with a Servants team in Southeast Asia. If you’d like to learn about opportunities to join this team or any other Servants team, please email us at email@example.com
This past week I have travelled on from the conference on urban ministry in Kuala Lumpur, to spend a few days with A—, M— & their team mates in another mega-city not so far from Malaysia. This team originally located themselves in crowded inner-city slum, building friendship and close relationships with their neighbours there. When the eviction orders came, as they so often do for the urban poor when the city elite finally decide the land is too valuable ‘to waste’ on the poor, their Servants team mates stood by them, and helped organise bus loads of local women to go and plead their case before an official human rights body. Even though this advocacy was ultimately unsuccessful, this new experience of raising their voice and being heard by ‘higher ups’ buoyed the community.
With pressure from ‘the powers that be’ mounting, many from the community began to pull apart their own little homes, packed up their meagre belongings and began to look around for somewhere else to house their tired bodies and struggling families. Others, braver or perhaps just more stubborn, refused to give in, indignant at the idea of being driven from their homes and livelihoods like so many stray dogs. And so came – as it so often does when threats alone aren’t sufficient – a slum clearance fire that ripped through the homes of the remaining hold-outs, breaking their resistance and leaving them with no other choice but to go. Alternative land offered by the Government was located about another hour further out from the central city area, on a flood-prone patch far from the livelihoods the adults had survived on, and far from the schools the children had attended.
Despite its unappealing distance and lack of infrastructure, our Servants team chose to move with their friends and neighbours to this new location – for their lives and hopes and aspirations had become bound together. It was in this new location that I visited the team this week. Bamboo, thatch and plywood huts sprawled haphazardly across the pot-holed fields laced with drainage canals into which each home’s effluent was emptied. The main profession represented in this new community is that of ‘rubbish picker’. Each day, starting as early as 3.00am, adults and children snake out of their community and into the wider city streets pushing hand-carts into which they collect the garbage of the richer citizens of this metropolis. When their carts are full they return to sift through the contents, separating it out into recyclable commodities like plastic, cardboard, aluminium and so on. In return for a handful of loose change, this is then on-sold to ‘bosses’ who sell it on again for further recycling and processing. Not all garbage is recyclable or useful of course, and so over time excess trash spreads out from where it is piled, so that the whole village is carpeted with the flotsam and jetsam of the wider city. Most places you step, your foot sinks down into a few centimetres of garbage. This is bearable if, like me, you have good foot-ware; but not everyone does, especially not the children. For this reason, neighboring children have ended up with tetanus fighting for their lives. Other health problems abound, and helping neighbors access TB treatment has become one of the particular things the Servants team does here.
When the team ask their neighbours what their hopes and dreams are, the most common reply is ‘a better future for our children’. And so the Servants team built a small house in the heart of this slum, which they have named (in the local language) ‘House of Hope’. Everyday they run classes for the local children here, giving them a clean space in which to play and learn, providing the local kids with a head start in literacy and numeracy skills. By the time they are able to attend the nearest Government school at age 7, the goal is that these kids might even have an edge over the children from richer families beyond the slums. They need an edge like this, because otherwise they are likely to enter school vastly behind their middle and upper class peers – not just educationally, but with the contemptuous tag of ‘rubbish picker’ hanging over them, destining them with few other options but to follow in their parents footsteps as those who simply clean up after the city’s well-heeled, allowing them to live in the manner to which they are accustomed (a metaphor actually, for how the whole world works now).
One of Servant’s goals is to nurture hope in each of the urban poor communities where they live. And so the name of this little school run in the heart of this rubbish-picking slum is both apt and prophetic: House of Hope.