A thousand years spread through this city, a vast spectrum of incomprehensible inequality and indifference.
One end beholds the rapid construction of high-rise buildings where individuals spend their days operating for the monetary gain of the Philippine’s most affluent. Tailored suits and classy attire march through the streets like an army of structure and stability. Glass panels hide big brand shop fronts full of glistening objects, capitalising on the wants of the affluent and force-feeding a nation entering the peak of consumerism.
The other end transports you, paradoxically, to another time and place. Those glistening objects transform into giant piles of garbage, as if all those objects were placed into a blender, pureed and a spat out at the other end. The only glisten in this part of the city comes from a small copper earring that lay dormant beside a pile of plastic, like a diamond in the rough, waiting for a scavenger to take advantage of its monetary gain. There are no high rises here. A man builds his home from scrap, scavenged metal, children dress in worn out clothes entertaining themselves with copper pennies and improvised toys made from old scraps of cardboard and wire.
The tricycle delivers me to the start of one of Manila’s largest slums. At the entrance I was met by a huge wall of garbage, like a fort to a castle. Scavengers sorted through what seemed like hundreds of bags of trash, sorting plastic from cardboard, cardboard from glass, glass from copper. The going rate for a kilogram of plastic is 10 pesos ($0.20 USD). According to our guide an average scavenger can earn anything from 150 – 500 pesos per day depending on luck and the kind of scraps they can sell to the shops. It’s hard to believe that it is estimated that 40% of the dwellers of Metro Manila are slum dwellers, and of that, 50% are scavengers.
I was guided past the walls of garbage and deeper into the slums where thousands of families spend their days. People stood out the front of their small homes made entirely from scrap metal and materials, their eyes meeting mine with friendly, curious stares. Children ran up to me, cheerful and lively as if completely unfazed by their surrounding environment. The ground was littered with dirt and rubbish with the occasional smell of old food wafting in our direction, but strangely so did the smell of savory odour. We had made our way past the famous PagPag stall, the staple aliment of the slums. Made using food waste left over from Manila’s fast-food addictions Jollibee and Mc Donald’s. The chefs here take advantage of the food waste by recooking it using various spices and turning it into food for Manila’s poorest. While one might cringe when presented with the idea of recycling old food, there are over 12,000 adults and over 20,000 to whom this diet provides daily nutrition. “In the slums no one dies of hunger, they die of illness,” says my guide as we move on to the next part of the tour.
Here in the unbeautiful slums of Manila, one doctor spends one day each month caring to over 30,000 individuals. Disease can spread through here like wildfire. With a lack of clean running water and proper toilets sanitation is compromised. The worst of times can hit in the summer months when Manila is prone to typhoons and the slums rapidly mutate into a garbage swamp full of knee high sludge when it rains for more than 6 consecutive hours. During these times families are forced to take what little belongings they own and move to a nearby basketball court to take refuge until the swamps dry up. They are then left to return and rebuild their unstable house of cards in which they originated.
I duck and weave through dark, damp alleys, live wires barely missing the top of my head. Small rooms housing whole families stacked together on each side of us. I peer through one of the doorways to see a family watching what seemed like a television from the 1950’s, pixelated enough just to make out what was showing on the screen.
We stop at one of the houses to see two women peeling a basket of garlic cloves. They were working, working in this haphazard system that somehow manages to provide opportunity to those who inhabit it. Unlike some of the beggars in Metro Manila the people in the slums do not beg, they work. They work in the system they have created as a way of normality. The work these people do rarely offers more money than just enough to quell the short-term anxiety of the hand-to-mouth life for these large families. The garlic peelers will spend one whole day to fill a 10-kilogram sack, which they can then sell for as little as 60 pesos, those 60 pesos needing to be enough to feed a family of 10.
The issue with family size in the slums is born of multiple factors; their lack of access to education and family planning (both, thankfully, on the rise) and their religious dedication – with the third largest catholic population in the world – the Philippines have to wrestle with the idea that contraception isn’t just good, but necessary, in spite of what the Bible tells them.
At present there are many NGO’s working in the slums dealing with these concerns. They provide family planning, disaster relief and education to all children living here with the hope to break the cycle of poverty and improve living conditions for the Philippines most vulnerable. Despite their efforts, very few people are able to escape the cycle of poverty here. Some dwellers have spent their whole lives here and have never known anything other than poverty. There just aren’t enough opportunities and people become too disheartened to leave their disordered world behind. Their only hope now being the education of their children, provided generously through local and international aid.
The future of the slums in Manila is unknown. The people here live day-to-day, with the conscious recognition that they are divided by inequality and indifference, in a life of misfortune and hardship. The second we are born into this world we are all equal. We share the same first breath and we share the same first cry. What makes us different is circumstance. It’s as if we enter some circumstantial lottery the moment we are born and while some of us enter the world at one end of the spectrum, others get left behind.
As I left the slums of Manila I saw more of the world through the window of that tricycle than I had seen in a long time. Tears of built-up emotion fell down my cheeks as I tried to comprehend the images that I just witnessed. I thought about the smiling children of the slums and their inability to perceive their circumstantial place in the world. I thought of the garlic peelers and their glimmering hope for opportunity. I thought of the scavengers, and of the men and women abandoned by a society that left them behind. My tears were not only of sadness, but also of anger over society’s indifference of man, and of helplessness towards the complexity and scale of the solution.
After you see this side of the spectrum you will realise that some of us have the world at our feet while others have the world on their shoulders, but that wont satisfy the question churning in the pit of your stomach… Why?
Smokey Tours run daily in the slums with 100% of profits going towards the aid provided by NGO’s working here. Find out more at their website.