Institutionalised Poverty – The Philippines

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 33, Pentecost 2005
By Leony and John Miller

Leony writes:

When I grew up in Manila, we had space to play. We had space to chop wood for fuel. We could plant food. Now you have to buy seedlings in a pot if you want to grow food.

Food is very expensive now. If you have dollars, you can help and share with your family. But when I am not there, my mum buys only a small portion of pork and a small portion of vegetables. She cooks her own rice and shares it with everyone. My sister rents a space 4m by 3m for 1000 pesos a month (NZ$27.00). They have a bamboo bed there and their three kids sleep on the bed. What space is left my sister and brother-in-law sleep on the floor. They cook on a kerosene stove and get water from a tap outside. They have to pay for water because someone owns the tap. One bucket of water costs three pesos if you carry it yourself or ten pesos a bucket if they bring it for you. You spend the whole day washing and wringing out the clothes with your hands. You can spend the whole day washing all day three or four times a week. Not unless you are very very rich would you buy and run a washing machine. It costs a lot for power and is very very expensive to buy one. My Mum has a telephone main line and it costs 720 pesos a month rent not including long distance calls.

My other sister, she lives a long way away – especially if you have no money for the fare. It is also like a squatter area. You build your own house, and outside have water and a toilet space. They have the same space – 3m by 4m and have two girls and two boys. They have adopted another one temporarily. Her husband is a security guard, so he can get home twice a month, when it is payday. His fare costs more than 225 pesos each way catching a jeepney, boat and tricycle. Most of the time my sister is the only adult at home. Sometimes she does washing for people for extra income. She has a little store. She sells snacks and drinks just inside her house. That’s where she gets her daily needs from. She ends up getting things from her store for the familiy’s daily needs. So no money is coming in. Her four kids are 11,9,7,5 years old. Sometimes she goes to my Mum’s house and leaves two of the kids with my Mum. My Mum gives them rice and any left over food she has plus she helps and pays their fare home. The children look really happy and healthy. They always look happy.

If you have no family there, it is easy to end up living on the street. The space that used to be around houses is gone. All the surroundings are gone, and the size of the houses is much smaller. The chickens have no space at all – they wander on the streets. The mothers and fathers shoo the children to go and play outside – on the streets up and down the hills. The taxi, the pedicab and the tricycles have to stop for the kids. But even though people are poor and have little food and very small house space, they enjoy music and do lots of singing, guitar playing, and even karaoke.

I returned from a recent visit very sad that conditions for the poor have not improved.

John writes:

In 1898, President McKinley of the US invaded the Philippines. British residents in Manila were deeply shocked at the cold-blooded ruthlessness of his soldiers as the huge Pasig River became choked with the blood and corpses of tortured and slain Filipinos.

More than 100 years later, the terrible suffering of the people continues unabated. I avoided the tourist routes when I went to Manila in 1953. David Tither, a Catholic priest, showed me life among the poor and oppressed in areas away from the tourist routes. In a Mother Teresa-type place in a big Catholic Church complex I saw a room at which at one end were infants nearly dead from starvation.

The triple cancers on the body politic of the Philippines are militarism, tourism and a gross lack of care and concern for the poor and the exploited. The common good has no place for the comfortable. For example, Dan Gibson told me of visiting with friends and calling at a Methodist Church in Manila. After the service, a leading lay woman, who was a millionaire, invited his group to her mansion. On the way they drove through narrow crowded streets where poor people were striving desperately to survive and maintain their dignity. Huge gates, a high wall and security surrounded her property, with jagged glass cemented on the top wall. Her two-storey mansion had marble floors, antique furniture, a huge TV turned up loud and dominating the living space downstairs, and massive wall mirrors. Servants provided a superb meal. After that she showed them the back of her property. Her office was full of the latest video and computer equipment and the swimming pool was shared by luscious mango trees. She gave each of her visitors shirts advertising her company. She had been very hospitable but there was no real connecting or sharing with the group. The whole emphasis had been on showing and entertaining, not connecting and knowing. They left feeling empty.

In vivid contrast, they visited a muddy dirt track that leads into Tambakan (means rubbish) settlement in Pasig City, Metro Manila. It was dark and difficult navigating the slippery track. Curious people gathered outside their flimsy shacks greeting them. Children excitedly followed them. The stench of pollution was everywhere. Most of the villagers gathered to greet the delegation. The centre had been developed by the Augustinian Sisters who had moved into the slum in 1984 to begin conscientising the people. Mario, the people’s leader, tells their story slowly. Although one of the poorest of the poor, he had a dignity, a passion, an aliveness about him. The area had been a rubbish tip before their arrival 15 years earlier. No where else to go! In this slum there was no water, no electricity or sewerage facilities for 1700 people. Their main source of income was from garbage. The situation was tense as there were court orders to remove them in place.

Their story told, Mario asked the group, ‘what do you think democracy is?’ After discussion, he went on, ‘Democracy is a big lie. There is no democracy for poor people in this country. Is the democracy where you live like this? Is it democracy if we get evicted? Is there democracy when there are so many political prisoners?’

Eventually Dan’s group had to leave. They had found it an amazingly rich conversation and dialogue. Moving and passionate. It had been one of those experiences which never leaves you the same. They left the place feeling full!

At the US Subic Bay naval base at Alangapo, Fr Shay Cullen runs a children’s home for destitute children. He told us that one day he saw the mayor pull out his revolver and shoot a young boy. Just rubbish on the street! Many women and children were victims of the sailors off the base. One woman had a spike shoved up her by a tourist and many other terrible things happen with no redress. I met the late Fr Niall O’Brien in Bacolod, Negros. He was one of nine to be arrested and falsely accused of murder around that time. Another was Australian Fr Brian Gore. All were freed after nine months on remand and eventually acquitted. In 1986 Pope John Paul II visited Bacolod City and gave an impassioned sermon in which he challenged the power of the ruling elite and urged them to treat their workers more justly. The local bishops and priests were delighted but the sugar plantation barons were disgusted. Violence, threats and blood flowed! At the time, violence amid exploitation in the area was so prevalent that bodies of dead infants were sometimes used for food and in one instance, a desperate man slaughtered his own child for food. (See ‘Priests on Trial’ by Alfred McCoy.)

My wife has just returned from a visit to the Philippines. She came back greatly disheartened at the poverty that affects even her own extended family. It seems that little has changed since the Marcos regime was overthrown. Pax Christi has recently established the Niall O’Brien Peace Centre in Bacolod, Negros. This is a very worthwhile venture and worthy of our support. For more information please contact Pax Christi, 1 St Benedict’s Street, Newton, Auckland.

Leony and John Miller belong to the Christchurch Catholic Worker. John has been a lifelong pacifist and Methodist laymant and at 75 is our oldest Catholic Worker.

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