Purchase Edition

Edition 18

Contents
Essay

In the eye of the beholder

I WOULD NOT call Pasay a slum. Calling or not calling Pasay City a slum would assume the ability to make a clear distinction between an overcrowded neighbourhood and a crowded one, between unacceptable housing and acceptable housing. I cannot make that distinction but I would not call Pasay a slum: it is not on top of Garbage Mountain. I would describe Pasay as a poor and bustling municipality of Manila, one with problems.

Of course, distinctions are made. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and development agencies use indicators, some Western journalists and tourists use their observations to call Manila a 'gigantic slum of a city'. It is a shame, somehow, that a value system – whether it is mathematical, cultural or personal – can be used to approach a place like metropolitan Manila.

The French social theorist Jean Baudrillard who died this year, once wrote: 'What a pity that, in order to say things, you have to go via meaning! What a pity that, in order to know, you have to go via "objective" knowledge! What a pity that, for something to be an event, it has to go through "information"! What a pity that, for there to be exchange, you have to go through value!'

Indeed it is a shame.

Since I arrived in Manila, and started working in Pasay, I have tried to free myself from the 'objective knowledge' and values I have acquired. With them, I am living in a 'gigantic slum of a city' and working to improve the poverty indicators in the municipality of Pasay and other parts of the Philippines. Without them, a 'poetic transfer of situation' occurs and I am simply here, in what seems to me, a busy and poor neighbourhood. Without them, I don't spend my energy pointlessly trying to make sense of poverty. Poverty just is.

The truth is that I like going to Pasay. I have to be on the qui vive all the time when in the streets. There is no footpath. I have to look out for the jeepneys – the small buses made out of jeeps left behind by the Americans after World War II and used as public transport. There are thousands of them, and they smell and release black exhaust smoke; their drivers don't seem to care for pedestrians or for their passengers. At first Pasay was an assault on my senses, and when I went home in the evening I said to myself, 'That was close but you made it.' Even though nothing had happened.

This has now passed. I have adjusted. From the beginning, there was a sense of balance in this neighbourhood, an order of things. Everything was as it should be – almost. People got on with their business. One gets used to everything. It is easier to get used to being faced with poverty than the absence of it. Our culture of zero poverty is a nil sum system. If you exclude poverty and death, when confronted with them you experience a shock, an excess of reality. An excess of a specific reality.

 

POVERTY IN MANILLA is fiction to those who haven't visited a large, overcrowded and dysfunctional city – it is unreal. Poverty as I knew it when I was growing up, the poverty I found in books, newspapers and especially on television, was an event. But that is not the reality of poverty. Poverty was an image, now it is reality.

At night, I see rats come out into the streets. Big rats. Rats bigger than cats. Cats have no tails. I wonder if rats bite off the tails of cats. I wonder if I live in a place where rats eat cats. Cats are very skinny, dogs too. Female dogs have long, dangling teats. They look permanently exhausted – the heat, perhaps. Kittens are very, very small. Miniatures. The other day a kitten no bigger than a Filipino eggplant was crossing Libertad Avenue. The traffic had stopped. I saw the kitten stand in front of a jeepney. The tyre was wider than the kitten. The kitten had stopped, perhaps because it was in the shade. Had the jeepney started, the kitten would of course have been flattened. What are the chances of a kitten crossing Libertad Avenue safely when it is so small and skinny and the jeepneys are so big and heavy? What are the chances of a kitten making it to the next day when at night giant rats take over the streets?

The biggest rat I ever saw was flat, laid out in a dark back street. It had been run over, I suppose. Other rats were going through rubbish a few metres away from the flattened corpse. It was late, past midnight; children were playing in the streets.

Children, young children, are sometimes naked in the street. Others wear shorts and t-shirts. Often they are bare-footed. Or they wear thongs. I don't think people in Manila are short of clothing.

Children are left to do what they want, where they want. Children play on the busy streets or by the highway; with dirty water, with rubbish, at night, with others or alone. Their feet and hands are very dirty yet their hair seems soft and silky.

Grilled fish for sale at breakfast. With rice. Fish from the river of plastic bags and plastic bottles. Where mosquitoes swarm. The smell of grilled fish overpowers all other smells at the street corner. In the evening, fish balls being deep fried at the street corner. The smell of wood burning on an improvised barbecue. Resourcefulness.

Everything seems as it should be. Then you start to notice things. You start seeing that some of the children who play with dirty water are sick. One child is ten but the height and weight of a five-yearold; another's skin has erupted. You hear parents telling their children that school is a waste of time, that they should work, find plastic bags in the street and sell them at the market at night.

I said to my mother, 'I have to help; if someone has just fallen in front of you, you have to help them getting up, you don't walk by.' I would say that poverty was like that, that I could not walk by. Do I think I can really help people get up or do I feel obliged to acknowledge that they are on the ground? I am on occasion convinced one can only look at poverty sympathetically and not do much about it.

 

POVERTY, IT SEEMS to me, cannot be eradictaed.  As long as wealth exists. There is a similar common misunderstanding of the good and evil dichotomy. The same way that good is not the end of evil, wealth is not the end of poverty. Poverty and wealth grow together.

The humanitarian worker in the street sees and breathes poverty and suffering every day. He knows that poverty is problematic because it makes people suffer. It makes people make people suffer. The worker in the street doesn't believe he is 'working for a world free of poverty'. He believes poverty will end when our civilisation ends.

I am sometimes inhabited by the Malthusian certainty that if I eat something, someone will go without eating. That if I earn money, someone won't. No matter how I live, my living is making someone poorer. I don't go to prostitutes, I don't steal from others, I don't take drugs, but my listening to music – I am certain of it – makes someone suffer more.

A friend of mine always says, 'I attract calamities, I'm so unlucky this happened to me, this always happens to me.' She doesn't know that we are calamities for others. My buying a chicken leg deprives someone of a day's food. Who knows, maybe a week's worth?

Another time I called my mother and said, 'Do you remember the analogy of people falling? They are falling because you, me and all the wealthy people are tripping them. We make them fall by existing.' My mother says, 'But we are not wealthy.' I respond, 'Not only are you wealthy, you are also rich. You are not rich in France, you may not pay the impôt sur la fortune, nevertheless you are rich. Because you are rich, someone – in fact, many people – are poor.'

My mother fears I have joined a sect.

At a seminar on the right to adequate food, I heard a representative from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization say, 'Reducing hunger and poverty is an economic imperative as hunger hinders economic progress.' At question time, I stood up and asked, 'Isn't it working the other way around? Don't we want economic progress to reduce poverty, and hunger? Isn't the aim of an economy human development? Aren't you confusing the means and the end? The means: economy – the end: less poverty, no hunger?'

The representative looked away and asked for another question.

 

AMBASSADOR MANALO HAD just come back from ten days in Europe where she consulted with the European Union Minister Councils, hauts fonctionnaires and industrialists. 'I was interrogated by twenty-seven foreign ministers of Europe and fifteen from Asia, you cannot be more daunting,' she said to us in her opening remarks.

Rosario Manalo was the Philippine Ambassador to the European Union and UNESCO. She is now chairing the High Level Task Force on the drafting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Charter. She said, 'We have adopted guidelines on the nature of the Charter. It must be inspiring, brief but comprehensive, clear, unequivocal, lasting, flexible, people-oriented and coherent.'

We all knew Ambassador Manalo meant what she said. She thinks like us – representatives of the regional civil society. She has been a virulent advocate of human rights, especially women's rights. We all like her: she is funny, straightforward and sharp. She doesn't cultivate what French people call la langue de bois. She was here to listen to how we wanted the Charter to read. And report back to the task force.

Ambassador Manalo is one of us who is also one of them. She is part of the elite that makes ASEAN an elitist project, but she is telling us the Charter can change that, which is why she is here today. She says the Charter is going to be people-oriented if people are consulted, but we must be aware that others don't care much about consulting people. It is true that Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia tend not to like civil society consultation. Or civil society full stop.

At question time, I stood up and asked, 'The Charter wants to be visionary. It is clear that, according to current drafts and the Eminent Persons Group recommendations, it would, in its principles and objectives, respond to current and perhaps future challenges. But I can't see an overarching vision linking, binding those objectives, one that would truly make it visionary. Why do we want peace, economic prosperity, etc? It seems to me that human development is a good answer. That human development could be this overarching vision of the Charter.'

'Write me a sentence,' ordered Ambassador Manalo. 'Write me a sentence about human development. It is, it should be, a human development Charter. Write a sentence and send it to me.'

In the afternoon, I gave Ambassador Manalo the following note: 'We, the peoples of ASEAN, through our head of states, commit to human development through the promotion of democracy, the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, including international humanitarian law, as an indispensable condition for stability and peace, and respect for our environment.'

The final draft of the Charter is to be submitted at the thirteenth ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November. I wonder if the notion of human development will have inspired the Charter's drafters.

 

AT THE SAME time Jean Baurdillard died, the headlines of international news featured Jun Ducat. Jun-Jun to his friends had set up and was running a childcare centre in Tondo, the most densely populated district of Manila, described as 'a slum' by journalists. I went home after work, turned on the BBC news and here was Manila. Live. On CNN, the same scene from a slightly different angle. Candles were lit, a bus was being shown, a crowd of people waiting. Nothing was happening but the channels kept showing the bus. Analysts were already speculating about the effect of the scene on the mid-term elections in May and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration; subtitles gave the facts.

Jun Ducat had taken thirty-two children and two teachers hostage in the bus that he had chartered for a day trip. He had guns; he had a grenade. He demanded that the children in his care be able to continue their education up to college. During the siege, Ducat explained from his mobile phone to radio journalists that he was acting for the benefit of the children and would never hurt them. He also said, 'While generations of politicians change, we continue to suffer in poverty. These politicians promise education, health and housing, but unless we stop corruption ... they will just feast on the budget.'

The response was extraordinary. The social welfare secretary guaranteed that the children would get a good education; a technology university offered them scholarships once they graduated from high school. The parents of the children did not press charges. There was little condemnation of his act. Not much was said. People in the Philippines didn't seem to know whether amoral acts for moral causes should be condemned or not.

Jun Ducat's act was corrupt and illogical. Making people suffer, frightening those you want to help. The perversity of it. The mania of it. In the end, in a place where corruption is accepted, the efficacy of it.

As I followed the event on television I was reminded of how, for me, poverty was once an event in the news, an image of itself. This time the news projected another image of the humanitarian worker. The humanitarian worker was himself an event. It was not the humanitarian worker taken hostage by an unscrupulous group. It was the humanitarian worker as the hostage-taker, the humanitarian worker taken hostage by indestructible poverty.

 

PASAY IS MADE up of long and narrow streets; designed like a Spanish pueblo, it is an old part of Manila. The headquarters of Community and Family Services International (CFSI) where I worked are on Park Avenue in Pasay. 'Headquarters' makes it sound like a large organisation. It is not. CFSI is an international, but small, non-governmental organisation. It is working in Mindanao, where ongoing violence has displaced many families, and has worked in Leyte assisting communities affected by the landslide of February 2006.

In Pasay CFSI runs a community centre. Children who have dropped out of school spend time here with tutors until they are ready to go back to school. Their mothers are also supported by CFSI through small business initiatives, like soap-making. Pasay is undeniably a troubled area. Prostitution, and especially prostitution of children, is blatant, as is drug trading. On Valentine's Day, the 'drive-in hotel' near the office experienced its biggest day, with a very long queue snaking around the block and the mayor's house. Prostitution is part of normal life.

The children of Pasay are not different from the children of Tondo. When I saw footage of children waving at the windows of the bus, I thought of the children who come to CFSI's centre. The children from Tondo cross the Pasig River on makeshift barges, from which, at the bottom of the old walls, they beg. Tourists taking pictures pretend not to notice them. The children from Pasay sell plastic bags at the market at night. Skipping through the aisles, they address everyone by showing the plastic bags they find during the day. Some people buy one or two, most don't. The children of Pasay can't read but they count very well.

All the children I know from Park Avenue have family problems. Family has let them down and they have to look after themselves and a younger sibling or a grandmother. Little Sherrylin, who is six, sold plastic bags to provide for her sick grandmother; her mother and father are both in jail.

Education gets in the way of making a living. Going to school doesn't feed you or your family. If you go to school, you go to school hungry. One-third of the children in the Philippines who go to school, go to school hungry. No lunch box, no breakfast of champions for six million pupils. One-third of pupils belong to families who live below the 'poverty line'. And not all children are pupils.

One day, unexpected cooking smells rose to my office. I could hear children's screams and laughter and fast voices. I went downstairs to see that a banquet was being served in the lobby by mothers from the neighbourood, with spaghetti, juicy red sausages, lemonade and iced tea. Children had plates on their laps and tomato sauce all over their faces. I stayed there – I didn't want to be anywhere else. I stayed there, looking at the children eating their juicy red sausages from both ends.


From Griffith Review Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review