Katayanagi Hiroshi, SJ
I had the opportunity of staying for two weeks with a family living in the “Smoky Mountain” slums of Manila during my tertianship in the Philippines. My short stay with that family gave me an opportunity to get a close-up glimpse of their suffering and joy. At the same time the challenges I had to face let me experience a few days full of various blessings. I would like to share my experiences with the readers of this Bulletin.
1. Forgotten Slums
I suppose that many have already heard the name “Smoky Mountain.” The site is located north of Manila by the seaside. It refers to a mountain of garbage near a slum area in Tondo. The origin of the name comes from the smoke that originates from a mountain of all kinds of garbage producing chemical reactions. At one time there were about 30 thousand people living there and collecting garbage.
During the late 1980s and early 90s Japanese television and mass media often produced programs shown in Japan. And in 1991 a musical group of Filipino children from the slums, called “Smoky Mountain,” made an appearance in the NHK song recital at year’s end.
But later, in 1995, the Philippine government became concerned about the bad international image it was getting because of the Smoky Mountain and closed it. Once the slum dwellers were relocated in temporary shelters, there was practically no more news about the mountain. Even most Filipino Jesuits in Manila, when asked about the Smoky Mountain, will tell me that those slums were closed in 1995. Actually, I myself also thought that the Philippine government had already helped to solve the poverty in those slums.
But when I arrived in Manila and visited an institution of Mother Teresa’s Sisters, I was surprised to hear a different story. The Smoky Mountain had certainly been closed but the area around it has become a garbage dump where many people make their living by picking up garbage. The temporary shelters built for the slum dwellers by the government 15 years ago have become another big slum area.
When I accompanied the Sisters there, I realized that people continue making their living at the garbage dump site just as they did years ago. Among these are some 30,000 persons dispersed in 3 different locations, Tan Bakan, a former slum area that was not destroyed when the Smoky Mountain was closed, the Aroma slum created at the temporary shelters, and the Happy Land. The official version, that the Smoky Mountain has disappeared, still prevails. Since the existence of the slums is no longer visible, they have been forgotten.
2. Why did I choose to stay in the Slums?
I accompanied the Sisters to the slums three times. They pay home visits to patients and conduct religious education. The Sisters move freely around even in some sectors of the slums where security is so bad that the police refrain from appearing. I followed the Sisters to fulfill my priestly duties to bless houses, comfort the sick with the holy ointment and pray for the deceased.
Every time the visits lasted about five hours. We walked through the temporary shelters crossing the garbage dump under the heat of the sun and amid horrendous stench. I always felt very tired on returning to the convent. Whenever I washed my face and wiped it, the towel became black with grime.
Nevertheless, at the end of my tertianship I chose a homestay in the slums to experience the life of the people there. What prompted me to do so was the review of my daily life that I made during my month-long spiritual retreat.
At the time of the 30-day retreat I confronted myself in the presence of God in my prayers and realized that my religious commitment as a Jesuit priest was by no means adequate. I felt that, in spite of having decided to give everything to God as a religious priest, in fact I held back many things for myself and was living a lukewarm life.
In order to make a full revision of my life, it seemed to me that the best way I could come up with to conquer myself was to stay for a while in a most difficult place, and the Smoky Mountain was just such a place. I was the last guest to experience life there. I spent two weeks in three different slums of the Tan Bakan district: the garbage dump site, called Dump Site, Uligan, the charcoal burner area, and Barge, a port where big flat boats transport the garbage. There are about 5,000 people living in 600 huts.
Since there is a generator for the community, electricity is available for 12 hours, from late evening to 6:30 in the morning. Nevertheless, since there is no water supply, the residents have to go to reservoirs and buy water there. One can often see people carrying 5-gallon (20-kilo) tanks full of water along the road. Each slum area has different characteristics.
1. Dump Site
If one takes the national road number 10 along the Manila waterfront, where the Smoky Mountain was formerly located, there is a big road by some reclaimed land from which a slum area can be seen on the right. Walking ahead along a dirt road, one reaches an area full of poor huts on both sides of the street, some NGO facilities and a church. The garbage dump site is over in that direction.
The residents in the dump site make their living collecting garbage. Although some houses have two floors, most of the buildings are flat, simple temporary shelters made of wood. In the center of the town there is a market, called Taripapa, where ten small shops sell fish and other items.
Filipino people call the residents of Taripapa “scavengers” because of the similarities they have with falcons and hyenas. Their income depends on how much garbage of value they are able to collect, but normally they can earn 100 pesos (200 yen) a day collecting iron and plastic. If they are lucky enough to find copper amid the garbage, they might earn even 600 pesos a day. But that seldom happens.
2. Uligan, charcoal burner site
Walking further ahead along the road with the church and NGO offices, one reaches a zone full of smoke with tens of small charcoal burners by the main plaza. The residential area that extends from the plaza to the seaside is called Uligan after the word Ulin or charcoal in the Tagalog language. The place reeks from the bad smell of the smoke. Anybody entering there will also be surprised at the black faces of the children at play. The strong smell comes from burning painted wood and old rubber that has been discarded from the huts. The children’s faces get black because most of them help in making charcoal.
Half of the residents here work in the production of charcoal, while the rest make their living collecting garbage. The income from selling charcoal depends on the size of the burners, but a big bag of charcoal sells for about 300 pesos. Deducting the cost of the materials, that comes to 100 pesos a day, which is like the garbage collectors’ income.
3. Barge transportation of garbage
The Barge site is located at the end of the main road after leaving the National Road. Every day a few hundred trucks full of garbage transport tons of garbage there from Quezon City.
I entered the place for the first time accompanied by children. Once the trucks unload their garbage, heavy machines load it onto huge flat boats (barges) that move back and forth continually transporting their loads to the dump site offshore. That way they prevent the building of a new Smoky mountain.
In the meantime, while workers load the garbage onto the big boats, scavengers also do their task. Usually about 100 scavengers compete with one another to be the first in collecting garbage. Among these, young scavengers wait for the trucks to slow down at the curve in the main road and climb into the carriers to drop the garbage. It is a fight for survival.Although the Smoky mountain has disappeared, one may say that the situation remains the same. The dump site reeks terribly and since there is no cover from the sunshine, it is very hot during the day. Nevertheless, people continue silently working amid the garbage in order to survive. I often observed children collecting garbage behind their parents.
3. My Stay with the Gaditano Family
I stayed with a family living in the center of the Dumpsite district. “Tulay ng Kabataan” (TNK), an NGO deeply involved in providing assistance to children in the slums, introduced me to the Gaditano family.
1. The Gaditano Family
The parents, Jesu and Imelda, came to Manila from Samar 20 years ago looking for ways to survive. In Samar they ran a small lumber business but due to the wild deforestation that took place it became impossible for them to support their family on a few pesos a day.
They couldn’t find work in Manila, either, and finally ended up collecting garbage. They tried going back to Samar to raise their children, but that did not work. As a result, they came back to Manila. Imelda was hired at the Canossians’ seminary five years ago to do the laundry of the seminarians and stopped going to the dump site. Her husband is now taking care of the children at home.
They have four children. The eldest son, 18-year-old Edward, is quite handsome and has a special talent for drawing. He wants to study arts at a university but, unable to get a scholarship, is now working as a volunteer with the TNK NGO. The eldest girl, 17- year-old Idalyn, wants to take the university entrance examination after graduating from high school but, because she is not included in the family register documents, cannot take the exam. In this slum there are, seemingly, many children that have not been registered by their parents. The two youngest boys, Critian (15 years old) and Cretian (14) are still in primary school. They entered primary school late because the family is very poor. They are at an age of critical growth and often looked very hungry.
2. Living Conditions
The living conditions of this family are naturally totally different from that of Jesuit houses. I will mention here some of the things that especially puzzled me.
- The toilet
There was no toilet in the house. In the marketplace nearby there was a public toilet where I went any time I needed it. The toilet was supposed to have running water but did not work and I had to take a bucket of water from the house. The public toilet was not clean, so I refrained from drinking water at night to avoid using the toilet.
Since it is common not to have running water in the suburbs of Manila, it was very inconvenient, but I was not surprised at not being able to use water in the slums. Every morning Jesu had to depend on water carried in by the tank trucks. The quantity of water was so limited that it was very difficult to wash the family’s clothes. After watching me for a while, Jesu came to help me with my laundry. He bought fresh water for us to drink. I felt lucky enough not to have trouble with my stomach.
The community used a power generator and we had electricity from 6:30 p.m. till 6:00 a.m. every day. The generator was not capable of running 24 hours a day. We had electricity for 6 hours during the day only on Saturdays. People might think it is sufficient to have electricity at night, but it is inconvenient not to be able to use electricity during the day. The small huts were built next to each other in such a way that it was terribly sultry inside. Electric fans could not be used even at siesta time.
The hygienic situation
The district has neither water supply nor drainage. All the waste goes into a ditch and flows out to the sea. There is no doubt that the ditch has worsened the hygienic situation of the whole slum area. It is a hotbed of mosquito larva and produces a terrible smell from the large amount of mosquitoes. The smell also stinks up the inside of the huts.
Since the dump site is near the huts where people live, the whole area is full of flies. What annoyed me during meals was seeing cockroaches flying around and big rats running around near my feet. But after all, we can get accustomed to everything and at the end I didn’t care much about the matter.
Jesu did wonderful work preparing the meals and I had nothing to complain about. The customary meals in the slums consist of a substantial amount of boiled rice together with a bit of fish or meat. The normal food was dry salted fish. It was all right for me, because I was only staying there for a few days, but for people living there such food is certainly bad for their health.
Poor families in the Philippines are accustomed to sleeping on the wooden floor or on beds without a mattress. The children of the Gaditano family slept on the floor. I was given a second-floor bed and had to sleep on a hard board because there was nothing laid on it. My back and legs were so painful that I could not sleep at first, but I eventually got used to it during the second week of my stay. The noise in the neighborhood till late at night made it difficult to sleep.
4. Activities of the TNK NGO
During my stay with the Gaditano family I often went to the children’s institution run by TNK to say Mass and to play with the children there.
The Center runs a pre-elementary school for little children and conducts supplementary alternative lessons for children of primary and high school age, as well as for those who, due to various reasons, were not able to attend school. The staff is composed of 12 people, including volunteers like Edward, who run the education programs. In the Philippines graduation from pre-elementary school is a condition for acceptance into primary school. Thus, this Center fulfills an important function. They provide meals at noon and merendas in the afternoon to promote the healthy growth of undernourished children. About 60 children used the Center’s facilities every day.
In classrooms on the second floor pre-elementary school children and other children from primary and high school were always being given supplementary lessons. Since there are not enough classrooms in the Philippines, many schools have a double set-up so some students use the classrooms in the mornings and others in the afternoons. As a result, many children remain home half a day, but since the surroundings are of no help for them to study, the education provided at the Center is very valuable. Every day 50 children visit the Center.
The Center also conducts another program called alternative courses. It is a system which gives qualifications for entering the university. Even those without graduation from primary or high school can get such qualification provided they pass an exam. In the classroom teenagers were eagerly studying primary school textbooks to prepare themselves to take the exams needed for the qualifications.
5. Personal Reflections on my Experiences in the Slums
1. Sympathy with people
I felt really sad on leaving the Smoky Mountain. I wanted to live for months and even years with the slum dwellers. Although it was difficult to adapt to life there, I often told myself that if the people living there were able to overcome all difficulties, why could I not do the same? This short visit to the slums made me realize that I had been living in a completely different world, but in the slums I felt as if that was my own world. My experience in the slums taught me that sympathy is more important than pity, and that the only way to learn sympathy is to live together with people.
2. Jesus Lives in the Poor
I felt clearly in my daily prayers that Jesus lives with each one of the slum dwellers. Jesus is also suffering with all those painfully living in poor conditions. His loving care is alive in small undernourished children carried on the thin backs of their mothers or held warmly in their hands. This is the reason why people can overcome their suffering no matter how painful it is.
There is no doubt that Jesus, the Son of God, chose poverty because he wanted to be with the poor to bear their sufferings. It could not be otherwise. Jesus could not leave children and adults alone in the midst of their poverty. The living poverty of Jesus is nothing but an expression of his deep concern for the destitute. To live poverty is a mission I have received as a priest.
3. Priestly Role
I enjoyed saying daily Mass for the residents in the middle of the slum area. It was a great blessing difficult to express in words. I raised the Sacred Host in front of the slum dwellers who, because of their busy lives, could not realize that Jesus was in their midst and proclaimed his presence there and his care for them. Could there be a greater joy? I experienced again that this was what I wanted to do and that this was the mission I desired to carry out during my whole life.
4. Things I Learned from the Children
The smiling children were a great help for me in overcoming the hardships in the slums. The children ran around joyfully with dirty faces black with charcoal and mud and bringing light everywhere.
They seemed to be harboring in the bottom of their hearts living springs of joy. I felt that their dynamism originated from the strength they were able to draw from within themselves. As a result, no matter how difficult their situation may be, they find joy and can survive undaunted.
As the children grow older, the smiles on their faces diminish as a consequence of anxiety concerning their future. As they approach adulthood, their smiles become scarce as they lament their past. But if one looks into the depth of their hearts, most probably the same source of their joy can be found there. That is a reminder of the expression of Jesus. “The living water of life.” I desire to learn from children how to look for the spring that has been covered over by lamenting anxieties, in order to be able to live by the power of the water of life flowing from there.
5. Dynamic Strength for Everybody
I strongly feel called to transmit these realities of the Philippines to the Japanese. In Japan over 30 thousand people commit suicide every year, while in the Smoky Mountain of Manila the same amount of people are trying to survive by collecting garbage. I feel that if anyone who has decided to commit suicide will come to the dump site of Manila and meet the smiling children living there, their hearts will certainly change. This is because the children’s smiling faces have the power to question us about the basics of life, of happiness, and of the meaning of life.
But this need not be limited to people contemplating suicide. The smiles of such children possess the power of shaking the hearts of everybody. Most probably many people could be strengthened to live from those joyfully smiling faces.