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Drift to cities: rural folk keep Manila slum a lively place

By Clayton JonesStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 1981


Strangely, at least for a Westerner, daybreak in a poor and cramped Manila slum starts with the sound of celebration. The morning opens, as usual, with the crow of a red-and-white rooster being groomed by its owner for the day's cockfight.

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And on a carved bench nearby, two men are already playing "damahan," a Philippines game. A teen-ager turns on a disco radio station while several women, carrying one or two babies on their hips, gather at a neighbor's cardboard-and-wood shanty to watch television.

Dozens of children follow a big red Coca-Cola truck as it rumbles down a dank alley, past a horse cart carrying rice. Almost every 30 feet, some sort of game is being played by somebody, whether it is chess, basketball, bingo, or a child's game called "save yourself." A radio blasts out a John Lennon song . . . "you can say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."m

It is this round-the-clock hustle and bustle of entertainment in one of Asia's worst slums that helps suck the rural poor from the villages into a shantytown life.

To the ex-villagers, the slum's continual explosion of display and celebration also serves to divert them from too much urban social strife and to help fog over their wretched material conditions.

"We didn't have this much fun back in Leyte," says Teodoro Lor, a father of three who left his rural village 16 years ago with his family to "find my fortune."

What he found was odd jobs, continued poverty, and a virtual amphitheater of fun. "In the village, we could always eat, but it was boring," Mr. Lor says. "But here life is both hard and good." He works part time as a fisherman in a bancam outrigger, or a house painter, earning $400 to $700 a year.

Mr. Lor, a gracious host to this reporter for two days, lives in Tondo, the most notorious Manila slum, which contains several square miles of blight. His two-story shack stands on a long jetty of large boulders that extends into Manila Bay. The breakwater is crammed with thousands of squatters on public land.

By the year 2000, Manila's population is expected to swell from 6 million to 16 million people.

In Manila's slum economy, most people can find odd jobs outside the slums. Men try to get jobs at the Manila port, where a stevedore can be paid $3 to $4 a day. Children and women are often scavengers, combing the city's junk piles for pieces of glass, cans, paper, or iron, selling them to Chinese middlemen and making $1.50 to $2 a day. A push-cart vendor can sell about 600 corncobs a day, earning as much as $15 from sunup to sundown. A peanut vendor takes in about $7 a day. Many young people have signed one-year work contracts for high-paying jobs in Middle East oil nations, joining what has become known as the "Riyadh Express."

Tondo's narrow "callejons," or side alleys, serve as both sewer and playground. Neighbors are only an arm's length away and easily heard through thin walls. The Lors' corrugated-iron and scrap-wood home has windows covered with a grill to prevent entry of night intruders. The density of slum dwellers causes strains in the traditional Asian aspiration for smooth relations. More than half the cases brought to special slum courts, for example, involve slander between neighbors.

The informal cockfights found in Filipino villages have become formal, dignified affairs called "cock derbies," transformed into gambling events. On Weekends, drunkenness is commonplace, far more than in the barriosm (rural neighborhoods). One anthropologist notes that on occasion an idle slum dweller has been known to butcher a dog -- supposedly "just for fun." Back in the barrios, dogs are considered friends.