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

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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

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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.

The slum's drama and conflicts often explode into warfare between gangs, which take on such names as "what happens, happens" or "make happy-happy." The gangs are known to shoot poison darts made from coat hangers. Manila police don't even bother patrolling the area.

The squatters have organized themselves to fight back whenever government bulldozers try to plow down their shacks. Mr. Lor's home has been razed three times since 1966.

More than violence, however, Tondo's problem is poverty.

Mr. Lor's wife cooks and washes on a dirt floor. Their home has a single light bulb. The lavatory is a curtained-off area with hole in the wall leading into the alley.

For water, slumdwellers must pay 10 cents a gallon from hawkers who wheel in oil-drums-full on creaky, wooden carts every morning.

At night, sleeping on thinly-blanketed slates, I found it not uncommon to have three-inch roaches fall from the ceiling onto your face. During the day, insects swarm in the hot sun, living on the sewer water, pigs, dogs, and children that often come together under the shacks, which are raised on stilts to avoid rats and floods.

Near the Lor home one day a mother was asking for money. She needed to bury her dead baby, which she had kept wrapped up for several days, waiting to buy a coffin. On the outskirts of Tondo, Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has set up a special home for malnourished children, similar to one in Calcutta. Three or four Tondo babies with thin limbs and large bellies are brought in each day, victims of unsanitary water and food conditions. Many do not survive.

For the Lor family, slumming it in Manila requires well-developed strategies for coping with poverty. "Kung maikli ang kumot, matutong mamaluktot,"m says Mr. Lor in Tagalog, the lingua franca of the Philippines. Translated: If the blanket is short, learn to crouch.

While the government's subsidized food shops prevent absolute hunger, the people learn how to limit their needs. At the many "sari-sari" convenience stories, they no longer buy bagoongm (shrimp), but now can only afford a new dish , paang manokm (chicken legs).

"Slum dwellers are happy people," says Dr. Felipe Jacona, the dean of Philippine anthropologists, who spent three years living in a Manila slum. "Their level of complaints are lower than other people's," he finds. "Outsiders see the problems and want to help. But you begin to wonder if they want help."

"From a middle-class, Western perspective," Dr. Jacano says, "a slum is an area of blight, poverty, and crime. From within, however, slum dwellers have their own definitions. Your perception of reality may be three meals a day. A slum dweller's is two."

While one-third of the world's urban population is estimated to live in Asia, the region's rate of urbanization measures only 3 to 4 percent a year, compared with a galloping 4 to 7 percent in many African or Latin American countries, where industrialization has drawn as much as half the people to the cities. Asia is still some 70 to 80 percent rural.

Still, Asian slum congestion is high, ranging from 30 percent of Manila's population to nearly 50 percent in Calcutta.

In 1978, a week before her election as mayor of Manila, Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos promised to have electricity installed in Tondo. This change also brought in television -- now about 1 in 10 homes has a black-and-white set.

A poster of Mrs. Marcos, dressed in a white gown with her usual "leg of mutton" sleeves, hangs in Mr. Lor's house. "She is a nice lady. But I can't understand her vision of the Philippines," he says.

In March, the President's wife announced plans to make Tondo a "model community" within three years by upgrading the housing. With World Bank backing of $46 million, her Metro Manila urban renewal program calls for improving 236 slums and 173,000 families.

Mrs. Marcos also ordered a model block of home designs for Tondo slum dwellers to choose from. "This way," she said, "it will be easier for the residents to visualize their needs and wants."

Since the 1950s, the Philippine government has tried to uproot Manila slums. First, special housing was provided outside Manila. But a two-hour commute to their jobs cost the people over half their wages. Many moved back.

A few years ago, the National Housing Authority opened a resettlement site known as Dagat Dagalang, this time closer to the portside jobs. But the 25-year loans offered on the $1,800 properties have attracted only a few squatters, mainly the better-off ones, while most prefer their crumbling but free homes.

To curb urbanization, poor nations know they must upgrade rural areas. Malaysia has gone so far as to create urban centers out of virgin jungle, giving each settler 12 acres of palm plantations and a little city life.

Thailand has attempted to build satellite cities as an alternative for villagers wanting to migrate to Bangkok. Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos has ordered no new factories within 50 kilometers of Metro Manila, hoping to push industrialization into rural areas.

The Philippines also finds it must spread out university campuses. Slums have cropped up around Manila's halls of academia as rural parents seek an education -- and a better life -- for their children. Another idea now being considered: spread new port facilities around Manila Bay, thus relocating job opportunities rather than people.

"Slums are almost the same all over the world," dr. Jacano says. "But in the Philippines, the slums are a transitional place from rural to city life. There is no "culture of poverty' built up generation after generation," he says. on the average, two or three families out of 200 will move out each month as the husband finds a good-paying job, such as a construction worker. Their spots are filled by incoming "provincianco", rural migrants from the provinces.

Jobs or not, the Tondo slum dwellers will not be denied their fun. Women are not seen without gold jewelry, and often wear T-shirts and a Filipino-style colored skirts.

Mr. Lor's daughter Genie runs a local cultural group which monthly performs for the other "eskwaters" (squatters).

In March, she wrote and directed a play called "The World is Not an Apple," a true story of a man killed by police after he was caught stealing money to buy an apple for his son.

After the play, the slum dwellers sang a squatter ballad (in Tagalog): See my monther land Know how poor we are Hunger and poverty we suffer That is what we always suffer Who can we rely on in this life we live? It is us, who are living On Tondo's foreshoreland.m

That's entertainment, slum-style.

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