Monday, February 20, 2006

still smokin’

No – NOT the 1983 Cheech and Chong stoner movie. If you want that, go here.

Two Saturdays ago (11 Feb), N (Australian volunteer living next door to me) and M (French PhD student living next door to me) and I attempted to go to the launch of a livelihood program for the residents of Smokey Mountain. “Attempted” because I ran over some rogue chunk of metal sitting in the middle of one of Manila’s main roads and blew a tyre. After driving another 200 metres during which the occupants of every passing vehicle well-meaningly (but rather unnecessarily) gesticulated towards my very flat tyre (it is not uncommon for vehicles to stop, for any number of reasons, in the middle of roads here, but I had no intention of worsening the Manila traffic), I pulled into a petrol station. Here, I adopted a capable, manly persona and heroically changed the tyre while N and M alternately held wheel nuts for me and swooned. Delicately placing a towel on the ground so that I didn’t dirty my knees IN NO WAY hurt my masculine disposition. Nor did the fact that, had a petrol station employee jumped in and offered to do it for me (as I anticipated, wrongly, that someone might), I would have gladly shelled out a couple of bucks for the chance to sit around and watch.

I digress.

So, we arrived as the launch finished. The program was coordinated by N2, another Oz volunteer, who designed clothing that some of the Smokey residents will make and sell. Smokey Mountain is the name for an enormous rubbish dump in the suburbs of Manila. For decades, people eked out a living here (clichéd term, but appropriate) by scavenging the dump (some good photos here) for anything they might be able to sell for a few pesos. Whole families, including very young kids, worked together. Kids were born, grew up, had their own families, and died (often early). The name of the place comes from the smoke that comes from methane fires caused by rotting rubbish inside the “mountain”. Areas have collapsed in the past, sending dozens of people to a smelly, fiery demise.

A number of organizations have worked towards pulling the Smokey people put of abject poverty. The dump was closed a few years ago and the residents – constituting more than 2500 families and 15-20,000 people – moved into temporary housing development while more permanent housing was built. R, an Oz volunteer in the same intake as me, is an environmental engineer; one of his jobs was to assess the safety of the new housing.

View towards the new Smokey Mountain apartments
over the old dump, which continues to smoke.

When the launch finished, most of us long-noses pulled out our little digicams to get some shots of the often malnourished, sometimes snotty, sometimes scabrous, and often grotty but generally sweet, smiling, laughing, and incredibly camera un-shy kids. N2 organized for one of the residents, Angela, to give us a tour around the compound – which features 21 apartment buildings, each housing 120 apartments – and surrounds.

Smokey residents hanging out in their new apartments

It was a strange place. It had the feel of a self-contained city with its own little economy (including markets, a water purifying station, and a “hairdressing salon” that was nothing more than a guy outside with some scissors, a chair, and a mirror). I could imagine people living their entire lives in there without ever
leaving. As is the case all over the Philippines, many people spent their hours sitting around and chatting. The most visible form of entertainment was basketball; improvised courts dotted the compound and guys (almost always guys) played intense games with half-size balls. When the ball was down one end, a bunch of spectators would rush onto the other end and practice their shots. I inevitably attracted attention due to my height (that actually happens everywhere, every single day, while living here) and, to my horror, as we walked past one court somebody threw me a ball and people started yelling “dunk”. As SM will testify, I DID dunk once (once), on the court at Sunrise Christian Primary School about 14 years ago. He saw me, damn it, and said he would back me up if anyone, based on my abject lack of athleticism, doubted me. Somehow – largely thanks to a small ball and a basket that was clearly lower than it should’ve been I managed (just) to dunk in front of the Smokey lads. I hastily threw the ball back and left as quickly as I could.

Where i dunked...honestly...

Everywhere we went, kids followed us around. If we took photos, they clamored around to try and get a glimpse of themselves on t
he screen. They swung off my arms and playfought among themselves. We walked up onto the old dump and a few of the kids came along, barefoot on several million tons of crap, now overgrown with vegetation including a few veggies that are sold down in the compound. I declined the offer of some raw leaves to nibble on.

Smokey boys on top of the "mountain".

The whole experience was a bit surreal, and I’m not sure we managed to stay on the preferable side of the line between documentation and exploitation. While it’s good to be aware of the sort of poverty that creates communities like Smokey, we didn’t really do anything all that worthwhile. We weren’t doctors or engineers come to see how we could improve peoples’ lives. We were a bunch of rich westerners interested in poverty but happy enough to leave it behind when (and because) we could. (I should point out here that I'm only speaking for myself, not for N and M.) The best thing I think I did was give a bit of novelty entertainment to the kids. Maybe that was enough to justify the visit, but I have my doubts.

N and M read a book with some Smokey kids,
who are distracted by the tall photographer

I don’t mean this as some sort of guilt-ridden confessional. I occasionally get the rich-westerner guilts but I’ve pretty much got over that (as I proved by having a very enjoyable dinner at a fancy-ish Manila restaurant with friends later that evening). I try not to take some pretty basic rights for granted and I appreciate my good fortune. Feeling shitty about it doesn’t do much for anyone. Like most, I could do more, but I’m not doing nothing and I’m not the worst example of perpetuation of the existing world order
(or maybe that’s just brainwashing myself to achieve self-justification, but it seems to be working).

The other thing I grapple with is this: while most people this poor lack certain things we consider fundamental human rights (access to basic education, food, healthcare etc – though, due to the programs to help the Smokey residents, they're starting to get those now ... the 5-year-old boy with the cigarette notwithstanding, though I never actually saw him take a drag), they very often seem no less happy if not happier than the people back home who have a thousand times the material wealth and all the fundamental human rights money can buy. How do you create wealth for people who need it without creating the same materialistic, consumerist malaise that defines so much of the developed world?

Poor but happy kids enjoy novelty giant foreigner

OK – time to sign off. This is too long and I’m starting to sound very much like somebody who’d completely ruin a perfectly fun dinner party.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece.

Interesting, straightforward, and about a part of the world more people should perhaps read about.


2:45 pm  

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