Friday, October 12, 2007
Immersion into Poverty
WHY WE DID IT
Part of this Jesuit tertianship program is to enter into the world of the poor -- to get to know the poor by living among the poor. Christ himself did as much in his short time on earth. His chosen friends and apostles came from among the poor of his time and his community, and it was these that in his Beatitudes he called "blessed."
Our purpose in visiting the Navotas community was to give us an immersion experience into the life of simple Filipino families and to expose us to the economically impoverished situations in which they live. To read about the poor is one thing, but to actually live with the poor and to spend a significant amount of time with the poor -- to be immersed in their world – is to come to know the poor better than any reading about the poor could ever offer. No doubt, I faced many challenges in this experience, discomforts and privations not least among them. But, I found that living with the poor is to strip life down to its barest essentials and to see what really matters in life. No, the poor of Navotas are not saints, but they did show me in more ways than I can count, what matter most in life.
PAG-AALAY NG PUSO FOUNDATION
The homestays in Navotas were coordinated by members of the Pag-aalay ng Puso (“Gift of the Heart”) Foundation, an NGO begun in 1988 whose mission it is to help build humane conditions in poorest sectors of Navotas. The Pag-aalay ng Puso Foundation (PPF) has long coordinated immersion homestays in Navotas for the Jesuit Tertianship Program, as well as for Jesuit scholastics and lay visitors from Korea and Japan. In addition to immersion programs, PPF offers programs in the areas of values education, tuition assistance, health promotion & education, economic sustenance, and a tribal outreach program to members of tribes in the Sierra Madres and in the Visayas.
NAVOTAS & NAVOTANS – A BRIEF DESCRIPTION
Navotas is one of the most socio-economically depressed areas in metropolitan Manila. Over 250,000 people live in this region, situated in the northwest quadrant of Manila, right on Manila Bay. Back in the 1970s, hundreds of families from Samar and Leyte and the Bicols fled the wars of insurgency. They found an abandoned garbage site lying between Manila Bay and a cemetery, and here they settled as squatters. As you might imagine, crime, drunkenness, and drug addiction ran rampant, while hygiene and treatment for malnutrition was non-existent. With the help of PPF, things in Navotas are beginning to improve, but very, very slowly.
Most streets are paved, yet gaping holes, rotting garbage, and almost constant human traffic make getting around very difficult in this crowded town. The stench of open sewers, plus the exhaust from motorcycles, jeepneys, and cars make the air heavy and unpleasant to breathe. Typhoon rains that fell for three days prior to our arrival flooded the streets of Navotas, such that we had to wade through 2.5 feet of water to get to our first host families. It takes days for such flood waters to recede. Hundreds of street vendors sell everything from live chickens and fresh-caught fish to cooked meats, rice, and noodles. The volume of noise from these vendors, the constant flow of traffic, plus the shouting and laughter of hundreds of children playing in the streets and the constant chatter of passers-by add up to an urban din not unlike the noise of major metropolitan cities back in the U.S.
Peoples’ homes vary widely in construction and style – some are cinderblock constructions, while most are combinations of cement block and steel, patched together with scraps of rusted steel and discarded pieces of plastic and cardboard. For those who live literally on Manila Bay, houses are constructed on long bamboo stilts, and a system of rickety bamboo bridges and walkways guide residents to their houses, which are perched some 20-30 feet above the water. These are the poorest of the poor of Navotas, who live no better than their counterparts who have found sanctuary in abandoned niches in the Navotas cemetery. Elsewhere in Navotas, dwellings are packed tightly together, with alleyways between houses no more than 4 feet wide. Large families (5-10 children) are very common in Navotas, with all family members sleeping on the floor of a space no larger than 10’ X 10’. Needless to say, personal privacy is never an option in Navotas!
Running water is rare in the town, so water is collected in large plastic drums outside the homes, to be used for the families’ washing, cooking, and laundering. Filtered water for drinking is purchased daily from water vendors. Roaches, mice, and rats are commons sights in the daily home lives of Navotans.
As poor as the people of Navotas may be, I was struck by the genuine care that each has for the other in this community. While ragged children and elderly people can often be seen pawing at car windows in stopped traffic throughout metro Manila, beggars and street children are conspicuously absent in Navotas. Navotans literally feed each other, sharing what little food they can afford to buy and prepare. Whether it’s their own children or a perfect stranger, all are fed. No one begs.
I was also struck by the simple faith of Navotans. Once, while celebrating mass with our host families, the simple requests of the Lord’s Prayer rang true to me in light of their uncomplicated lives: “Holy God, make your Kingdom come, let your will be done. Feed us, forgive us, protect us. Amen.” I was also struck by the lack of complaining I heard among Navotans. Plenty of gossip (as any community is wont to have!), but no grumbling, no longing to get up and out of Navotas. It’s as if Navotans are resigned to their circumstances, seeing their poverty not as their “plight,” but more as their “situation.”
As a result, I witnessed Navotans living in the present, uninhibited by worries about the future, but living in the day, for the day. Believe me, I am not trying to romanticize poverty. In truth, I find myself more than a bit conflicted, even frustrated, by some of the very things that moved me in my time in Navotas. More on this in my next installment!