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Into the Tondo

October 15, 2007

I was in the Tondo community September 19-20, part of a longer urban poverty immersion in Manila.

It has taken me a while to write this. I still wonder if it’s my place to write what I do- if I tell a story from this island, it’s not mine. The story, the land, the people in it. It seems like lots of Westerns have spent the last 450 years taking what they want from the Philippines, from the Global South in general. And so if listening carefully is important for me here, speaking carefully, choosing language carefully is just as important. I think perhaps the greatest flaw in many non-profits, in many well-meaning people who want to work “on” issues or “on” countries starts with the language they choose. If we talk about places and people like they’re projects then we grow to feel we can take their images, stories and ideas without their permission. Because of course, we’ll be using this information in their best interest. There are lots of problems with this reappropriation, but the most glaring is that we assume we know what is in the best interest of someone else just because they are poorer, less “educated,” different.

It’s also taken me a while to write this because I haven’t wanted to think about it. It would be grossly unfair to say that what I see most of the time here is tragedy- quite the opposite. The way of life, the people I’ve met, the foods I eat are for the most part amazing and much of my time here is spent laughing with coworkers and learning all I can from the people around me. But it’s human nature to remember the negative, to dwell on the horrifying. Maybe because at heart our nature is morbid, but I think it’s because deep down we know that it’s the darkest moments that define us the most. It’s the time of suffering, the hours of struggle that make our victories meaningful. It’s not until we’ve faced true tragedy that we can live real joy. Good Friday to Easter.

But some people’s Good Fridays last longer than others. The Villa Delorosa to Tondo is hidden and strange. Powers-that-be have done an excellent job hiding this poverty, blotting this blemish on the face of Manila. But a stench cannot be blotted. So I smelled the Tondo before I saw it. It permeated the inside of the taxi that my guide had hired to bring us there- I could feel it getting into my hair. I glanced at the clock on my cellphone, a habit I’d gotten into throughout the immersion.

Tondo is a warehouse community that sits inside the main garbage dump of metro Manila. The city built these warehouses for this very purpose, to hide the public housing where no one of monetary value will ever travel. And public housing is a very generous term. Warehouse is literal. The structures are just large empty two story rectangular buildings among the heaps of trash. There’s no running water (that I could see). Thousands of people live in these buildings. They’ve separated the space into “apartments” with tin and plywood, some have managed to run in electricity, but it only works from 6pm to sunrise.

And garbage is not just the aroma, but the income. The work in this community consists of sifting through the trash to find recyclable materials like plastic, glass, and aluminum. The materials are wrapped in bundles and sent to factories to reuse. Women and children are the main labor force, but men who haven’t been able to find other work as a tricycle or taxi driver do the sifting as well. And that’s a lot of them- under and unemployment rates are through the roof.

The walk into urban poor communities has consistently been a bizarre experience. When I first round the corner or go through the gate I feel a bit like a celebrity because everyone stares and points and waves and the children all want to know my name. White people don’t usually tour these parts of the Philippines. But I feel more like a dog with its tail between its legs because I know the economic systems that allow people like me to be so wealthy have a downside. And this is it; widespread, gruesome, and cruel poverty.

The entrance into Tondo was different and not. It’s like the high-rise of shanty communities, a mini-city of naked children and haggard adults sifting through mountains of garbage. I just wanted to run- I looked over my shoulder as they cab that had driven my guide and I here was pulling away. I wanted to call after it. I wanted to go anywhere, anywhere else. A small child ran over to me. “Hey, Joe!” he shouted, holding out his hand. “Joe, joe,” he said over and over.

“Wala,” I replied, my voice empty. I shook my head. No money here, no pesos here for you. I had made the mistake of giving out money before, against the advice of my guide. The children had swarmed me and she eventually had to yell at that them and push them away.

“You won’t have enough for all of them,” she said.

Hollowness gripped me when the boy finally gave up and went to beg elsewhere. Someone has enough for all of them- someone has these children’s share tucked away in a bank or invested in a company. Someone is driving it around or wearing it on his wrist. These children have been robbed before they even leave the womb.

I stayed in the community night. I will decline to write about my evening experience because I do not feel I can do justice to the generosity of my hosts and I would only be self-centered and focused on the hardships I faced for less than 24 hours. And those are not my burdens to claim. I was just a guest looking in, counting down minutes until I could find a bathroom and breathe clean air. My efforts were so minimal, my time so short. Maybe if I lived there for years, or raised a child there, maybe if leaving was not a luxury I was afforded- then I would have something to say about Tondo.

A danger I face in sharing the positive side of Filipino life is that I will subconsciously romanticize their hardships. Certainly the family bonds here are powerful, life is much slower, there is time made to talk, and the people are hospitable. But it is in my best interest, not theirs to say life is “quaint” here and this is “just the way they do things.” While cultural difference play a huge part, no one enjoys living in absolute poverty. Maybe people make the best of it, but for me to write off what I see as just an interesting outlook on life is to divorce any responsibility for the poverty. It’s true, Filipinos laugh a lot, but it’s not because life is great. Just because people love their families doesn’t mean they love living in a shanty with them. Just because Filipinos are kind to foreigners doesn’t mean they don’t understand that the West has robbed them.

And so I’ll share this. As we left the next morning my guide was stopped by a woman who was concerned about her neighbor’s baby. We went to see the child in question. I cannot describe truly what I saw, at first I thought his head was much too big for his body and then I looked closer and saw his ribs and joints clearly exposed his skin. His mother was cleaning his diaper. His waste looked like that of a bird’s. I tried not to stare at the boy and his mother while my guide talked to the other woman in hurried Tagalog. I was able to decipher what they were saying through their sporadic use of English- this was a case of a simple infection gone awry and compounded with severe dehydration. The mother’s eyes were dull and distant, a sign of childhood malnourishment- a sign of hunger-caused mental retardation. She explained she had just kept giving the baby water in a bottle to try to rehydrate him. She hadn’t known he’d needed to go to the hospital. Her other two children were standing by. Things had gotten tight and she’d been giving her food to them so they wouldn’t go hungry. She didn’t know this would make her breast milk worthless to the baby.

The guide, a former nurse, gave the other woman the name of an admittance counselor at a local Catholic hospital. “They’ll see the baby for free,” she said, and quieter, “God knows, they would have before too.” She paused and glanced at the mother. “And she needs get a prenatal exam.” I swallowed. Of course the mother was pregnant again. This is a Catholic country- birth control is condemned and is widely unavailable, especially to the poor.

As we walked out of the warehouse, I leaned in a little to speak to my guide, but couldn’t figure out how to start the sentence. I didn’t have to- she shook her head as she put her arm around my waist. “This is what it looks like. It’s not the mother’s fault- no money, no education,” she said. And then she said, “It will be over soon.”

Maybe for one child. For his mother, this will go on and on. For the people it will never end until the world is turned on its head.

We took care to hop over the streams of filth on our way back to the main road, on our way out of the Tondo. I took care to look over my shoulder and not at my watch, but by the next evening I was sleeping comfortably in my own room, belly full of good food, running water just a few feet away. The hum of the air-conditioning drown out the noise of the people in the street.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Faith permalink
    October 22, 2007 3:25 pm

    Your article is so moving and words cannot even describe the feelings I have from reading it.
    I love you,

  2. Jessica C. permalink
    October 22, 2007 7:12 pm

    Your mother is very thoughtful in having shared your blogs with us. I am deeply touched with each message I read. Three weeks ago at church, my pastor said (and I paraphrase):

    When we wish to turn our backs on God saying “how can you allow such cruelty in this world?” we need to realize that He has allowed us a moment to feel what he feels; to be like him. Having heart-ache as strong as this is but a mere glimpse at how we all break His heart every moment of every day. Each time we forget about Him, each one of us that misuses His name or His word. Each human that turns their back or exposes a blind eye to His lessons. When we write Him out of our life…He can show us the pain and suffering we cause.

    I’ve re-read all your blogs after hearing this message and I saw them differently.
    I know this will bring you no comfort to the horrors you have seen, for we cannot mask or edit what our eyes have seen. My heart hurts knowing that I will lavish my child today celebrating her birth, while somewhere in Tondo and other such impoverished areas children are breathing their last. I will pray today, tomorrow and forver for the innocent. Yet another human that cares for others of the same species. It will matter to God, it will be heard by Him. In Tondo, they will not know. They cannot hear me, and they will not feel it. Today…it will make no difference.

  3. Katie permalink
    November 15, 2007 10:03 pm

    Hey Lindsey!
    I hope everything is going good for you on the other side of the world. Your blogs are really eye-opening and I’m so glad I’m able to read them! This spring for spring break I’m going to Guatemala with my fellowship group to work with Habitat for Humanity. I’m super excited about it. …hopefully all those years doing work trips will come in handy…. Anyways, Kelly said you might like the link to the blog I’m using to write about the preparation of the trip and then I’ll be posting stuff on there once I get back. It’s not as awesome as yours is, but oh well. It’s at if you want to take a look!

    –Katie Gascoine

  4. Emily permalink
    November 16, 2007 9:04 pm

    Here by way of Liz. I don’t know how to respond to such an incredible post.

    Emily R

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