The Smokey Mountain Slum is Manila’s most infamous, partly because of its history and partly because it is known as the world’s most impoverished slum, although I am not sure how it is possible to measure different degrees of poverty at this level, when no one has anything.
Smokey Mountain started off life as a small fishing village, where the villagers lived off the daily catch. Life was hard, but was nothing compared to what was to come. Decades ago, Manila without consulting anyone, or informing the villagers, decided that this little fishing village was the perfect place for the city dump. One morning trash collection vehicles arrived unannounced at the village and emptied the contents of their trucks onto the streets. The next morning more trucks came, and still more every day. Slowly the fishing village disappeared under a mountain of trash. The villagers lost their homes, their boats and their livelihoods. The city didn’t care.
The villagers had little choice but to live off the dump, picking out things that could be sold or recycled. But the dump got larger and larger until it became a mountain, oozing smoke and noxious fumes. It became known as Smokey Mountain
Then twenty years ago a wealthy industrialist took pity on these people and donated a large piece of industrial land to help rehabilitate the villagers. The land had twenty warehouses on it and the industrialist thought they could be used as halfway houses while real homes were found for these people. So the villagers were moved to these warehouses where they were temporarily “stored” . They could view their old home in the distance.
Twenty years later these twenty warehouses and the shantytown that grew up around it “store” 120,000 people and there are still no viable plans to move them. The people are reluctant to move despite their living conditions and their lack of income, because they pay no rent. They cannot envisage how they would be able to survive if they had to pay rent.
On Pope Francis’s incredibly popular visit to Manila earlier this year he addressed the country and suggested that they should “stop breeding like rabbits”. Of course he made no suggestions as to how to accomplish this when the Catholic Church does not allow the use of contraceptives, although the Philippine government has recently agreed to the free distribution of contraceptives to the poor. Nowhere is this sort of help needed more than in the Smokey Mountain Slum where so many of the population seem to be children.
At the beginning of the tour, Tessie tells us not to give money or sweets or any gifts to the people. She said if you start with one, then everyone wants something and it can become quite dangerous. Instead we are invited to make a donation to the schools that work so hard to bring an education to the children
Even before we enter the slum the first thing we notice is the smell. It is so strong that it makes our eyes water. The next thing we notice is the squalor and the filth. The “streets” (narrow passageways between the warehouses) are just rivers of foul smelling mud and waste. The locals have tried to make them navigable by covering them with building rubble. It works in places but elsewhere the noxious mud bubbles up through the rubble. Now we know why the tour company suggested rubber shoes or boots, which of course none of us has.
The warehouses are on two levels. The lower level has tiny doorways opening directly from the streets of squalor into tiny bare and filthy rooms filled with people.
The upper level is reached by rickety steps which lead up to a narrow balcony that runs along the length of the warehouse. We walk along the balcony squeezing past people coming the other way, looking into a warren of tiny rooms where the families live. A passageway leads inside the warehouse where the heat is much worse and the noise is deafening. Hundreds more of these little rooms fill the centre of the warehouse with no outside light and no escape from the noise. TV’s and radios are on everywhere and teenagers, just like teenagers worldwide, are playing their music at full volume. It is a dizzying cacophony of earsplitting sound
Each little room is connected to an electricity sub meter. Electricity in Manila is expensive and costs 16 pesos a kilowatt (about 30 cents in American money)at the main meter, but the powers that be (excuse the pun) are determined to make money off even these poor slum residents and the little sub meters charge the inhabitants 32 pesos a kilowatt. There is no running water and no toilets. There are public toilets and showers but again the inhabitants are charged to use them. It costs 5 pesos (10 cents) to urinate and 10 pesos to defecate. I am not sure who polices this, or what the charge is if you do both at the same time. A shower is also 10 pesos. The showers are communal and while the men feel safe taking a shower the women do not. But with their large families very few can afford to use these facilities. Hence the squalid streets and the smell.
As we walk down the street we see people bathing. They just stand in the street and pour buckets of dirty water over themselves, scrubbing themselves with tiny bars of soap. The dirty water just adds to the sludge in the streets. There are little children standing in tin tubs being given a shower
Again when they are finished the tub just gets emptied on the street
These shocking conditions have terrible consequences and many of the inhabitants are sick, the most common complaint being breathing problems. The children suffer from skin rashes and we see many tiny ones with boils, blisters and bright red rashes. This little boy has nasty sores on his arm
The only source of income for these people is recycling. They collect mounds of bags full of trash and slowly go through them looking for anything that can be recycled
We see them sitting cross legged on the filthy ground, with a bag of trash in front of them, slowly separating it all by hand. They spend 10 to 12 hours a day doing this and earn about 100 pesos (two dollars)
The most treasured trash is food scraps and the trash merchants charge so called “Pagpag “ sellers for any trash bags they collect from the fast food outlets. “Pagpag” means the dust you shake off your clothing or carpet, but in Smokey Mountain’s poverty- stricken world, it means chicken pulled from the trash. Any chicken scraps from these trash bags are collected and “washed”. Then they are fried again, divided up and put in small plastic bags and sold . One bag sells for 20 pesos, which is cheap, but they are mostly bones. It may be the only meat these families get to eat.
But these slums are not just about the filth and the squalor and the shocking stories. They are about the people who live there. And they are real people, just like you and me, with real stories who, through no fault of their own, have been born into the worst possible circumstances. And this is why I want to come to the slums. I like to meet them, talk to them, laugh with them, cry with them and try and understand what their lives are like.
And Smokey Mountain is full of people, and to them we are the oddities. Six large white people in a sea of little brown bodies. They all want a glimpse of us just as we want a glimpse of them. But the assault on all the senses has proved too much for the huge Australians. They seem to be petrified and stay so close to Tessie that we can no longer see her. The daughter spends the entire time holding her hands to her nose and trying not to breathe. None of them can look at the people and just stare nervously at the ground hanging on to Tessie like a life line.
But the young couple and Gordon and I want to meet these people and they love that we want to make contact. They smile and talk and beckon us over to show us what they are doing . One woman is very excited to show me the the delicacy she has found today:
She has already stuck some of the chicken heads on little wooden sticks and deep fried them. She asks me if I would like to try one and seems disappointed when I shake my head. I could say I was being nice and didn’t want to deprive her of her precious meat. But that wasn’t the case. I knew she would be delighted to share with me, but there was no way on earth that I could eat one of those things.
Sensing that I might not like them (I try so hard not to screw my face up in horror) , she takes me over to her friend who has bags of Pagpag for sale and asks me if I would like one of those instead. I feel terrible turning down such generous offers of hospitality, but turn them down I do.
But it is the children who will always remain with me. It is mainly the boys who have the courage to come up to us. They are tiny, mischevious little guys with huge grins, desperate to have a little fun. Some of them are quite dirty
While others are filthy
The boldest little boy is the first to run up to me. He holds up a filthy little hand for me to high five. The Australians recoil at the mere proximity of him, and I must say part of me really doesn’t want to touch him, but of course I do, and as soon as I high five him, others run up wanting to do the same and before I know it I am slapping dozens of grubby little hands. The little boys love it. Laughing and giggling they fight for attention. Then the smallest of them holds up his fists like a boxer and asks if I want to fight him. I pretend to be afraid, and they laugh even louder. Now I have an army of little boxers wanting to take me down.
As we continue through the slums the children follow. After a while I feel a tiny hand slip inside mine. I pretend not to notice and we carry on walking hand in hand. Then a second little hand slips into my other hand. This one gives me a tug and I look down at a tiny little face nervously looking up at me. He tugs again and I bend down and he shyly asks
“What’s your name”
I tell him and discover his name is something I find very hard to pronounce. He giggles as I try to get it right.
As I walk along with two children in tow, they get bolder and start holding on to my arm with both hands and swinging on them. Soon I am swinging them round and up in the air, and just like children everywhere they beg me not to stop. Others want to join in the fun and one wraps himself round my leg and hangs on as I walk. I am swamped with dozens of grubby little hands all wanting to grab my arms and be swung round. Tessie sensing that it is getting out of control, tells the children that we have to leave. They yell and shout and wave goodbye. I look down at my hands and arms and they are black with dirt .
The first thing I do when I get back to the ship is to throw out my shoes, put all my clothes in the washing machine and jump in the shower. I get rid of all the dirt but the memories will stay with me forever.