Yolanda / Haiyan was still an anonymous tropical formation somewhere in the Pacific. The newspapers were still talking about the huge corruption scandal masterminded by a business woman together with some politicians. The preparation of All Saints Day was a nice interruption for the media because even the biggest corruption scandals get tiresome after some months. Business as usual.
But not for Ate F. and Kuya R. who live in a community under a bridge in Manila. Their two youngest children were confined to the hospital. Serious malnutrition was the diagnosis. I went to see them after a few days. Ate F. was in the corridor, the two girls lay across an adult bed. Above their heads, a small piece of scrap paper with their names and respective weights:4.7 and 7.4 kilos – obviously not enough for 6 month and 1.5 year old girls. Maybe for the staff of the hospital it was business as usual too, soon there would be a space vacant in one of the wards.
Ate F. told me what the doctors had said. An exam for this, an exam for that, medicines for this, medicines for that. She did not ask me to help her financially. She knows that’s not what ATD Fourth World does. Yet I had taken some money with me. Until some months ago, poor families could go to their local Congressman to ask for medical assistance, but since the huge corruption scandal came to daylight, the funds for this kind of assistance are blocked, considered too ripe for corruption.
How ironic and painful. Many politicians use people in poverty by setting up projects for them in order to get elected. But when some of these projects turn out to be a cover for pocketing money, the first to suffer are, again, people living in poverty. The public hospital where I was visiting Ate F was itself a prestige project of the former mayor of Manila. I remember the speech he delivered (it was election time) on the International Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty, on October 17, 2012 in Rizal Park. He was boasting about his “From Womb to Tomb” program. There is no reason to be poor anymore! He didn’t have a lot of time because he had to personally (it was election time) deliver wheelchairs to disabled residents of Manila. “Shame on him” I told someone “these wheelchairs are a donation from the government of Taiwan.” “It’s OK” she replied. “He could have kept them for his own family.”
Even before I could give some money to Ate F. I was trapped in the “foreigner = money” – stereotype. A nurse called Ate F. and I heard her saying she should show me the prescriptions. I could see the shame on the face of Ate F. Embarrassing for both of us.
I felt it was not wise to return to the hospital. Moreover, some neighbours told me that Ate F. was refused free medication, being told she could ask money from that “Amerikano”. The neighbours expressed many times their concern about the family of Ate F. and Kuya R. They know how hard their lives are: 6 children in 6 years, a room not bigger than 2 by 2 meters, the father earns the only money in the family by selling on the highway, the mother tries to earn some extra money by accepting some laundry jobs. “She’s desperate, she’s turning crazy, sometimes she’s shouting at them and even worse”. That’s the fate of people living in extreme poverty: to be blamed for what you don’t want to do, not being yourself anymore.
The neighbours don’t mean to accuse anyone in the family. They know better than anyone the hardships of life under a bridge. I’m impressed to see how strong their solidarity is. One mother will guard the four other children left alone in the room, another cooks for them, another one takes them with her own children when it’s time to take a bath, another one accompanies the eldest to school, and still another one will accompany Ate F. roaming the streets of Manila looking for some money.
Little by little we came to understand that little Jenny would probably not make it. I don’t know who is to blame, and maybe it’s wise to blame anyone. Her older sister was gaining weight but it seemed to be too late for Jenny.
She died on All Saints Day at 8 the morning. “Maybe we have to give back to the Lord what belongs to the Lord,” a close neighbour told me the evening before she died. “No, you have to fight until the end, never give up” said another one. After the already challenging weeks, Jenny’s family now had to deal with another challenge: to raise the money for the funeral. It’s a race against the clock, the longer it takes, the more expensive it is.
From the moment the bad news arrived in the community under the bridge until the funeral, I witnessed the solidarity and support of this community like never before. The wake was along the highway and whenever there was some traffic, the donation box was passed to the drivers stuck in the traffic. The most striking sign of solidarity for me was to see the children begging on the highway with a copy little Jenny’s death certificate. Many of them are used to begging or wiping cars to earn some money; how meaningful to see them contributing for someone else. It’s even more impressive when you know that they are taking the risk of being caught by social services or the police.
After 9 days it was time to go to the cemetery. There was still some money missing and that’s when we added our contribution. Funerals in the Philippines have something joyful no matter how sad one can feel. In the jeepney on the highway, I felt like I was taking part in an outing with excited children. I remembered a meeting with someone from DSWD for the parents of the children who regularly beg on the highway. “It’s not only forbidden, but you know, our President he doesn’t like it when he or his guests from other countries pass here and see all of you along the highway”. I wished the President was with me in the jeepney. I wished he had known little Jenny. I wished he had seen the wounded hands of her mother from doing the laundry every day. I wished he could carry her father’s heavy loaded styrofoam box to sell iced water with him in the heat and dust of the highway…
The funeral is a rather messy mix of tears, laughter and excitement. It’s rather spectacular to see the smallest babies attending the funeral being passed over the small white coffin. An old tradition so that the small children will not be visited by the dead person. At first, Kuya R. controlled himself, but when the white box was lowered into the hole, he broke down in tears, falling to his knees, throwing some lumps of soil on the coffin. Next to him J. the eldest observed precisely what was going on. The next day, upon seeing me, he will tell me “my sister is not here anymore” pointing at the place where the wake was before. While doing the weekly reading exercises with him, he will draw my attention to a funeral cortege passing by on the highway. “Woow, look Kuya, they have 5 jeepneys, they have all white balloons and white shirts.” How different was the funeral of his little sister!
Jenny will not come back. I don’t think her life has been meaningless. I have been a privileged witness of solidarity and humanity in one of the poorest communities I’ve ever seen. Thank you Jenny!