A Gloomy Walk to the Smokey Mountain

I hailed from a squatter’s area somewhere in Sampaloc, Manila where I grew up obsessed with the desire to leave the place. I loathed the squalor and the noise and the malodorous air. I hated the ground that is always damp even in the middle of summer. It’s a place familiar with girls getting pregnant early and young men taking odd jobs to make ends meet. It’s a place where people eat gossip for breakfast, sharing each other’s stories or somebody else’s. It’s a place where people are seemingly resigned to accept the same fate the majority has taken.

When Anna and Tom of Adventure in You called out to their friends to support their project called, Feed A Child Campaign in the old Smokey Mountain, I was among those who stepped forward to join the tour. Because I grew up in an area similar to where we were going, I thought I was prepared for it. But boy, I was so wrong.

That day, the sky was overcast; the rain loomed in the distance. I was clad in white shirt, dark green pants, and my brown suede boots. I had a feeling I wore the wrong shoes, “I should have worn that rain boots,” I thought to myself. I met my friend and fellow volunteer, Krizh at the LRT Buendia station where we took the train to Blumentritt. In the Blumentritt station, we were greeted by a view of huge and colorful umbrellas that lined up each side of the street. Under these umbrellas are the vendors, selling anything you could think of on the cheap; fruits, street food, clothes, etc. It’s a spectacle quite familiar, it was nothing special to me when I was growing up. There was something different on that day though; I was unusually mesmerized. I raised my camera phone and took this photo.

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I met the other volunteers and the organizers, Anna and Tom at Jollibee. I first met the two during the meetup of a British blogger. I started following their travel adventures through their blog Adventure in You. Anna is also a graphic designer, in fact, I commissioned her to make the new logo of Coffeehan.

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Anna and Tom have just established Wandergive, a program born out of Tom’s desire to help small communities during their travels. Wandergive’s first project is the Feed A Child Campaign, a result of Tom and Anna’s visit in the old Smokey Mountain. The goal is to raise $600 to feed 20 children in support of the Combat Malnutrition Program of Young Focus. [Read: The Wandergive Project: Making a Change]

Young Focus

We went to Young Focus’ building that serves as their main office and doubles as a learning center. We met its founders, a married couple named, Paul and Ann Wijgerden. YF was established in 1992 as a fundraising agency that receives sponsorships from The Netherlands. From 1992 to 1994, the organization started helping the people who are living in the old garbage dump, the Smokey Mountain.

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In 2008, Paul and Ann returned to the Philippines to conduct the following programs to help improve the lives of the residents:

  1. School Sponsorship – Children from elementary school are being sponsored and coached all the way to college.
  2. Love2Learn & Young Unlimited – Special education programs for children as well as older teenagers and young adults who have dropped out of school or who have never been to school.
  3. Combat Malnutrition, Child Care & Family Care – These programs consist of a daycare for malnourished babies, a preschool, a feeding program and provides training for parents on nutrition, hygiene, healthy, and family planning.
  4. Fair Jewelry A fair trade type of program in which students make jewelry items and earn a bit of income while they are studying.
Silver and I wearing Fair Jewelry accessories
Silver and I wearing Fair Jewelry accessories

Note: To protect the identity of the children, some photos are blurred.

Smokey Mountain

In 1996, the Smokey Mountain was demolished and the people were relocated either outside Manila or in some temporary housing near the dumpsite. In 2005, a temporary housing was built and distributed to the old residents of Smokey Mountain under a subsidy; 25% of which was provided by the government, the remaining 75% was shouldered by the residents. However, most people are so poor they couldn’t pay the bills. Before long, the temporary housing suffered from neglect leading to its eventual deterioration.

After the orientation, the tour commenced. It had started to drizzle, further dousing the already mud-spattered ground. The beginning of the tour started fine. I saw poverty but nothing I haven’t seen before. We passed by a river, Paul was explaining things to us along the way. Across the river, Paul pointed to a building, which he said is one of the temporary housings that were built by the government.

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As we go further, the scenery quickly changed to something more depressing. The passageways have become narrower, the ground has become uneven and soiled. We reached this place by the bridge and I was surprised to see that there are people literally living under it. Then I spotted three children who were as curious to us as we were to them. I was aghast when I saw the smallest of them not wearing anything, not even a pair of slippers, and we were standing on the mucky ground. I had a bad feeling it was just the prelude of a graver situation.

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We continued our walk until we reached YF’s daycare center. We caught the morning shift students eating their lunch and as soon as they saw us, they smiled and started waving enthusiastically. The children are used to visitors because from time to time, volunteers come to the daycare to see their situation.

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Paul explained that the place is managed by volunteers, some of which are the parents of these children and some are the scholars of YF itself. Aside from teaching the kids, YF is also feeding these children on a day-to-day basis. To show their gratitude, the mothers of these kids volunteer to the center, helping in the food preparation, feeding or serving food to the children, and taking care of the babies.

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I had an opportunity to bond a little with one of the kids, Zaira. She is quite bubbly and talkative. She reminds me a bit of childstar Raiza Mae Dizon. I helped her with her food, which she couldn’t seem to finish. By the fifth spoon, she said that she was already full. I promised that it’s the last one, thankfully she didn’t decline.

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The rain started pouring hard so we lingered in the center until it died to a drizzle. We then continued our journey. Somewhere along the way we were walking on the side of the road, the vehicles speeding by on the wet highway. We stopped to greet some young boys, whose age may be around 10 to 15. They run after garbage trucks to scavenge for scraps and materials that they could sell. A young boy who seems no more than 11 years old caught my attention. He was standing on his lonesome, seemingly contented to just observe from afar while silently puffing a cigarette. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a kid smoke, but a sight of it never makes it any less disturbing for me.

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The sense of foreboding I had when we were under the bridge was all confirmed when we finally reached the temporary housing. The ground on this part was the worst that I’ve ever seen. It is literally covered in garbage, soaked in dark mud. This is when I received the confirmation that I wore the wrong shoes when my feet started sinking in the muck. Walking became a struggle that I wasn’t sure where I should rest my foot to avoid wetting the insides of my shoes. I looked up and saw the black wires hanging in complete disarray. According to Paul, those are “jumper” or illegal connection, the only way people could use power.

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We reached a building and went all the way to the second floor. Only a small portion of the roof is still intact, the big gape is a welcome to either the fierce heat of the sun or the wrath of rain.

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The place has a collection of shacks, hastily built with scraps of wood, plastic sheets, cardboard boxes, and other materials mixed together with a disregard for arrangement. The concrete fall has gathered small pools of rain and the naked kids turned it into their swimming pool, sliding over it, running around, completely unaware of the disease they might incur. When I saw that a few feet away from the puddle were dogs’ droppings, I almost fainted from disbelief. When I was a kid, my siblings and I were forbidden to play under the rain, but these children were doing it in complete abandon, their parents just looking on rather bleakly.

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I realized then that no, I haven’t seen this much suffering before. No matter how depressing the state of my community is, it cannot be compared with the situation in the Smokey Mountain. This is beyond poverty, this is agony personified. I stood in one corner and fought the tears from falling. I was more than shocked; I was depressed.

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As I am writing this, my heart is literally hurting as I relived the memory of this experience. And do you know what’s more terrible than this scene, it’s the fact that it is not the worst of it. Because it was raining, we had to cut our trip short. It means we didn’t get to see the people who do “pagpag” or those who scavenge food from the garbage so they have something to eat. We also didn’t to see the condition of the people who are literally living on top of the garbage with only some plastic sheets to serve as their roof.

I left the place a different person. I’ve always known there are people living in conditions worse than what I experienced. But knowing and seeing are two different things. Suddenly, I was looking at Paul and Ann with awe and respect. I wanted to embrace them for dedicating their lives in helping our people. These are foreigners yet they have done more for the Smokey Mountain residents than the rest of us. I feel the same way for Anna and Tom and though the experience has been quite emotional for me, I do not regret responding to their call for support.

Ultimately, what I hope to achieve in writing this story is to get the word out there, reach out to those who may be unaware of the situation of the people in the old Smokey Mountain, and encourage everyone to help. If you too want to help, please do not hesitate to contact Young Focus through the following:

Young Focus for Education & Development Inc.
284 Dayao St., Balut, Tondo
1013 Manila, Philippines
Telephone no.: (632) 358-4822
Email: info@youngfocus.org
Website: www.youngfocus.org
Webshop: www.fair-jewelry.org
Bank: BPI Account no. 4651-003658 BIC/SWIFT code: BOPIPHMM


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  1. Marge, I will definitely try to help out with this. Your story and the photos touched me so deep. And I am sure people there were happier than the majority of Westerners. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This was totally eye opening! Thank you so much for sharing this story. It really touched me. I just don’t understand how we live in a world where there is such an unequal distribution of resources. Where one person has too much, another has nothing. At the same time this challenged me to look at myself and ask what I’m doing to change it. So thank you for that! I hope to start having some volunteer experiences in 2016! Until then, I’ll share your story!

  3. I come from Sampaloc, Manila, too but now live in the USA. Best wishes for your volunteer work. You are blessed with a kind heart.

  4. I can’t explain exactly the feeling while we are in that community. The surrounding is the most depressing view I saw in my life yet, the smell of the air is different and the naked children are normal scene. I know we haven’t seen the worst. I hope our small act can make a difference. We will be back there soon.

  5. Hi Marge, this is an amazing thing you are all doing. I remember many many years ago when I was in high school, I first got a glimpse of the smokey mountain when it was still an active dumpsite, it was to participate in a church outreach. If I remember correctly, I didn’t manage to get out of the vehicle when it started pouring. I remember having difficulty breathing and what I saw prompted me to write a term paper about how architecture can solve the housing problem in the Philippines. In college as an architecture student, we went to Payatas to study whether it would be feasible to construct housing there and sadly, because of gas emissions, it is hazardous to both health and safety of residents. I heard that Payatas has changed drastically and is now a controlled waste disposal facility with a thriving livelihood. I wish the local government do the same for Smokey Mountain. Well done on raising awareness and will be checking out projects of Young Focus.

    1. That’s a nice story Arni, thanks for sharing. I went to Payatas when I was still in college, well actually, near Payatas is more like it, because we went to the house of a classmate. I do remember the smell you’re referring to.

      I hope so too that they would do the same with the Smokey Mountain. Until now the situation there is heartbreaking.

  6. this breaks my heart but it’s never a hopeless life because there are people who care. in the midst of adversity, what matters most are brilliant hearts to make things brighter. life is never fair but people can be.

  7. What a heart-wrenching story Marge. I agree, no matter how many times we see these kind of places in documentaries or tv, nothing will ever prepare you for it once you see it for yourself. In these times, we realize how privileged we are in spite of whatever hardships we are currently facing. Kudos to you guys especially Young Focus and Adventure in You for this advocacy. I hope to be able to help too in one way or another. And all we can do too is to pray and hope that these kids will have the motivation to get out of there, no matter how long or hard it may take.

    1. This day made me realize how blessed I am. It was a sort of a wake-up call really because days prior to this, I was feeling depressed over my financial woes. Then I went there and saw that my situation is nothing compared with what these people are going through everyday.

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