...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Pilipinas kong mahal

Pilipinas kong minumutyá,
pugad ng luhá ko’t dalita,
aking adhika:
makita kang sakdál laya!

(Philippines, which I treasure,
Nest of my tears and poverty;
My aspiration:
to see you absolutely free!)

- the last verse of "Bayan ko" (My Country)

Even when I still lived in the Philippines, I of course already had the awareness that extreme poverty existed side by side with the everyday life that I knew of. But it was only after living a few years in Sweden -- seeing my country and my upbringing from a distance -- that I truly appreciated how the middle class life my family and my friends' families enjoyed was a true gifted privilege, in a ctiy where many hundred thousands of people only know and would only ever know a slum life.

I understand now that what I have seen were mere glimpses of that other, darker and desperate side of Metro Manila life. I remember grade school, being picked up by Mom and sitting in the passenger seat of our air conditioned car. Begging children about my age knocked at the windows, hoping that drivers could give them a few coins while the cars were stuck in a red light. I remember college, commuting in a jeepney on the way home from university. The beggar children would go through the open rear door of the jeepney caught in traffic. They would symbolically "polish" the passengers' shoes with a really dirty rag (to the annoyance of some passengers), and stretch out their hands as we passengers looked away and muttered an apology. But even as a university student, it never really occurred to me to ask why all these kids weren't in school, and why their families remained poor. The beggars and the homeless were just a part of the cityscape, much like unpleasant diesel fumes were part of the city air. And poverty, I suppose I thought, always have and always will be there, as inevitable as the city humidity that sticks to your skin but you could never really do anything about. As a journalist for the university paper, I also once went to Payatas, the big mountain of trash at the outskirts of Quezon city, where all the city's trash get sorted by people. It's an enormous place, wet, mushy, stinking and steaming. I can't even begin to imagine how it looks like in the rainy season. At that time, a trash slide caused the loss of lives but people continued to live there to eke a living. It's not a secret that many people make a living out of the trash in Payatas. But neither does it seem to raise any questions anymore. Questions like "how could these peoples' lives look differently"?

There have always been attempts by politicians to hide the slum life from view: by relocating the squatters to the outskirts of the city where there are no jobs; by erecting colorfully painted walls along the slum area so the makeshift houses would be out of sight for cars; and by building false facades along squatter communities, attempting to make them look like narrow Dutch houses from a distance! But attempts at "beautifying" the city only just amounts to putting plaster at a really gangrenous boil. The billion-peso question is, why can't we create a society that systematically goes to the root of this inequality; to raise the standard of living for all instead of just targeting the symptoms of extreme poverty? In grade school I thought I could make a change if I gave each sad-looking kid beggar a 500-peso bill. I don't believe that any more but I honestly think many Filipinos still do think that. Of course, that would solve some of the acute problems of poor individuals and undoubtedly also help them in the short term. But it never really gets to the root, does it? Despite our well-meant charity, poverty persists.

When Filipinos think about urban poor as a problem, I believe they most think about the risk of crime, drug use, the ugliness and the garbage. The rest of us build higher walls around our houses, trap ourselves in our cars, and avoid looking like we have money when we happen to be in certain places in the city at night. All that is just part of the reality of middle class life in the city. Some even feel proud of making it to semi-notorious places in Metro Manila without incident. But where did we even get to this point, that we have such urban poor that we have to "protect ourselves from"? We got there at one point. How do we solve the problem?

The new thing in theme of plaster-on-a-gangrenous-boil is the president's notorious "war", that has according to own police statistics, already killed thousands of urban poor in just one year. Even if you're not Filipino, it is unlikely that you have missed this in the news. The police are implicated and no one has been charged. In this war, the wretched poor are (as they always really have been) to blame for the city's demise and lack of security. And the solution has been (as it really always have been) to eradicate the symptoms, while the roots remain untouched.

Why am I writing about this in the first place?

Yesterday, I watched a documentary (Korrespondenterna) where Swedish television was in the Philippines. They followed a photojournalist covering the killings. It is a disturbing piece. They didn't exaggerate or anything. In fact, many things in the documentary resonated with what I already knew to be true in the Philippines: the class differences, abuse of power, desperation. But the piece also opened my eyes to the wretchedness, apathy and a face of ugliness in my dear, dear home country. I wished I never saw the piece, even if I don't regret seeing it.

Maybe part of makes the piece so disturbing is that it is so graphic. At first I was angry. I thought, besides family reasons, why should I even want to visit a society so dysfunctional? I should boycott the Philippines to show my disgust. Then I felt scared. What kind of city am I really going to come to when I go there? When I thought back on some of the scenes of the documentary last night, I was too scared I couldn't sleep well. As I lay there in bed, I thought that the TV team crossed the line of gruesomeness for me. The gruesomeness was something I really could have done without. It makes me sick. But sadly, it is also the truth.

Oh my poor home country! What are we going to do about you?

Here -- for anyone interested -- is the link to the documentary in SVT Play. It can be seen until May 2018: https://www.svtplay.se/video/15862571/korrespondenterna/korrespondenterna-sasong-19-knarkkriget?start=auto&tab=2017


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