Recycling is one of the main ways to make a living. Photo courtesy of Smokey Tours.
Corona del Mar High School

Manila’s slum area, Happy Land

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According to Global Wealth Report 2015, half of world’s wealth is now in the hands of 1% of population. In Manila, the Philippines’s capital, there is also a deep divide between the rich and the poor. Penniless farmers and other poverty-stricken people live in one of Manila’s poorest areas— the Happy Land slums. In addition to Happy Land, there are many other slum areas all over the country. This past summer, World Love Organization had the opportunity to take a tour and learn more about Happy Land.

Happy Land houses thousands of families that originally lived in Manila’s Smokey Mountain, an enormous trash heap that was closed down by the government in 1995. They live in small, wooden shacks and shanties. Some families are so poor that they can’t even provide clothing, and their children are running around nude. We must wear rain boots because of the trashy, sticky, and muddy ground. Stand vendors in Happy Land recook and sell chewed-up leftovers from the trash of fast-food restaurants, such as chewed-up chicken bones with little meat left on them, called “Pagpag.” They sell them in bags to others. Each bag costs two cents. Because the residents are surrounded by trash, sanitation is a serious issue. A bacteria-infected river runs through this slum area. As a result, families are susceptible to typhoid, tuberculosis, and skin disease and often die before they reach middle age. Walking through the villages, it is pitch black in some alleys and rooms because there is little electricity for lighting. Bathroom facilities are unavailable; people urinate in the river and defecate in a plastic bag. While this sounds horrendous to most of us not used to these types of living conditions, it is perfectly normal to the Happy Land families. Many of them have lived in slums their whole life. Judging from the way they go about their daily living— adults busy scavenging food, picking through trash, and playing gambling games, young boys playing basketball, children laughing and chasing each other—people seem happy living there.

Residents at Happy Land work hard for little money. Many of them make a living by recycling the trash on the ground. The main source of their paltry income of about two U.S. dollars a day is from scavenging the trash for recyclable items such as paper, iron, plastic, and glass, and they resell them to companies. The children also help out with scavenging to increase family income.

The locals, especially the children, are friendly and sociable. Every alleyway and every room that we went through, there were people greeting us excitedly. While I was walking, I wondered how they could smile through these hardships they had to deal with every day. I guess people make adjustment to expectations based on their situation and try to be content with what they have.  But I kept thinking what I can do to help, no matter how little and insignificant.

One solution to lift people out of poverty is to teach them useful skills.

“The problem is not the housing, the problem is these people have no skills and no jobs,” said Manila tourism consultant Carlos Celdran.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have taught them some basic knowledge such as how to avoid sicknesses and raise kids, but not much beyond. If the area is destroyed by a natural disaster, NGOs will assist in rebuilding the community. I wish more charities could provide skill training so they can find jobs. After all, “Give man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

At the end of the tour, I had a deeper appreciation about how lucky I am to live in the United States. That experience opened my eyes to what harsh realities these people face. Every morning when I wake up, I don’t worry about food not being in the pantry or not being able to go to school. I would like to visit the slums again soon and offer to teach the children English and math or helping them with basic science projects.