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Welcome to Happyland

Jan 17, 2017

When thinking about the Philippines all that comes to mind is probably beaches, coconuts, palm trees, whale sharks and a few terrible headliners about the devastating impact of earthquakes and typhoons. On top of that, when telling friends and family you’re heading there, nearly all of them straightaway strongly recommended you to avoid the capital of Manila, Asia’s stinky armpit. For that reason, and for the love of Asian sub-urban chaos and city slums, I couldn’t resist staying longer than usual in order to see if I could proof the opposite. The findings were remarkable. Let me tell you why in 7 photos.

Far away from the Makati skyline, in the north-west part of town, you’ll find Tondo. It’s known for being the poorest and most underdeveloped area of the country, houses most of Manila’s slums and has always been the gritty end of town. Being one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world with more than 73.000 people per square km, it’s a human pressure cooker, compared to London housing 5.177 inhabitants per square km.

I’ve been travelling to slums in many corners of the world, but the sounds, sights and smells of the Manila slums has been so disturbing that I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing. An area totally unfit for human habitation where garbage is piling up everywhere, crossed by muddy pathways filled with trash and open sewers. Little shacks, mostly housing over 15-20 people, no running water, no toilets, no schools and gangs that control the streets.

The Tondo area is especially known for the scavenging of recyclable goods and making food out of leftovers from garbage bins. They scavenge for a living, collecting garbage and gathering, recooking and reselling discarded food, called Pagpag. Picture that for a minute.. These people pick through food refuse, shake off dirt and maggots, cook it and sell it again. And if that isn’t enough, they all have to pay outrageous amounts of rent for rotted housing, impure water and unreliable electricity. If hell exists, I guess this is what it looks like.

Although Tondo’s streets are paved with rubbish, there is smiles on every corner and genuine hospitality everywhere you go. And however no photo could capture the sheer magnitude of suffering, the incredible strength and resiliency of the people who live here would be even harder to capture. If you see through all the horror, there is tons of energy, love and hope, more than in many other countries in the world. I haven’t felt so welcomed in a very long time.

Everywhere you go you see young kids of all ages carrying huge bags of trash around the slums or take apart abandoned refrigerators and parts of metal construct in order to resell the bits and pieces. Even though conditions are horrifying, the smiles on their faces as soon as I popped out the camera is priceless and the amount of excitement and energy is from another planet. For a single moment there’s no heat, hunger or hard work.

Sports is a crucial element in slum culture, especially the 3 national sports Basketball, Billiard and Boxing. All 3 are in the veins of every single Filipino and being played all day, every day, everywhere you go. The latter one gained immense popularity driven by national hero Manny Pacquiao. Nowadays considered to be one of the greatest boxers of all time and ranked as the 2nd highest paid athlete in the world as of 2015. However, he dropped out of high school due to extreme poverty and left home at the age of 14 because his mother was not making enough money to support her family. Yet, among all financial gain, he remained a man of his people and national crime rates drop when he fights. His popularity is beyond immense since his rise to the summit offered all Filipino’s, even the poorest of them all, the belief that anyone could break out and make the impossible appear possible. His recent announcement to quit boxing and move more and more into politics makes entire populations belief real change is about to come. 

One thing I’ve learned during visiting several slums around the world, is that societies are judged by the way they treat their poorest and most vulnerable. The Philippines is definitely not a poor country, but a poorly managed one instead. There are enough financial resources available to assure a decent existence for even the poorest of all, but simply recommending its people to stay away from the big cities isn’t the right approach. Meanwhile urbanization continues and more and more people from the countryside move to Manila but there is so much room for improvement when it comes to receiving all those people in area’s like Tondo by helping them to find the right way to make a living.

After spending quite some time in the Tondo slums, the most horrifying story has been the one about the notorious – difficult to estimate – slum populations. Often landslides, fires or floods kill hundreds of scavengers while no one knows the exact figures. Every now and then whole compounds go up in flames, burning for hours straight while no one knows if the fire was accidental or not, since ‘slum clearings’ are still common. Ultimately, when there’s no birth certificates, there’s no deaths.

During the weeks that followed, while hopping from one bounty beach to another, this disturbing thought is what kept me awake at night. I still can’t believe this really happens, in the capital city after all. However, hearing that one of the most popular slum districts is called ‘Happyland’, a name derived from the Visayan word ‘Hapilan’ meaning ‘smelly garbage’, clearly indicates that their positive mindset is what keeps them alive. Another re-confirmation that some people are so poor, all they have is money.

Location: Philippines
Author: Pie Aerts