Hope when there is no hope


By Denis Murphy, Urban Poor Associates, Philippines

Along the North Harbor road the noise is deafening and the air acrid with the smell of ulingan smoke, but inside Happy Land, which lay half on the shore and half on stilts over the waters of Manila Bay, it is quiet. Blackened house posts stand like tombstones in the dark water and the cement houses on shore are now blackened shells for the most part. Still life goes on more or less normally. People rebuild a sari-sari store and houses. Children hurry past in the narrow alleys. The little ones take hold of your pants leg to help them avoid muddy puddles. Not everyone, however, is active. A man of 60 or so sleeps on the path. We asked a group of young men what was wrong with him and they said, “He’s just tired, tired out. That’s his house there.” Nearby the ruins of his barong-barong had been swept into two black piles.

Felisa Obon, 61, sits by the path while her husband Bonifacio tries to get a registration document from a barangay official. “I’m all right,” she says, “I’m just so tired. I’ll be all right.” She and her husband who drives a tricycle and makes P100 a day have lived in Happyland since 1985. She has a sweet sad smile. “Is God angry with Happyland?” we asked.

She thinks and tells us, “No, I don’t think so. We always say our prayers. I don’t think it has anything at all to do with religion.”

It is the second such fire in four years, she tells us. To rebuild their houses takes whatever little money people have saved for their old age and the education of children. “Are you angry with the government?” we asked her.

“No, they gave us rice.” It’s not clear how much aid was given: some say they received rice once, some twice. Some received nothing. “We’ll be all right,” Felisa says again. Pictures of politicians come with every kilo of rice that is handed out.

We met the area leaders, Ka Freddie, a barangay kagawad, Mang Tony, president of one of the people’s organizations and Ricardo, a younger man, the president of another people’s group. I asked them if the government will proclaim the land for them. The Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council has promised them they will proclaim the land if the people will get the proper clearances from other agencies. Proclamation means public land is set aside for the residences of the poor families living on the land. This is what Urban Poor Associates is doing in Happyland. We organize the people into a strong democratic association that can convince government to do what is right. The people have been trying to do this for many months. A Proclamation means the land is for the residents for good. They won’t have to worry anymore about evictions.

“Will they proclaim it?” we ask. The three leaders think the government will do it. Sceptics may doubt that will ever happen. The Philippine Ports Authority for example, has opposed such proclamations around the North Harbor. The leaders are hopeful and will most likely remain hopeful even if they know of that agency’s opposition.

“We want to stay here,” everyone tells us. If the government tells them to get out, however, they will do what their leaders say, they say. It’s no good warning the people that leaders can be bought off and threatened, and mislead them. It would only embarrass them and us.

Not every poor area is as pliant as the Happyland people, however.

“Why do people have to live like this?” my wife asked. “Why do we allow it?”

We have grown used to millions of our brothers and sisters living over polluted water and in other sub-human conditions, yet there is enough land for all if we use it well. We would demand justice if a parent badly beat his or her children in Happyland, but we don’t mind the daily trauma the children suffer from noise, congestion, violence, hunger and fear of eviction.

So much misery and yet as we prepared to leave Happyland a beautiful sunset was taking shape over the Bataan mountains across Manila Bay. Maybe it’s better to keep our eyes on the beauty of sunsets and not on problems only. Maybe it’s better to be hopeful.