Piercing smell of rotting garbage devours the evening air, rows of houses made out of wood and plastic sheets, and the calm drone of the murky river greeted me as I make my way down the Tullahan in Sitio Gulod, Novaliches.
The urban poor situation in Metro Manila is a resilient socio-economic issue in the country. Political and administrative programs have been created in assuring their protection and welfare. Furthermore, specific attention is given to informal settlers who reside in areas deemed as danger zones such as areas under bridges, dumpsites and along the estuaries and rivers in the city.
The TullahanRiver stretches from Malabon through Valenzuela and is home to many informal settlers in the metropolitan. The endless montage of poverty that we see in films and documentaries does not fully embrace the distressing reality of the urban poor. In fact, it is far more than what we imagined.
Cramped in a two-storey house of mostly patches of wood is Nanay Belen’s family of seven. The oldest daughter, Aileen, is already a mother at 18 years of age to baby Apple who has a distended stomach due to malnutrition. The father of the family stays in his workplace in Blumentritt and only goes home twice a week leaving his wife to take care of the house and the rest of the family.
As she knits old and faded sheets and shirts with her malformed fingers which she was born with, Nanay Belen talks about “buhay ilog” to people like her and her family. With the devastation they experienced during Ondoy and Habagat, she said that they stay up all night whenever it rains, vigilantly monitoring the river while listening to news on a transistor radio.
They lost practically everything to the river during the monsoon and flood seasons. One of the daughters needed to stop schooling because all her clothes including her uniforms were washed away by the recent Habagat flood. Most of their wares are gone and now, they have to eat on broken plates using their hands. Their toilet is a tin bucket lined with plastic since their makeshift bathroom was likewise destroyed by the overflowing river. Indeed, the flood and the river made their situation more challenging as it already is.
The difficult living condition of the urban poor along the TullahanRiver is a reality I have experience while spending the night with Nanay Belen’s family. I shared a tiny area in the house with the five children for sleeping using pieces of mattress and cushions as beddings and stack of clothes as pillows. Lulling ourselves to sleep, I hear the sisters chat with gaiety, talking about everything- from Xian Lim to finding work, from the day’s gossip to their ambitions, from their empty stomach to their hopes.
The next morning dawned with the same image of poverty however the experience gave me a different perspective. Being poor is not a daily sob of sorrow or helplessness but a daily and continued struggle for basic rights and equal opportunities.