Amang, the faithful friendAmang, the deaf-and-mute man became my most faithful friend in the family. He was a timid bachelor in his thirties. His imperfect denture, which turned yellow of smoking, appeared
behind his smile. Everyone knew him on the project. They were playing jokes on him, pulling his leg for his appearance and the strange sound-formation he had. Kids and young girls
were running after him mockingly. I could hear him coming in the street from far away: the shuffling sound of his rubber slippers, the creak of the gate, the shuffling sound again, then he
would fling the door open and, unarticulated, he roared a lengthy ‘aaa’ to indicate that he was home. Next he usually asked whether the ‘long nose beauty’ – that was me for him –
was home. This he did by showing a Pinocchio nose with his fingers and circularly stroking his face. (The Filipinos generally have small, flat noses and they like to nickname foreigners
ilong dako, that is, long nose.)
Amang belonged to the family. He moved here from over the mountains as he explained with gestures, forming hills of his hands and accompanying it with a long ‘aaa’. We also used
body language to make ourselves understood. We hummed, moaned and bleated with different intonations as if he heard us. But he was as deaf as a door-post.
Amang liked hanging around me. He appeared early in the morning to find me home, he made lunch and dinner for me if I happened to be at home; he did my laundry which I carelessly
left soaking in a bucket behind the house. And when I took him somewhere with me, he would get into his ‘Sunday best’ jeans or shorts, put on his precious sneakers, combed his tangled
ponytail (later he had it cut only to look more elegant), and walking in the street, he would explain to his friends that the white lady was with him. He was an amiable man, full of
humbleness and respect.
I remember that in the first few months he always lagged behind me, he just would not walk on my side. If I demanded an explanation, he blushed and murmured something, caught
up a few meters, then fell behind again. Little by little, he got used to me.
Maybe because he did not understand my words, he interpreted the expressions on my face invisible for the others with an extraordinary empathy. When I was tense or sad, he came
very close to me and, almost inaudibly, exhaled a delicate, faint, inquiring ‘aaa’ and, not waiting for an answer, he shook his head while waving his hand as if he could drive my problems
One evening I was alone. I had a terrible headache and out of spirits, I lay in the dark of the sitting room. Amang sneaked in and waved at me in the light filtering in from the
street. He shuffled to the kitchen table and lit candles not to disturb me with
lamplight. He got the fish out of the fridge and started to clean it for dinner. We ate silently by
the candlelight. Later he went out to the porch and sat there for hours.
’Market air makes one free’
There was always a great commotion around Cogon market. The traffic was often blocked by a host of jeepneys, which people would wave down on the street sides, rushing at them from back and front, loading heavy rice sacks on their tops. Someone would knock on the side of the car a
few meters further, indicating that he wanted to get off and the car would stop again. By the time they had tugged down the goods, the crammed one-way traffic circle got blocked.I often went shopping with the kids for Carmen. It was an easy task since the boys grew up on the marketplace, they knew exactly what is worth buying and where. I simply had to pay so I could comfortably stroll and gaze about.
On one side of the market beautiful fruits looked inviting. Pineapples and dark yellow mangos piled up, durians large as a melon, a few overripe pieces of which stank like onions. Even larger is the langka, the sweet jack-fruit, which can surpass twenty kilograms. When I first tasted it, I was not told how to eat it. I took a large bite of its meat, which was not a smart move since its fibers, like chewing gum, stuck immediately to my mouth and my palate. Retching, with great
difficulty, I could scratch the sticky pulp out of my mouth with my dirty fingers. Lanzones is a fruit of the size of a plum, growing in clusters. It comes from Camiguin Island where it grows on the slopes of the Hibok-Hibok volcano.
The Lanzones Festival, which is a type of thanks giving celebration, is held in October when the island’s different grass skirted communities meet each other. They parade incolorful costumes, dance and stuff themselves with the inviting white fruit.
A bit further, in the open marketplace, carts overloaded with coconuts stood in a row. Banana bunches were laid on the ground. There were a hundred different types of rice in sacks, fresh vegetables in baskets, and elderly women or combing teenage girls were squatting behind them.
On the other side of the market, animals were sold. Scared chickens were crowded into tiny cages; once in a while a thick, hairy arm reached in, tore out one of the riotous crowd
of chickens, cut its neck and the customer could take it. The wood pigpens were a few meters away and behind them stood the slaughterhouse. The feet of the piglets that were bought alive were tied together and the poor animals were hung upside down on the jeepneys’ towing-hook. Poor pigs would scream for a while, then they would submit to the rough traveling conditions
and, with wide eyes, they would swallow the exhaust gas.
I hated the fish market the most. The stench of the ocean smelling corpses got into my lungs and clothes. The tables were watered with hoses or buckets to keep the dead seafood moist, giving their beautiful colors back as decorative death masks. I tiptoed over the sloppy concrete in my open sandals.
The traffic circle separated the merchants of the surrounding streets from the large market. I usually did my shopping a few corners away and I would often meet familiar people on
the way to the jeepney stop. The taxi hunters would wait in front of the supermarket – they recognized me and knew that I would rather walk. And there were the same beggars day
after day. A young man was sitting on a dirty blanket with his atrophied legs pulled up, smiling up at people. He would wave from far away: ‘Hello, Ate!’, and I always greeted him with a smile. Different vendors were watching my eyes move. When I stopped impulsively, they leaped: how they could help me. Misery seemed inert in these streets.
I always saw familiar faces of children too along the sidewalks. They clung to some passerby to beg for a couple of pesos. The thirteen-year-old deaf and mute boy, Amang would cry so bitterly – with a great talent for acting – in front of a McDonald’s restaurant that people would gather around him. To comfort him, they bought hamburgers for him.
Butchoy lay on the corner like a dead person or someone who was breathing his last, with a broken white plastic cup in his little palm. Of course, when they spotted me, they ran to me smiling. ‘It’s just a game’ – they would say. Walking by the movies, I would see kids squatting on the pavement, playing cards or dice. Children with wide pupils would rest among the parking cars, ‘flying high’ above the ground due sniffing glue.
I walked in the bookstore on the corner. I spent quite a lot of time here, not only because I love browsing, but also because, hiding behind the bookshelves, I could watch the children through the long window without them seeing me and running to me.
So I stood at the window and stared at the crowd of the greengrocers who settled on the sidewalk. I watched Jonathan sleeping with his head dropped to the table at the fruit stall where
he was working for a few morsels to eat. Sweat shone on his subtle features, which were colorless of gray dust. Dirty fingerprints were on his baggy Tshirt, his cotton shorts, which he got at the
home, hung on him raggedly. He had no slippers on and he stretched his horny
Since he had left the shelter, I would often walk this way on my way home. Sometimes I sat down by him on the curb to chat, to find out how he was. Once in a while he would offer
slices of bitter mango that he peeled and packed for sale. Jonathan longed for this freedom very much. He was sixteen and thought it was time to stand on his own feet.
Now he slept on sidewalks, bathed in the river and had no clothes except what he had on. He was with his friends.
The touchOnce in January, we received an invitation to a charity night event, which was organized by the city for the benefit of the street children. So we started out with the children and all in our little truck and van. We had hardly made a few miles when the air blew out of the rear wheel of our
truck with a hiss. Cussing, the kids jumped off the truck and we pushed it aside to a gas station. We had no choice but getting onto jeepneys. By the time we got there, the program had started. We were broadcasted by satellite on CNN. In the flurry of excitement, we forgot about how we would get home. The crowd broke up at two in the morning. It seemed almost hopeless to find a jeepney at that hour of the day.
While two boys started out towards the market to find some sort of transport, we sat down in the park of a shopping mall. A few kids were playing in the street, kicking a rubber slipper, they played football under the row of streetlights. Some of them lay down on the damp, cold grass.
As I stretched out under a tree, Marlou lay next to me to put his little head on my bag. He was so tried he could hardly keep his eyes open. He put his slippers under his back and put his face close to mine.
“Ate Betti, I am so cold…” – he shivered.
To make him smile, I started to stroke his face. I ran my fingers carelessly through his black hair, over his closed eyelids, flat nose down to his lips. He smiled.
“Ate, I still remember the days when my mom caressed me like this. But at that time I was very young.” – said the ten-year-old boy.
The photographOne evening, when I was typing a letter alone in the office, Alvin sat down by me. He pulled the photo-album, which was full of pictures taken in the prison in Lumbia, out of the drawer. Alvin placed a picture in front of me. Sweet children’s faces smiled into the lens from behind thick bars,
their waving arms stuck through the bars. I recognized his innocent, mischievous smile among them… he was very young, very little…I smiled at him.
“This boy – I pointed at him in the picture – is a good boy, not an impertinent, bad boy like this one here!” – laughing, I pointed at him.
Alvin’s face darkened.
“Ate Betti, this boy had stabbed someone to death… he is not a good boy…”
God, how bad I felt! I felt so sorry for him that I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek.
“This boy in the picture is a good boy” – I reassured him – “And this rascal here goes to bed now.”
A wide smile spread on his face, I kissed him and he left.
I sat back. This little boy was in jail for murder. I suddenly realized, whoever came to us, whoever lived with us in the shelter, I never asked anyone, what he was imprisoned for,
neither did I do so on the occasions of my visits to the jail. I do believe that I was not even interested in whether someone was a thief or a murderer. All of them were the
victims of the system and society.
Lumbia City JailLumbia City Jail was a punishment enforcement institution in one of the city’s suburban sections, where children were kept – often from the age of eight – for petty crimes,
and Rehabilitation Center
and Rehabilitation Center
like sniffing glue, pickpocketing or spending the nights in the streets. Due to the inadequate amount of space and the overcrowdedness, the kids were forced to live under one roof with repeat offenders and publicly dangerous adult criminals.
The captives lived among very harsh conditions: the buildings of the institution were neglected,
the walls were in ruinous shape. Health conditions were very much backward. There were no adequate water supply or separate lavatory facilities. Having no furniture, the inmates slept on
the ground. There was no health provision. Furthermore, there wasn’t any kind of rehabilitation program either.
The prison was built on a huge enclosed plot, which was surrounded by a crumbling brick wall and sheds built of natural materials. These provided the primary defense functions. There was a small shop in a booth between the main entrance and the building of the inmates. The service
huts were behind the shop. There were some reed-sheltered benches and tables, where the family members of the inmates could spend one or two days.
The prison had two distinctly separated building complexes. ‘Sabah’, fortified for defense, was a maximally guarded zone and building. Multiple repeat offenders or the inmates sentenced to life, who were not allowed to receive visitors or make contact with other inmates, were detained
here. The prison policy tried to separate those criminals who belonged to the notorious circle of criminals called Batang Mindanao 29 this way.
Women, juvenile offenders and men sent to prison for small-scale crimes were placed in the other building complex. The women inmates were held in the building next to the office of the prison management. Often thirty or forty of them slept in one small cell.
To reach the male and the minor offenders, one had to walk through a railed gate, which led to the large inner yard. There were no cells in this part. The inmates lived according to a special ‘system of principles’. Fellow prisoners and cellmates settled their conflicts with each
other ‘within the gates’. On several occasions, people did disappear. They were supposedly murdered and their bodies were cremated.
Four cells, as large as a hall, and a couple of one-person cells surrounded the shared prison yard. The walls of the cells were tattered, bare and, here and there, sooty. The ‘toilet and the bathroom’ was separated with dirty sacks and rags in one of the corners. The cells were usually
overcrowded, occasionally as many as ninety children were shut into the minors’ cell. The inmates were allowed to spend their free time in the yard three times a week.
All sorts of methods were used to discipline in the prison. There was a jail riot in the yard during the spring of 1998. The guards tried to restore the order by using weapons. They opened fire on the yard. Several adult and minor prisoners were injured. Having suppressed the riot, the
guards, to take revenge, carried the beds, personal belongings and clothes out of the cells and put them on fire. Ten inmates – with minors among them – were forced to lie naked on their stomach on the ground and they were beaten with gunstocks and sticks.
As a result of the steadfast work of Balay sa Gugma during the past years, the children are allowed to sleep in separate cells from the adults. This, however, still does not save them from the sufferings caused by the ruthless brutality and physical abuse of the adult inmates and guards, and the inhumane conditions of the prison and the cells.
Referring to the lack of financial resources, the state considers the institutional separation of adults and children to be the solution.
On crueltyOne day Tatay Menes, our street worker arrived home very upset from the prison in Lumbia. One of the minors had escaped a few days before. To set a deterrant example for the inmates, the guards took cruel vengeance on the others. They made the kneeling children march on
the dusty, rocky paths for hours and if someone stopped, they hit him or trod on his head. The signs of the afternoon ‘exercise’ were visible on the majority of the children.
I went to Lumbia the following day. Prior to that, as usual, Susan and I bought toothpaste, soap, laundry soap, sweets and banana. Tatay Menes went ahead because he was working with the kids that day. He took the wood carving tools, with which they carved crucifixes for sale.
We hardly got inside the main entrance when I realized that the gate through which one got to the prison yard where the inmates lived, stood wide open and unguarded. It was strange… In the past, hanging from the gate, the children noticed and greeted us noisily from far away.
Now there was no one. I hurried to the gate, but there was not even one guard there, so I walked through it. All the cells were shut; the prisoners forced their way to the openings of the locked, suffocating ‘dens’ for air. By then, the children had noticed us. To my greatest surprise, Tatay Menes
appeared from behind the children behind the bars. I was dumbfounded by the sight. While Tatay explained that the entire prison was under punishment for the escape and they
are not allowed to receive visitors, a man in uniform was running towards me, shouting that I must not enter.
I got into a fierce argument with the guard who, contrary to the Filipino mentality, started screaming. The children and Tatay Menes withdrew in the cell. They were afraid. Our
colleagues had been stopped by armed men on their way home a few months earlier, and had been threatened not to dare raise their voice against the prison.
I understood it, indeed. A foreigner could raise his or her voice since he or she was not from there. Should it be necessary, he or she could leave the country and no harm may be done to him or her. However, these children who were there that day could have experienced the rage and
retaliation of the guards and supervisors infuriated by me, in the evening. These barbarous people possessed a much more powerful weapon than any of the international
Their weapons against us were the children.