ForewordI must say I am lucky. As a social worker, I found a profession that allows me to wander about the world,exploring foreign cultures, completely different notions of the world and various fates of people; meanwhile I can provide more or less help for those who are in need of exactly this kind of support or encouragement to find a solution for their problem.
During my university years, I did not busy myself only with books. I worked for Collegium Martineum, an organization for talent development at Mánfa, Hungary where I coached young gypsy people. Here I had the chance to work with excellent colleagues and students.
However, the thirst for adventure called me away. I suspended my university studies at the age of twenty when I got the first opportunity to live and work in a developing country. During the six months I spent in India, I worked at the maternity ward of a missionary hospital in Bombay and helped the nuns to care for the poor in nearby slums. For a short period I could work at a leprosy colony in Orissa state on the east coast. Here I got acquainted with the traditions and customs of the Indian countryside –completely unfamiliar to us –, as well as with the lifestyle
and problems of the tiny tribal villages. The utterly different culture left a great imprint on my notion of the world, work and life. My greatest experience was that in India I had the chance to witness that behind the merciless social traditions and inhumane destitution – maintaining dignity and self-respect – the natives live according to wonderful human values.
Two years after my return – having suspended my studies and work once again – I accepted another difficult challenge. I worked as the consultant of the Balay sa Gugma Street Children Project for one year on in the Philippines, in the city of Cagayan de Oro. Our foundation focused on three main fields: offering shelter, provision and vocational training for street children, performing social work among children living on the streets for long periods, and taking care of the adolescents and children kept in the city jail. By starting up various small businesses – a bakery, a metal and a wood workshop or a sewing project – we played an important role in the life of the vicinity.
In my stories, I am writing about street children who were left alone with their problems, due, in most cases, to reasons they had no influence on. They can be seen shining shoes, washing cars, carrying sacks in the streets; they sell plastic bags, help out market women in the marketplace, or simply beg or steal. As the night draws near, they flock together, hide away and pull out plastic bags and glue, which they get cheap from the shoemaker. Many of them go home for the night, or keep in touchwith their parents from week to week. In most of the large families living in poverty, either no one has a job or there are one or two breadwinners, at the most. Owing to the massive unemployment, children gradually become the supporters of their families. First they spend time with earning money only after school, later they gradually fail to
show up and finally drop out of school. In the beginning, they regularly visit their families, but since they spend moreand more time on the street, it is very likely that they break away with no turning back.
According to the Philippine laws and traditions, there is no divorce. If the relationship between the parents goes wrong for good or they want to start a new one, spouses simply move apart. One of my most tragic experiences was the fate of those children who had been abandoned by their parents in the hope of establishing a new family or starting a happier life. Such parents never look after their children any more.
Most of the Philippine girls living on the streets were abused or raped in their home, not only by a neighbor, but also by the stepfather or, in several cases, even by their biological father. Escaping from home, they try to find jobs but mostly they are forced into prostitution, or they look for support and livelihood in dubious relationships. Boys with no families often become sexual objects for homosexuals and pedophiles. An increasing number of HIV positive children are struggling with and for their lives.
Society reacts to these vulnerable children in an odd way. Their sight is not tolerated in the streets; they are locked up in inhumane homes and prisons, or special troops, the ‘death brigades’ of the government’s violence machinery kill and destroy them. During my everyday work, I eventually recognized that the children I met daily lived in an extremely difficult situation. Not only because – having been abandoned by their parents, or having fled from the poverty and brutality of their homes – they were facing starvation or got beaten up or raped living on the street, but also because they were defenseless against laws or society.
I consider it important to continuously communicate, in any possible way, the experiences I had there. If I were not doing so and shut my eyes, I would become a member of the society that legitimizes children’s imprisonment and execution. If I were not doing so, I would believe that the laws passed in a democratic state are faultless and unalterable and I would not believe in being part of the change and conversion.
The sunrise was most beautiful when the sea withdrew and the coral reef shed its cloak of water. Looking out of my window, I saw the children slouch about in slippers on the large
stones that were covered with algae. The kids collected sea urchins, scallops, fish, kelp and everything edible from the entrapped puddles.
Waking from dreams around daybreak, everything was so beautiful. The House of Love was stirring and the faces of the street children living with us sent ‘good morning’ smiles. We
started to clean up the rooms and prepared breakfast. After breakfast, some left for school, some piled up the baked goods made during the night to deliver for sale. Those who stayed at
home helped in the kitchen, sewed, went to the market with the housekeeper or accompanied the social worker to visit their friends and fellows in prison. They would often sit on the platform
of our pick-up truck and we went to town to look after our various businesses. In the afternoons, the kids would play basketball or idle in the shade. Later everyone would see to his or her own business, studied or loafed about town. In the evening, I would lie in the sand on the beach and watch the kids doing flips in the water. Far from the bay, the high volcano of Camiguin Island emerged out of the sea and the rays of the descending sun dyed it red.
The exotic nature, the beauty of people and the warmth of the sun completely mesmerized me. Colorful orchids bloomed under my window, leaves of banana trees whipped the wall of
the living room in the rain, ripe coconuts looked inviting aboveour heads. In the small house where I got a room to retire, I found quite a large family. As the months passed, the people in
the streets, the merchants in the marketplace or the jeepney drivers became familiar, the people recognized me in the post office, in the marketplace or in the hospital. The town of half a
million inhabitants became my home. I would have loved to dream in this enchantment. Instead, fear and worries would not let me sleep at night; sometimes during the nights, when motorbikes
went by my window, I stood by the window-screen and anxiously listened to guns being fired in the nearby bushes where people were executed. I experienced mortal fear when
guns were pointed at us, or when I was attacked with a knife. I saved a boy from being beheaded with a bush-cutter machete; I bargained with policemen for children and hid criminals from
death; in the courtroom, I sat opposite to a murderous policeman who shot the fifteen-year-old Gary and was free.
I saw children smiling at me and dying; I saw their bright eyes fade in prison; saw them bathing in the river and starving; crying bitterly because of having been beaten up; saw them with sacks pulled over their heads to prevent them from seeing something. I have seen children – the youngest one was not even ten – thrown in prison, where they are fired at and drunk guards harass them at nights, saw them looking at me from behind bars with desperate eyes; breaking glass in their fists; fleeing. I can smell their scent – glue and the acid smell of urine –, their skin became flaky with dirt, eyes got vacant. They would squat on stone crypts of the old cemetery and hold plastic bags to their noses. They would smile at me when begging.
Then, at nights, high on glue, they would curl up on sidewalks or squares. It was a bit comforting that they did not feel hunger and did not sense reality. They were making dreams.
Mabuhay! – Welcome!
I arrived at Manila with butterflies in my stomach. As the plane was landing, the tension within me was growing, not knowing what I was going to do alone in the 15-million metropolis where no one was waiting for me. The administration of my papers kept me at the airport for hours. Loaded with my huge luggage, I searched for a taxicab. Of course, the driver was willing to find my motel only for a generous tip.
My accommodation did not seem too inviting, either. It was hidden in a narrow street where homeless people were staring at me on the sidewalk. I dragged my suitcase up the creaking wooden stairs of the old building. A dusty ventilator, which stood on the bedside table in my small room, poured a hot, metallic-tasting airflow. My clothes got soaked in the suffocating heat. I was so nervous I could not even eat. The thought that I was going to travel to Cagayan de Oro, the City of the Golden Friendship only two days later drained away all my confidence. I felt as though being on a journey between death and either hell or heaven, not knowing where I was
heading and not wanting to think about it either.
A few hours later, someone from the reception shouted at me saying I had a phone call. I ran downstairs. Jim, the American businessman, who served Balay sa Gugma as a consultant for two years alongside of his job, was on the phone. He was leaving the Philippines forever in two
weeks. He greeted me with a warm, friendly voice and informed me that he had reserved tickets for the same plane for both of us. We were to meet soon.
Thus, I traveled with Jim from Manila 600 miles down south. We flew over South Luzon close to the rim of the Taal volcano, and over the Islands of Visayas. Islands and groups of islands of great and small dimensions emerged from the water, with their thick, white rims breaking away
from the depth of the sea. We started landing in an hour and a half. Having flown along the coastline for a while, passing the palm forests, we were flying over more and more densely populated areas; factories, plants and shipyards lay at the bottom of the hills. Monumental cruise
liners were lined up in the seaport. Sitting next to me, Jim explained that a multinational food manufacturer firm, Del Monte Philippines had taken up residence here. Mainly pineapple, cocoa and sugarcane are grown on the plateaus beyond the mountains. Unending towns of tin-roofed huts were erected around the port. Coming from the undeveloped and depressed rural areas in hope of better work opportunities and living conditions, tens of thousands of the penniless live here with their families in miserable crowded conditions.
Little by little, we reached the delta firth of the River Cagayan, which split the town in two and from the bank of which little huts, standing on pillars, were leaning over the riverbed. We passed a green-grassed golf course and landed sharply.
My Philippine colleagues were waiting for me at the airport. They watched with great interest from behind the glass door how Jim and I gathered our luggage. Susan and Carmen, the two youthful women of around 40, hugged me with sincere confidence, Nanay Nila, an elderly woman and Tatay Menes, a middle aged reticent man shook hands timidly. We all crammed into a taxi. Susan and Carmen were chattering to me during the whole ride, they were really excited about how we would get along. I was looking out of the window quietly, and the anguish slowly started to ease.
Following the fasting of the last couple of days, my stomach was grumbling. First we went to Susan’s house so I could drop my luggage. We were zigzagging on the long narrow streets of a
pretty housing project. It was a so called ‘social housing’ subsidized by the state, one of the most widespread housing type built on railed off suburban lots for the poor and for state employees. The lots of approximately 10-15 hectares were split into tiny sections on which very similar or
completely identical small houses of one or two rooms stood. Usually large families lived in these, thus a housing project like this gave home to two to three thousand people. Susan showed me enthusiastically that Xavier Estate, where the wealthy lived, was not too far from us. The political and business elite of the town usually lived in separate boroughs or in luxurious palaces on carefully railed off areas, fenced off estates.
We started out for the home but took some smaller or greater detours to show me how many-faced Cagayan de Oro was. There was a massive traffic jam and rush hour traffic was crawling along the many lanes of highways, which crossed the city. Clever Filipinos turned the jeeps left behind by the American army into unique public transportation devices: these jeepneys were jamming the road from bumper to bumper. Other main forms of public
transportation were the motorellas (a six-seater cabin on a motor cycle) and the tricycle cabs (two-seater side-car bikes), which easily slipped by the large jeepneys and the small, mainly Japanese cars. I desperately tried to perceive as much of what I saw and heard as possible. I thought that I was never going to learn my way around.
In the streets, it was shocking to see to what extent the Western civilization was taking over one of the least developed countries in South East-Asia, yet at the same time how it mixes with traditions. American type fast food restaurants, huge glass covered office buildings, airconditioned mega-centers filled with the latest American fashion.
At the same time, poverty penetrated everything. Poor families and homeless people flooded the slums, riverbanks and flood-basins. They got hold of a small spot under bridges, by open gutters, on hill sides, in cemeteries among the crypts, on sidewalks or on garbage dumps where they
built up their homes of a few square meters, using reed, wood and all kinds of litter.
Susan was constantly explaining what I could buy and where. She showed me the large supermarkets where I could pick out everything I liked for my ‘European’ eating habits. One can find the ingredients for the traditional Philippine cuisine mainly on the market: vegetables, spices, fish, crabs, fruits, and different seasonings rested on the crowded stands. The Muslim section was situated in a separate area of the markets, where textiles, dresses and bedspreads – decorated with traditional patterns – were sold by Muslim vendors.
After a long ride, our cab finally drove into the yard of the shelter where uncombed little kids and slender teenagers ran towards us. I could not even get out of the car when they took my hand and raised it to their foreheads – I touched their damp skin – and greeted me with the words “Good Afternoon, Ate!”, “Hi, Ate Betty!” or “Bless us, Sister!”
I was puzzled by this humble greeting. ‘Who was I to give blessing?’ Susan whispered that they expressed their respect for me this way. I still felt uncomfortable and I would have much more preferred a warm handshake.
Anyhow, as I could see it, I wiped all their foreheads.
“Kaon, Ate” – the children, who, I guess, were hungry since they waited with the festive lunch till my late arrival, invited me to eat. There was a great stirring in the kitchen, and the black ‘pumpkin heads’ with their tin trays formed a line in front of the cauldron. They asked me to sit down and the children placed the rice and fish on plates and served it at the table. Since there was no silverware, I started to eat with my hands – I gained a great routine in that during the
half year I spent in India – but the boiled fish looked so disgusting that I could hardly swallow it with a smile on my face. My next astonishing experience was the sticky rice. As I scraped it off the bottom of my plate, the hardened remains from the day before, which stuck to the rice, also
came off. I suppose, they were not too good in doing the dishes. The kids, however, were smiling at me with such a resolute enthusiasm that I could eat that as well.
I believe that was my initiation!
Balay sa Gugma
Balay sa Gugma – The House of Love was situated in a beautiful setting: on the seaside, in the outstretching bay of a fishing-village. Small coral reefs developed on the quickly dropping
sandbanks. The shore where the sea and the land meet resembles the patterns of an agate slide in which the different shades of blue blended with white. There were uncultivated palm groves on the uninhabited shore. Very far off, the three volcanoes of Camiguin Island reached to the sky.
Bayabas village is truly magical. In the mornings, when I left my tiny home for work, I would cross the noisy, smoky neighborhoods, the vibrant chatter of the market and I would reach
the quiet seaside village on a long, broken concrete road. Many little wooden sheds bordered the narrow roads. Sandy paths ran to the fishing boats on the shore. I saw naked children running
alongside the road and skinny men who were pushing twowheel carts carrying buckets full of water home from the well.
The jeepney dropped me at the last stop from where I walked. A battered dirt road, the potholes of which filled with water in times of rain, lead to the shelter. Its high gates came into sight from under the palm trees as I passed a swampy fishpond.
Our two-story bamboo building looked pretty in the poor surroundings. There was a barred-off workshop on the first floor, where machines and tools for metal- and woodwork were
stored. Rodney, the former street boy, who had also been raised in the home, was working here with the kids. The other little room opposite to it was the bakery. A few boys were working here in the afternoons and at nights. The baker’s shop was lead by Eddie, who came to the shelter also as a street kid a few years before.
The children lived in the bedrooms on the upper floor. There were thrown-together beds and wardrobes in the rooms; yet, the boys rather slept on the floor on bare mattresses using
only few rooms. They got used to it on the streets and that was the way they felt safe. Tatay Menes occupied a staff room. He was our social worker who worked on the streets and visited
In the brick building close to the shore, were the offices and, on the upper floor, a sitting room with a television. There were sewing machines in one of the corners, on which the young learnt to sew with Nanay Nila in the afternoons or at the weekends. Nanay was an elderly woman with many-many grandchildren and she was the patient, smiling granny of the home, too. There was also a room for me. This I shared with a social worker, Jessie Ann. I spent the night there when I could not go home. A concrete basketball court and a sandy volley ball court were close to the building.
The kitchen building would deserve an entire essay. Maybe it sounds unbelievable to what extent a person is able to adapt to a different lifestyle. Sometimes I surprised even myself. The
kitchen was a tiny, filthy shed. The appearance itself was telling: everything was barren and made of concrete, like something that was not in use. Cats and itchy dogs were jumping up
and down the table, into the gray sink, they stole the leftover from the plates, kicked over the trashcan, all this happened in spite of the daily struggle of Carmen, our housekeeper. Carmen
would wait for the children coming home from school with delicious lunch. However, the children themselves prepared their breakfast and dinner.
The large, open communal room, equipped with benches and a large blackboard, was built on the shore. Classes or different meetings, and sometimes, when the novices of the town visited
us, holy masses were held here.
Benches and little tables stood on the shore in the shade of the bamboo umbrellas for the
afternoon siestas. The sea stretched out practically at our feet. There was no fence on the seaside, only a waist-high stone wall. Otherwise the sea would have reached as far as the communal room in case of tide. Sometimes the waves of the high water still splash
over the wall. We would often float over the shallow coral reefs
in our little boat.
And a new world began from here.
New family, new home
To find some kind of support in the foreign country, in the beginning I rented a room in the house of my colleague. The suburban area bordered by a wall was far from the heart of the
city of half a million citizens. It reminded me of a kind of sociorealist housing project with its straight streets, small houses and gardens the size of a handkerchief.
The house seemed humble at first sight. It was covered with gray mortar from the outside and one of the rooms was extended with bamboo walls. Inside, the thin plywood walls and the gray,
plastered interior appeared odd. Often I had the impression that I was living in a weekend home. In the remarkably small and dark bathroom, there was only a toilet bowl and a plastic bucket.
Instead of taking a shower, we could scoop the cold water from this bucket onto ourselves with a small pot with a handle. There was neither a washbasin, nor a mirror. This damp room was the
favorite place of wall lizards and span-long, plump cockroaches.
Nonetheless, I got a very pleasant little hole. My hosts put together a true dollhouse to welcome me. They decorated the ugly gray walls with pink ruffled curtains, my plastic zip-lock wardrobe
had a lilac tone and my bed was covered with a pale, rosy sheet and pillows. My little bamboo shelf and desk was leaning against the window frame, and the cement floor was made friendly with a raffia carpet.
In spite of the pleasant environment the nights were awful. Mice lived their busy and noisy lives on the ground and huge cockroaches and lizards lived on the walls. My ‘guests’, who sneaked in under the doors that did not shut well, chewed on my papers and clothes, and plastic bags were rattling under their little paws in the dark. I really hated them but I could not have killed these overgrown creatures – not to mention the pointlessness of the struggle. (The situation was even worse in the shelter, where crabs and huge toads sneaked into the bathroom through the open
drainpipe at times of sweltering heat.)
Six permanent residents lived in our little house, not counting myself: Susan, my colleague; her 14-year-old niece, Jam; the niece’s 16-year-old friend, Malyn, who often helped my work as a
translator; Rodney, who had been a street child before Susan gave him a home and who was also working at the shelter; Susan’s brothers, Egay and Edgar, and finally Amang, the deaf-and-mute
man, who was doing chores around the house. We lived in three tiny rooms and a small living room what served as a kitchen and dining room at the same time. All through that year, it happened frequently that several people showed up for only a few days and hung around for months. There were so many folks in the house during the first week that I could not even follow who was actually living there. Susan’s sister and her five children stayed with us on the weekends, sometimes they would even bring along relatives from the mountains.
In the first few weeks my hosts treated me as a guest and paid special attention to me. Astonished, they pushed me away from the sink and were shaking their heads in disgrace when I wanted to wash the dishes. And as we were going home after shopping, they would take the bags from my hand on account of what people were going to say about how they treated me. By the time I got home, my laundry had been done. I asked them not to do it, but they got upset in most cases, saying that I rejected their hospitality. Then they gradually got used to the idea that I was not a tourist but someone who lived among them. I had to make them understand that it was not just me who had to adapt to their habits and mentality; they also had to accept the fact that my way of thinking differed from theirs. Finally we could agree on the housework. Cooking was the task of Egay and Edgar, Malyn and Jam did the laundry and the cleaning, Susan made breakfast and I did the dishes. I tried cooking only once, I prepared mixed salad with mayonnaise dressing, roast meat and mashed potatoes. These were peculiar flavors for them and, since they eat meat only with rice, they did not know what to do with the mashed potatoes. They ate it spread on bread and, humming, they insisted on how delicious it was. Of course, the bowl would have sat in the fridge, if I had not rescued them from one of the ‘frightful’ products of the European cuisine.