Grace in a Garbage Dump

by Juan L. Mercado

(Asian Development Bank has published in a 124-page study titled: “Poverty in the Philippines: Causes, Constraints and Opportunities”.   As I  flicked through this insightful document, my mind  drifted  to “Basureros”. This emailed true story did not give the author’s name.  Here is  “Basureros” —  with  excerpts from the ADB study set off by brackets.)

“Possible heart enlargement” the doctor said.  So, I jogged more. Sundays, I’d bike up Cebu ’s  beautiful hills. On one of those climbs, I had a “Damacus moment”. Remember   the Christian Paul who emerged from the brutal Saul, after being struck down by a Presence, on the road to that Syrian capital.

At a small carenderia. I was into my second banana, when I noticed two kids, picking through the garbage. Basureros (“Scavengers”). I scoffed.. I’ve little use for them.

(“Over 4.7 million households are locked into a poverty-hunger treadmill. Hunger has nbeen at double digits for more than four years since June…Poverty reduction here  been much slower than in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.)

I’ve been victimized by kids, pretending to be basureros.  They’ve made off with kettles, basins, laundry, etc. My TV screen blurred when watching a fight. Checking, I saw two young basureros scampering with my antenna.  

Remounting my bike, I heard the 7-year or so girl, say in the dialect: “Kuya. Bring Dodong here.  He’s staring at people eating. It shames us.” Only did I notice a boy of 5 or so, near by, sucking his thumb. He didn’t ask for anything. Yet, he stared intently at the food.

(“The number of food-poor Filipinos reached 12.2 million or almost 15% of the entire population…Proportion of families, experiencing involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months reached a record high of 4.3 million households in the last quarter of 2008.“)

The older boy gently pulled the little one into the garbage dump. “Those kids make you cry”,   the carenderia owner said. “They’re so well-behaved.” A stroke left a half-paralyzed father. The mother died from a heart attack.  The kids scavenged to earn a few pesos for their food and father’s medicines.

Moved, I bought P20 worth of bread and gave it to the children. But even the little boy politely declined. “Never mind, sir. We’ll buy some if we can sell something from what we’ve gathered.”…

(Well-off areas like MetroManila, Cebu, Davao draw  people escaping rural penury. Many end up in slums.  Urban population  is increasing at double national  population growth rates. By 2010, six out of every ten Filipinos will cluster in urban areas. Many will be short of food, shelter, medical care, credit.)

It started to drizzle. “Go home,” I said. And the girl replied, “We’re used to this.” If they got sick, no one would care of their father. They nodded and accepted the bread. But the older boy did not eat. “Don’t you like this kind of bread?” I asked.

“It’s Sunday, sir,” the youngest interrupted,  If it’s Saturday or Sunday, he eats only in the afternoon. Only my sisters and I eat breakfast. But in the afternoon, we don’t eat. It’s only kuya who does so.

“But from Monday to Friday, because of classes, only kuya has breakfast. We eat in the afternoon. But if we earn more from our garbage picking, then we all can eat.”

Their father, the little girl explained, wanted kuya to enter class with full stomach, so he’d catch up with the lessons. “When kuya works, we stop picking garbage. By the way, kuya gets first honors.”

(About 13% of government’s annual budget is lost to corruption.  For every 10% increase in graft  in public health services, immunization rates dropped by 20%…In delivery of public education, money changes hand at nearly every stage of procurement…About a third of the population does not complete grade six.)

Quickly, I turned my back to hide my tears. Their attitude was stunning. Yet, there was one thing that they can never change: being motherless.

My last P100 bill was reserved for a bowling tournament. I gave it to them. They refused. I joked: “If you don’t accept, I’ll hit you,.” I joked.  “Thank you sir”, the kid said. “We will buy medicine for our father.”  

His right hand held  the half-filled garbage sack while his left hand clasped––what was it? It was a broken down toy car. I waved goodbye. But the thoughts would not go away.

Did he stumble across the car in the dump? Or was it originally his, before death claimed his mother and a stroke felled his father? I had not asked. Yet, he had not let go of  childhood completely.

(“Poverty webs highlight the intricate  pathways from adverse health and education  to poverty and back,  within and across generations”…Penury cripples the economic growth potential into the next decade or so.”). Meeting these young basureros made me poorer by P100. But they enriched me about what matters.    

I learned from them that life is transient, unpredictable. It can change health into illness and abundance into want, often suddenly.  In  the midst of foul smelling garbage, they also taught that even the darkest side of life cannot change the beauty of one’s heart.

“Give us this daily our daily bread” means more to them than to us, who take for granted three meals a day. On this mountain garbage dump, I learned that  God cares for them . That though He allowed them to experience such a terrible life which our finite minds cannot grasp, His unconditional love will surely follow them through.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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