Sunday, August 01, 2010
Malacañang and esteros
Commentary : Malacañang and esteros
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: July 28, 2010
RECENTLY WITHIN a span of one week, I visited two places that are within walking distance of each other, but look so completely different you wouldn’t think they belong to the same city: Estero de San Miguel and Malacañang.
We had a host in each area: Aling Imelda Ramos, 72, on the estero and President Aquino himself in Malacañang. We were fortunate to spend a good bit of time with each of these persons. At the end, we felt that the places may be very different, but there is the same Filipino sensibility in both, especially the ability to see the serious side of reality, but also the amusing side, which is surely a great virtue for a poor woman or a president to have.
Along one of the dark and narrow alley ways of Estero de San Miguel we met Aling Imelda. She was seated on her bangkito washing clothes, but she stood up to talk to us. It was a dismal place. She could see we were reacting to the smells of urine and worse, so she said, “We don’t smell it anymore. We’re used to it.” Back along the alleyway we had seen human waste pouring from pipes that extended out over the water from buildings across the way. At one point there was an explosion like a bomb going off. We ducked but it wasn’t a bomb. It was a large plastic bag of garbage dropped into the estero from the fourth story of another building. There were other “explosions” as we talked to Aling Imelda.
She is now in her 70s and has lived there since the time of President Elpidio Quirino. There are between 500 and 600 families living in her section of the estero. She says they are happy because they are long-time residents who know each other and trust each other. “We take care of each other. Most of us are vendors, so we are close to our working areas.”
The government is threatening to remove them from the estero, because it is judged to be a “danger” area, she said, though in the 50 years or more she has lived there nothing bad has happened to them. Even “Ondoy” didn’t hurt them. “It came up to my waist but no one was hurt,” she said. She added, “We don’t want anything from government. We wish they would leave us alone.”
The government talks of esteros and the estimated 80,000 families living on them as if they were all the same and as if one solution could suit all. Esteros differ from one another as much as people do. Not all people on esteros have to be relocated. Some can be accommodated along the banks, allowing for proper easement. Some have to move out. Some can live on idle land nearby. In some esteros people may very well block the water. In others they probably don’t. The government should study each estero carefully. God and the devil are in the details.
Rats peered out at us from cracks in the flooring of the alley. Maybe they wanted to know what was going on.
Replacing the warmth, friendship, security and mutual aid practices of such communities as Aling Imelda’s is very, very difficult for government to do in the best of circumstances. How can it do that for 80,000 families who don’t want to move?
Patiently Aling Imelda answered all our questions, though the soap bubbles in her washbasin had disappeared and her once clean looking clothes were lying there like dead fish. It was simple courtesy that kept her there talking to us.
A few days later my wife, myself, some urban poor people and NGOs were invited to meet President Noynoy in Malacañang. My wife had complained to friends in the Cabinet that the President and his advisers had completely neglected the urban poor once the election was finished. When the President heard of that complaint, he called for the meeting.
We met in a truly beautiful room. It is used for meetings, but it had the comfortable lived-in air of a family sala. President Cory Aquino had held office there. There were flowers, rare white orchids and oil paintings, one of which showed the moon and a pine forest at night in a blue mist. Everything was restful. We waited for the President at a table for 20 people.
There was a rustle of activity and a powerful looking bodyguard came into the room and gave us a quick look-over. There was no sign of what he thought of us. Then the president came in, talking even as he came near, drowning out the voice of the female assistant who called out, “The President of the Republic of the Philippines.”
We spent over an hour with the President. He could have handled our complaints in 10 or 15 minutes if he wanted. We presented some good and some not-so-good ideas. He listened to them all and talked about them. He explained why he had made certain appointments. He reminisced about concerns that had recently been brought to his attention, that most Philippine provinces, for example, are at high risk of very damaging disasters, and no province is not at risk. He talked about Pagasa’s failure to predict the path of “Basyang” and how he’ll have to attract investments to get better facilities.
Our group appreciated the way he put everyone at ease. He talked about his problems and listened to his visitors’ problems. He laughed a lot. He is not in a hurry. He had time to inquire into the details of some problems presented.
As I was listening to him talk I was reminded of Aling Imelda on Estero de San Miguel.
“Who do we go to when we have problems?” our group asked.
“Come to me,” he said. An agreement was made that he would meet once a month with the urban poor.
The places are totally different—the estero and Malacañang—but the people living in the two places are very much alike, which promises well for the long-range progress of the country, it seemed to us.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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