On my trip in the Philippines I worked with an organization based out of Manila. With 19 million people living in it, Manila is the biggest city in the Philippines. It stretches as far as the eye can see and driving through it–whether it be by bus, car, motorcycle, or jeepney–you wonder if it ever comes to an end. I never came to one side of it myself.
There is no clearly rich side to Manila. Everywhere there is garbage and clutter and homeless people sleeping on the side of the road. But there is a definite poor neighborhood. As soon as you come into it you are acutely aware of the immense poverty. This part of Manila is called Tondo.
Tondo is home to hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, it is the most populated place on the planet with its 500,000 human beings on 1 square mile. That’s half a million people on a plot of land it takes 17 minutes to walk through. Half a million.
Tondo is known for a place called Smokey Mountain. The name is deceivingly pleasant for anyone who has never seen the horror of a reality it actually is. To the locals it is known as; The Gates of Hell.
Smokey Mountain is no mountain at all. Rather, it is a landfill made completely out of garbage. People migrated to it so they could find a living from the waste, literally digging material for their homes out of the dumped garbage. Then, they would build their houses on top of or next to the landfill.
Eventually, the government intervened. In 1999 they decommissioned the landfill. Furthermore, in an effort to help with the living conditions of the residences, they carved streets into Smokey Mountain and built apartment buildings for them. What they should have done is relocated the people altogether, because leaving them where they were was no help. Overtime the apartments became a mirror image of the landfill. Garbage littered every room, street, and balcony.
The people living here have a deformed mindset. They don’t know what it means to be cleanly or healthy. Day to day they live filthy and hungry, and most are doing nothing about it. Vision Help International Care Foundation (VHICF, or Vision Help), the organization I was working with, is actively doing something to change this. They are educating the people of Tondo as well as providing food and health care for them when needed. They are mostly focused on the youth, with their daily children feeding program and daycare. I had the opportunity to see first hand the difference they are making in these kids lives. It is a blessing I will never take for granted.
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We drive into Tondo in an air-conditioned pick-up truck. I am sitting in comfort as the driver turns to me and says, “This is an evil, evil place. No one should every have to live in such conditions.” I get my first taste of what he means when I get out of the car and the smell hits me. I almost gag. It smells of waste and garbage and mold. The people around me don’t seem to notice. They walk past with unperturbed expression.
The mountain is before me. A heap of garbage and dirt, and I know that all it is is years upon years of waste piled high. My brother, the videographer, hands me a tripod and we climb up the landfill.
At the top there are houses… No, not houses, shacks. These are where the people live.
Children come out of them and run to greet us.
They have faces that are dirty and grimy. Their bodies are uncovered and they run humbly naked not caring that the residue of waste clings to their exposed private places. There is this kind of carelessness in their faces as their bare feet thump across the garbage heap, and glass is under them scratching at their skin.
I walk with tripod in hand and my bag held tightly against my side. My brother is ahead of me. He has been to this place before and he leads the way. Walking up the trails of path, up to the top of this landfill they call Smokey Mountain.
Smokey Mountain steams and smoke rises up to meet the polluted sky. By me there are people burning through the trash trying to find cardboard treasure so they can add it to their home. Their homes are on the landfill. They live here, live life that most of us would call hell. In fact, we call this place The Gates of Hell. It feels like it.
The smells suffocate and I try not to choke. I keep my nose plugged and my mouth tightly shut, but my eyes water and I try to blink the dirt out of them. The sun beats hard upon my neck and back making me feel fatigued. I want to turn around. I want to leave this terrible place.
But the children beside me, they make the trip worth it, because though their faces are grimy and less than pleasant, their faces are shinning and they squeal with glorious delight.
I put myself behind me, put my wants on the back-burner and bend to service for the Cross’s sake. Though I feel terribly I force myself to smile and it is genuine, because I am happy to meet these children that even now make my heart break within me.
How can people live like this? How can they get out of bed everyday to meet such terrible conditions? How are they still happy?
I play with the children. Lift their tiny selves off the ground and spin them around and around. They pull at me in every direction and chatter away in a language foreign to my English understanding ears. They teach me Tagalog words and laugh as I mispronounce them.
“You are Maganda,” I say to two young girls. Their eyes light up as they recognize the word, and you almost see them blushing.
Maganda. That is the word for this place. Because, although the condition here is hell on earth, the spirit is ecstatic. Everywhere you look there is joy which covers over the dirt. When you see it, you want to cup every face and speak over it loud and clear, “Beautiful.”
“You are Beautiful.”
And in that moment I give another piece of my heart away and put it in the tiny grasping hands of some Filipino children and the God of us both.
In Christ Alone~EleyanaFaith