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‘We are like a wheel: sometimes we are up; sometimes we are down’


Rubbish covering the ‘Happyland’ slum in Manila, the Philippines. © The Slum/Paul Roy

In the sapping heat of a Manila afternoon, 55-year-old Ricky Fuertes crouches in the mud, filling his sack with discarded bottles, cans, plastic and metal to be taken to the recyclers.

Ricky is just one of Manila’s estimated four million slum-dwellers – a squatter in Sitio Damyan slum, only six kilometres from the city’s glitzy business centre. He lives with his family of five in a makeshift shack made of scavenged wood and battered tin sheets, and for almost three decades, he has eked out a living as a scavenger – the default slum occupation for the uneducated and the unskilled.

For six months, I spent almost every day filming people like Ricky in some of the Philippines’ worst slums in Manila’s Tondo district (among them, the aptly named ‘Aroma’ slum and the bizarrely named ‘Happyland’ and ‘Paradise Heights’ slums).

Many of the slum residents were economic refugees from the provinces, chasing their pot of gold in the city. Others were generational slum-dwellers, who knew no other home.

Living conditions were uniformly grim – pitch-black cubicles suspended beneath a bridge or an abandoned building, surrounded by rotting mountains of rubbish, its residents permanently knee deep in stagnant, putrid water.

Few had any other immediate goal beyond survival. Each day, Ricky and his neighbours swooped in on the festering piles of the city’s refuse, struggling to make the $2-$3 dollars a day they needed to feed their families.

Life as a squatter with no land rights is tough and precarious. One bit of bad luck, one illness, or one unexpected mishap could ruin a family like Ricky’s in an instant. But like many slum residents I met, Ricky was cheerful and realistic. Over time he had become resigned to his hard life while remaining ambitious and hopeful for his family’s future.

Crouched over his rubbish sack, with a thick odour of sewage and rotting rubbish in the air, he told me: ‘I'll do anything to be able to support my family. It doesn't matter if I get dirty, as long as I'm honest in what I do.’   

Like so many slum-dwellers, Ricky places the family’s fortunes on the child most likely to succeed – in this case, their youngest son, 15-year-old Rajesh.   

‘He's our family’s only hope. There is a chance that he may be the one who can help me and my wife, should he graduate. I tell him that if he doesn’t work hard with his studies he’ll only end up like me, sifting through garbage.’

The family’s would-be saviour, Rajesh attends a local charity school where he receives not only an education, but also two meals a day. But he suffers from dwarfism, and so already on the back foot to get a good job. Rajesh dreams of being a police officer, but in the meantime helps his father sort rubbish and burns the plastic off copper wires to earn extra money. Still, disaster is never far away.

Fires are common in the slums. Its residents cook on open fires or charcoal burners, lanterns are used for light and their homes are often built out of recycled timber, covered in paper or plastic. One night during our stay, a fire ripped through Ricky’s slum.

We arrived in the first light of dawn under a threatening typhoon sky to find Ricky and Rajesh crouching in the ashes, trawling through the smoking debris for nails or wire. Their shack was completely gone but there were no tears, no rage, and no despair – not even resignation. Ricky explained they were racing to secure their plot of land – if they didn’t mark it off, it would be taken by other homeless people. Ricky would sleep the night there covered by a sheet of plastic.

‘My wife asked, “What will we do now that we don’t have anything?”’ said Ricky, not looking up from his task. ‘I told her we will not be like this all the time. Once in a while, we will be uplifted. We are like a wheel, sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down.’

The squatters and homeless of Manila, like Ricky, are resilient if nothing else. Abandoned by their government, exploited by those who employ them to do the jobs no-one else will, they survive without the most basic facilities – sanitation, water, affordable electricity, accessible health facilities or meaningful education.

In a country that is 85-per-cent Catholic, the Church has fiercely opposed the availability of artificial contraception, condemning many of their poorest believers to unsustainably large families and a generational cycle of poverty.

But these slum-dwellers are a vital part of the city’s infrastructure – they cannot be hidden away and they certainly are not going away, despite the best efforts of the government, which either resolutely ignores them or tries to move them outside city precincts.

Relocation to new homes without food markets, schools, churches or transport does not work and many return to their slum homes, where there is a sense of community, family support and work, no matter how menial.

In the meantime, those like Ricky and his family keep battling on. Two weeks after the fire, Ricky was back at work scavenging, and a local charity had built them a cheap hut. When we went to say goodbye, after an event that would crush most people, they were positive and upbeat.

‘We have shelter now. My husband can now gather rubbish; before he had to stay here,’ said Ricky’s wife, Lolita, who had also started selling cigarettes and snacks from the front of their porch.

‘Little by little, our lives become better, we try to survive. Life was harder before, now we are slowly recovering and it is better.’

In the face of such fortitude and optimism, it is a shame that the people of Manila’s slums are not served better by those in power. The hopes and dreams of the Rickys of this world have a chance to be realized – if only a little.  

Producer, director and cinematographer Paul Roy specializes in observational documentaries and documentary series. Over a 35-year career, he has filmed in over 40 countries around the world, including in Australian Aboriginal communities, the Manila slums, African refugee camps and the Antarctic.

Al Jazeera’s The Slum series investigates the complexities and dilemmas of life in Manila’s slums and the extraordinarily varied and fascinating lives of its inhabitants.

The Slum will air on Al Jazeera English at the following times:
Ep 1 “Deliverance”: TX date: 18th September 2014, 2000GMT
Ep 2 “Risky Business”: TX Date 25th September 2014, 2000GMT
Ep 3 “Storm Rising”: TX Date 2nd October 2014, 2000GMT
Ep 4 “Vote for Me”: TX Date 9th October 2014, 2000GMT
Ep 5 “For Love or Money”: TX Date 16th October 2014, 2000GMT
Ep 6 “Breaking Out”: TX Date 23rd October 2014, 2000GMT

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