After almost two weeks of immersing in the SHACC (St. Hannibal Christian Community), the people already know most of us by name. Their handshakes are warm, their welcome genuine. They greet us the moment they see us enter the gate.
After more than 20 years of renting cramped spaces of makeshift houses beside the polluted river, they've been given a new lease at life: concrete houses they can call their own. Their stories are moving.
Living in a gated compound has its perks. They no longer need to fear for their security. They are more or less protected from flooding, which used to erode their properties. The bad side is that they're isolated from the rest of the barangay, especially from the shanty communities nearby. This isolation, according to the residents, is more because of envy than geography.
Ate Babes has a mini-carinderia beside the gate. She serves mami and lugaw (porridge). I didn't ask if she's a fan of Carmina Villaroel, the actress whose photo appears on the tarpaulin wall. She fondly remembers Julie Reyes, a classmate who also went to this area for her immersion.
I met Ate Nelyn, Kath, and Luisa, all of whom migrated from the Panay region to seek greener pastures in Manila. We talked to each other in Ilonggo. It was a memorable afternoon. Ate Kath's son (whose name I forgot) even rendered a song for us. They spend their lazy afternoons like this: killing time by catching up with each other's lives. They call each other "Mars"—a short-cut for kumare, a Filipino term of endearment for close female friends.
Basketball still remains the national past time, and the afternoon games in the SHACC attest to this. Some players enter the court barefoot, possibly for better traction.
There are many kids playing around. When we asked if the people practice family planning, they said yes. This was interesting: the Rogationists, the Catholic order of priests and brothers that have started this ministry, gave freedom to the families to practice whichever kind of family planning method they liked. The people here are more educated in terms of reproductive health—if only the rest of the country were.
I thought I was looking at a mirror when I saw Jed, a quiet little boy. I shall add him to my growing collection of look-alikes, which includes Boy Abunda, Mahatma Gandhi, Allan K, and Jay Taruc.
The people love living here. Most, if not all, households leave the slippers and shoes outside; they go barefoot inside. The floor are so clean you can lick them.
All sorts of domestic animals live in the compound, forming an alternative source of income for many families.
There are dogs and cats. The dogs are usually chained to the houses; they function as living security alarms. I personally prefer cats, especially the big, fat, sleepy ones.
The residents strive to beautify their spaces. These vines both serve an aesthetic and nutritional function. The green looks great with the brown bricks.
When we first came to Ate Nelyn's home, this sign written in Jejemon greeted us. This house eventually became our meeting and hang-out place. We listened to her family's stories. She is an outstanding mother who will do anything for her children. How about her husband? we asked. She answered along the lines of, "I love him more today than yesterday."
From the balcony we saw the depressing situation outside of SHACC: shanties and makeshift houses made of wood and planks and rusted roof. The contrast was striking. (Click photo below for more details).
A three-storey shanty towered confidently above them all. These crowded communities are prone to fires. Communicable diseases also readily spread in these areas. Current residents of SHACC have been saved from these living conditions, but they've not been totally rescued from the mire of poverty.
Meanwhile here we were, documenting every single step we took. For our creative project we want to make a magazine and a documentary. We feel like amateur journalists telling their stories.
Krushna Canlas was right: "Community Medicine is an art best experienced than said or seen."
More on our community immersion in the next posts.