It has been 15 years since I last visited Smokey Mountain. As an aspiring journalist who was still in college, I went here to write stories about people living and getting their sustenance from the dump, families who actually rummaged the garbage for their day’s food.The grim images of the mountain would not leave me for years.
Forward to 2005: the smelly heap that haunted me a decade back is no more and what greeted me on this Sunday morning were rows upon rows of “low-cost” buildings, children playing in the streets and teenage boys running around the court in a game of basketball. Now it seems Smokey Mountain has become a village in itself.
Len, a young mother of three, proudly welcomed me into their concrete unit. Her husband was a scavenger who now works as a cellphone technician. They had to put down a downpayment of P1,800 (roughly $30) in order to move in and now have to pay P800 a month in order to stay in the house they call their home sweet home.
Our org went to Smokey Mountain on our monthly outreach program. We paid a measly P1,500.00 to have two huge vats of porridge (arroz caldo) cooked and be distributed to the residents. In our ordinary lives, P1,500.00 would just be the cost of a hotel buffet lunch or a simple shoe purchase in a mid-level store. Or it could just be what a government fatcat would pay his driver as a “tip” for the day. But in Smokey Mountain, P1,500.00 (less than $30 at the current exchange rates) was enough to feed 500 people. I realized then that it only takes so little to make a big difference, and what is little to us is a big deal to the less fortunate. Hence, we should always count our blessings.
Smokey Mountain is not bereft of unsung heroes. The local parish priest, Fr.Ben Beltran – who is an electrical engineer by profession – is spearheading SM’s cyber-revolution. He proudly showed us a computer room which would house a data encoding facility that will provide jobs to thousands of Smokey Mountain residents. In the very near future, the dump will also be the site of a call center and the world’s first “environmental” church.
Aling Luz reveals that there are an estimated 6,000 families residing in Smokey Mountain. Considering that some families have eight or nine dependents, the total population could reach half a million. Says Luz: “Eh naniniwala kasi sila sa sinabi ng Diyos na humayo kayo at magparami kaya ayan, nagparami sila. Magtataka ka naman, matataba at malulusog ang mga bata namin dito.” (The people here believe in what God said, to go out and multiply that’s why they have multiplied. You would wonder though. Our children here are plump and healthy.)
Going to Smokey Mountain is definitely an eye-opening experience. Poverty may stand for what’s wrong in all of us, but it can also signify the h-o-p-e that’s in all of us – to live, despite all.