Many thanks for all of your generous support for my Slum Survivor Challenge.
I am back in Singapore now and did indeed survive 🙂
It was a tough week, harder than I expected. I lost 4kg over the week as a testament to how physically demanding it was and the calorific restrictions due to lack of money for food. I made just S$24 for the week for six 12hrs days and to complete the experience I came down with dengue fever.
My challenge took place in Tabunok, Talisay City, part of Metro Cebu the second most populace city in the Philippines.
The home I stayed in was in an “informal” settlement area of Tabunok, one in an area of more than a thousand such households. Each household had as many as three families, or extended families under one roof.
There was no running water, no toilet, no bed, an open drainage system. It was crowded noisy and polluted.
Tabunok is the commercial center of Talisay and is a vibrant busy area with a number of markets. From 4 am until 11pm at night the streets are busy and packed with traffic.
Talisay City Social Services has just 3 social workers for a population of more than 200,000. Poverty is rife. Children sleep on the streets, literally on the cold hard pavement. They scavenge through piles of garbage to find food or anything to sell to buy food.
Crime, drugs and violence are common. “Shabu” (methamphetamine), alcohol and cheap solvents provide escape from the realities of life for many. Many street kids use “Rugby” and “Vulcaseal” to take away the constant feelings of hunger. The solvents giving the user the feeling that they have eaten a full meal and are themselves more affordable than food.
Gian is an AkarakA scholar that was my host for the week. Right off the main road and behind the market area a series of narrow passageways leads to his house. The passageways follow beside the drainage system, open in most places covered by slabs in others. Gian’s house being in a low lying area of the community the drains overflowed daily with a series of stepping stones on which to walk.
Once or twice a day the drains were manually empted with a community member scooping the waste water over into the next drainage system. The standing water and sludge was black. Animals were slaughtered and butchered over these drains the offal and fluids from the carcases adding to the effluent.
Gian’s house consisted of two rooms. The main area downstairs with a small wooden stairs leading to the sleeping area above. As a guest I have a small wooden table for a bed so did not have to sleep on the floor. The table was about 155cm long in a room no more than 165cm wide so even at just 172cm height I had to curl up to sleep. I shared the accommodation with 3 others, Gian and two of his brothers. It was quite still in the house with very little breeze. Two open windows provided ventilation for the sleeping area. They did not have an electric fan or any appliances other than a single bulb that lit the downstairs room.
Water was fetched from a community pump to use to bathe. This was done just outside the backdoor of the house the water flowing into the drainage system. This was the same area used to urinate and wash laundry.
I started work on the Monday morning as a trisikad driver. The bike was a small bmx sized bike welded to an iron frame to accommodate passengers. It had one working brake and no gearing just a fixed wheel single speed. For the first few days Gian rode on the back of the bike as translator and to help me get my bearings. His weight was in addition to the weight of the passengers I would ferry around. With two passengers and Gian I was cycling with at least 180kg of weight per trip. Four passengers was the most I took at any one time. The heat and the tiny size of the bike amplified the physical difficulty of the work.
Minimum fare was 5 pesos (S$0.13) for a distance of about 2km. My first day I earned 170 pesos but needed to pay 50 pesos a day for the rental of the trisikad. Over the week the most I made in a day (after rental) was 170 pesos and the least was 55 pesos. For the 55 peso day I had a couple of punctures the cost of repair that ate into my earnings and it rained heavily in the afternoon and so there were fewer passengers. Even so I was constantly on the move trying to find passengers. In total I earned 750 pesos (just under S$24) for the week.
The other trisikad drivers and locals had never seen a Caucasian driver before and the first few days everyone stared and pointed. Many of the locals were hesitant to use me and did not know why I was living in the community. They did not know why a wealthy “Americano” was working such a job. Everywhere I went I was followed with shouts of “Hey, Americano!!”. I quickly gave up trying to explain I was actually English as it did not seem to make much difference. Slowly as word got out the novelty turned into shouts of support as I pedalled hour after hour along with the regular drivers. The other drivers became very supportive and helped to jostle and persuade hesitant passengers to ride with me. Before long I had a whole bunch of new friends 🙂
The first day of work was tough but I still had energy reserves from adequate nutrition before the challenge. As the week wore on I was constantly working with a calorific deficit making each day harder than the one preceding. Drinking water was 1 peso for about 250ml, despite the expense I had to constantly drink to stay hydrated and needed to pay at least 10 pesos a day for water just for myself. A meal of around 400 calories cost from 20 pesos and up. Rice (30 pesos/kg) formed the bulk of the meals with pork (120 pesos/kg) or chicken (100 pesos/kg) as the most common protein. With rice, half a kilo of meat, seasonings, charcoal for the stove etc… around 100 pesos (S$0.50 per person) was enough for a one family meal with some leftover rice for the next morning. My average daily take home was just 125 pesos and not enough for three meals a day.
On my final night and in my honour the family had a fighting rooster that had been paralysed in a tournament. This was killed and cooked for my final meal. It’s throat was slit over the drain outside and cooked with a few vegetables and seasonings. For this special occasion I broke protocol and bought beer for Gian’s dad and myself to share 🙂
It is a tough life with little chance of hope for many. Having visited many such areas before and knowing what I was getting into it was still eye opening for me. The lack of opportunities to earn money, the expense of food and daily living costs that are just so much in relation to income. It is an impossible battle to survive. I could not even afford the very basic necessities. It was much harder than I envisaged. Intellectually understanding a life in poverty was very different from the pain and sweat and daily hard work required to just eat…
Everyone works. Even Gian’s 5 year old sister helped the family out by weaving Puso or hanging rice packets made from woven strands of palm frond. 1,000 weaved packets (two sack fulls) paid just 50 pesos.
Gian’s mother died of a heart attack aged just 40 when he was 8 years old, leaving behind five young children. Life has been a struggle for Gian but he does not complain. He has worked since the age of 9 as a barrow boy, a market porter, a trisikad driver amongst many other jobs. He is lucky in that he has the support of his extended family, aunties and uncle that live in the same community. He is the third generation of his family to live in Tabunok. Despite his father’s lack of resources he understands the value of education and Gian has always been encouraged to pursue his schooling before all else.
Gian is smart, very motivated, very hard working yet without this chance at an education and a decent job he would be stuck, trapped by his circumstances. Destined to a life of menial jobs at a less than living wage. Unable to fulfil his potential or contribute to society and sadly with a lower life expectancy.
Now as a scholarship student he takes a Bachelor of Education majoring in Filipino. The cost of his course and associated expenses is $750/year for four years. Too much for his father to afford on his income as a butcher.
At present there is a good demand for Gian’s degree and he should have no problem finding a job. The starting salary for such teachers in a public school is S$550/month with additional employment benefits. A far cry from the S$100/month he would have struggled to earn without a qualification.
Once working Gian will have a family obligation to pay for the education of his younger siblings. This means that the one scholarship provided by AkarakA will have a knock on effect and benefit not just one but a number of individuals for the same cost. The impact of a scholarship is measurable and sustainable beyond just the value to the student themselves.
A $550/month income will put Gian above the poverty line (Approx $400/month for a family of 5 in the Philippines). With the additional income from his younger siblings once they are qualified the entire extended family will be able to rise out of poverty. Gian’s children will not have to work at 9 years old or experience the same hardships he had to. The cycle of poverty will have been broken.
Scholarships are not just a handout, they are a hand up, they require the work and commitment of the scholar to make the most of the opportunity and take charge of their own future.
The Dean of Talisay City College is notoriously tough on the students running the College with military discipline. He will entertain no excuses, no lateness, strict codes of conduct are required, failing grades must be addressed immediately or else there is someone else willing to take the students place. Students spend a year in on the job training with equally strict requirements so that they are well equipped to join the workforce on graduation.
Through AkarakA’s partner Lihuk Panaghiusa scholars must complete 120 hours of community service per semester. The goal being to produce graduates and professional who in return can help their own family and community.
Parents must regularly attend reviews and weekly social awareness activities facilitated for them to enhance awareness of their responsibilities and develop their commitment in partnering for the intellectual, social and emotional development of their children.
It is not a free ride and requires hard work and commitment from both the scholars and their parents. But those that are fortunate enough to receive these scholarships have a profoundly life changing opportunity.
The best solutions to poverty are those that are targeted to create capacities in people so that they are able to live on their own activities. This is exactly what a scholarship provides.
Overall it was a very valuable learning experience for me. I am happy that I made it through the week, it changed my perceptions of life in poverty more than I imagined. Life on a dollar a day is tough, earning that dollar to begin with is even tougher. It was great to have the opportunity to have such a hands on full immersion into this world, even as just a brief visitor. The support of the local trisikad drivers and community was great.
I sincerely thank everyone for their support and sponsorship of my challenge. Every penny raised will go directly to the beneficiaries and provide a sustainable long term solution to improve lives and break the cycle of poverty. Empowering youth to create a better future for themselves and their families.
A special thanks goes to Lihuk Panghiusa Inc an NGO partner of AkarakA that works within these communities for making it all possible. A great organisation that works tirelessly and selflessly for the betterment of those living in poverty.
My first evening after leaving Gian’s house I went to McDonalds. A simple cheeseburger meal that I would normally think nothing about buying cost me PhP150. More than a day’s wages for 12hrs hard work, more than I earned to feed an entire family for the day, devoured in an instant….