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The Gospel on Smokey Mountain

A United Methodist Congregation in Ministry

by Paul Jeffrey

Although Smokey Mountain has been discontinued as a dump site, a new site has opened nearby, where thousands of people earn their living retrieving sellable and recyclable materials.
Although Smokey Mountain has been discontinued as a dump site, a new site has opened nearby, where thousands of people earn their living retrieving sellable and recyclable materials.
Image by: Paul Jeffrey
Source: New World Outlook
The children of Smokey Mountain help recycle materials taken from the dump near Manila.
The children of Smokey Mountain help recycle materials taken from the dump near Manila.
Image by: Paul Jeffrey
Source: New World Outlook

New World Outlook, September/October 2005

Janet Sapio’s husband comes home about 4:00 a.m., having worked through the night plucking recyclable materials out of the garbage dump by flashlight. Sapio quickly fixes a simple breakfast for her children and walks to the dump where, as the sun rises and the first garbage trucks of the morning begin to rumble in with their loads of rotting waste, she takes her turn coaxing scraps of copper, plastic, and broken glass from the rubble. She keeps at it all day, often jostling with other scavengers to gain access to a new load of garbage. A scar on her arm testifies to the sharpness of the hooks they wield in pursuit of profit. About 5:00 p.m., she sells her harvest for about $2, a bit more if some of her children have come along to help, and then walks wearily home. It’s her husband’s turn once again.

Sapio, 32, has been working in the dump since she was 10 years old. She first labored on the infamous Smokey Mountain, but after it was closed a decade ago, she moved to a new dump a mile away, where Manila’s refuse inexorably pushes back the sea.

She would like to find another way to make a living.

“Although it’s all I know, I really don’t like it here,” she said. “Maybe I could get hired as a street sweeper. That’s a regular job that pays 280 pesos [about $5] a day. But I didn’t make it past grade school, and I don’t know how to read very well.”

Sapio has added to her already long day a literacy class at the Smokey Mountain United Methodist Church, where she’s a member. Although she works in the dumps, she has dreams.

A History of Struggle
It was once a small village by the sea, the houses of fishing families connected by wooden walkways, a place for children to gather mussels, oysters, and starfish from Manila Bay. Then 50 years ago the burgeoning city of Manila started dumping its garbage there, the fishers became dump scavengers, and the bay turned into a poisoned lagoon.

By the 1970s, the site became the city’s primary dump site and a magnet for peasants fleeing poverty and war in the countryside. If the new migrants could find work nowhere else in Manila, they could always launch themselves into the mounting pile of garbage to tease out scraps of metal or glass that they could sell for cash. They built their homes—using materials they rescued from the dump—beside the dump, and even on top of it. Occasionally the mountain of trash would collapse on their houses, or the smoldering fire would ignite dozens of shanties at a time. Their lives were so intertwined with the dump that they became indistinguishable from the garbage, disposable people generated by an increasingly consumerist society.

By the early 1980s, what someone had dubbed “Smokey Mountain” had become an international embarrassment for the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, whose wife Imelda was busy collecting thousands of pairs of shoes in the Malacañang Palace. In 1982, Marcos ordered the relocation of the often barefoot scavengers. Smokey Mountain, he decreed, would become a seaside golf course or a park for the middle class. Bulldozers demolished the houses of the poor as soldiers stood guard.

The new housing site—some 25 miles south of Manila—had government-built latrines, yet no water, no electricity, and no employment. Within weeks, the scavenger families began to return to the old dump site, refusing to die quietly of hunger in an out-of-sight neighborhood. As the People’s Power movement gained momentum, eventually overthrowing Marcos, the scavengers, with encouragement from the Catholic Church, organized and pressured the government to let them stay and develop the dump site into a viable community. Their struggle paid off. In 1988, President Corazon Aquino ordered a feasibility study for a low-cost housing project alongside the dump.

In 1995, the dump was closed, though a new site was opened just a mile away. The residents were moved into temporary housing (three-story pavilions) and the dump itself was reduced somewhat in size. It nonetheless remains, not a golf course, but an actual smoking mountain of old garbage that towers over the surrounding neighborhoods.

The government housing authority began construction of five-story apartment buildings. Corruption and bureaucratic delay took their toll, but residents were finally able to move into the new structures in 2004. Several families received grants from the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help put tile floors over the rough cement of their new homes.

The “temporary” housing they moved out of is not unoccupied, however. Some families couldn’t meet the minimum $8 a month mortgage payments on the new apartments, or afford the monthly payments for water and electricity. So they remain in the primitive temporary shelters, which are free, and they have been joined by new residents who’ve migrated from other parts of the city.

A Better Future
The Smokey Mountain United Methodist Church was organized in 1985. For the last two decades, it has acc- ompanied the people of the dump as they’ve struggled to survive with dignity at the edges of modern Philippine society.

The congregation currently holds weekly worship and Bible study classes in a small room underneath several of the new apartment buildings. The church also sponsors a kindergarten program; 39 children were enrolled last year, and this year the congregation is planning to expand by adding a nursery program.

According to the pastor of the congregation, Noel Masinba, working with children has given the congregation an open door to working with parents, including offering skills-training and literacy programs.

Concerned about what would happen with children from the kindergarten as they moved up through the grades of public school, the congregation decided to sponsor more than 30 scholarships for children of the community, funded by an Advance Special.

Sun Sook Kim, a United Methodist missionary in Manila said: “People here want to get an education as a way of building a better future, but they have a hard time earning enough to buy the rice and fish they need to survive. And although education is supposedly free through high school, in reality, there are costs for school supplies, uniforms, and transportation. When a family has several children, those costs become impossible to pay.”

The scholarship program assists students through college if they continue studying.

Overcoming Stigma
Helen Demesa received help all the way through nursing school. Now 32, Demesa grew up in Smokey Mountain. Her parents had moved to the dump site shortly before her birth because no one charged them rent to set up a shack on top of the waste heap. Demesa spent her afternoons scavenging with her grandmother, giving the money she earned to her mother. Later, when she went first to midwifery school and later to nursing school, Demesa worked nights in the dump and attended classes during the day. Although she’d bathe and put on clean clothes, Demesa said other children would make fun of her because she nonetheless smelled like garbage. The stigma of living at Smokey Mountain wouldn’t wear off easily.

She recalled: “You couldn’t get the smell off you, and sometimes people would look at you as if they were looking at garbage. I felt ashamed.”

Although she moved into the new apartments at Smokey Mountain last year, Demesa said she’d like nothing better than to leave. She said the apartments are noisy, violent, and dirty. And there’s always the mountain just outside the window, still smoky.

Vanessa Simbahan also dreams of leaving. Like many young Filipinos, she’s the product of government policies that mask the lack of democratic economic development with programs that encourage people to migrate overseas and send their earnings home. The 16-year old, who was born on Smokey Mountain, just graduated from high school and is entering nursing school. She wants to be an overseas contract worker, one of millions of Filipinos who have made the Philippines the third largest recipient of family remittances in the world.

She said: “When we lived in the temporary housing, it was chaos and I couldn’t study well. Now that we’ve moved into the permanent housing, it’s better, but there are still a lot of drug addicts around, and it’s still noisy. I want to go somewhere else and earn a salary in dollars, but come back here to the Philippines for my vacations.”

Whether they go away or remain on Smokey Mountain, the struggle of the dump’s residents over recent decades has equipped them with a new sense of self-respect that has broken down some of the stigma that long plagued them. Much of that is symbolized in the new housing units; as imperfect as they are, it’s obvious that the people of Smokey Mountain have come a long way.

“They haven’t made the mountain into a golf course yet, nor into a park. And if they do, it’s unclear whether it would be for the rich or for us,” said Vanessa Simbahan’s mother, Vilma. “But what they do know is that they’re never going to kick us out of here again. People are aware now and we’re well organized. We’ll fight to keep our homes. As awful as it is, it’s our home, and we’re not leaving.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and photojournalist. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Support for the Smokey Mountain Project can be given through the Advance to Smokey Mountain Community Development, Advance #11830N.


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Date posted: Sep 06, 2005