Mired in poverty

When families are mired in poverty, it’s the children – in all their innocence – who become the principal victims.  Their future is at once compromised. They grow up without proper nourishment, their young bodies battered by disease and parasites against which they have little protection.  Their schooling, even if free, becomes a haphazard experience, marked by interruptions beyond their control. Often they’re too hungry to walk to school, or too busy foraging for food that will tide the family over till the next day.  Food is always the first priority under these circumstances.

This picture of Philippine poverty, so common in media reports, has become almost a cliché. Endless repetition blunts its urgency. We all learn to move on without being bothered.

It is different when the picture shows people you have known.  I know one such family in these dire circumstances. I have become their accidental benefactor, and though I have reluctantly embraced this role, I’m still not certain that I can help change the course of their lives.  But it’s worth a try.

Rosalie and Dodoy married even before either one of them had a steady job — of course.  If you’re young and did not finish grade school, you can’t expect to land a stable job in the provinces.  And if you’re unemployed, chances are you’ll find yourself starting a family before you’re ready.  Theoretically, we can call people to account for the decisions they make in life.  But the word “decision” seems inapplicable to people in Rosalie and Dodoy’s circumstances. It is more accurate, I think, to say they’re “thrown” into a way of life they did not exactly choose, living a pre-ordained script they’re likely to pass on to their own children.

They were migrants from Bicol.  Bringing with him his young bride, Dodoy moved to Bataan to live with his parents’ family.  His father, a caretaker in a small farm owned by my brother, had settled there with his wife and their entire brood of 10 other children.  This was about 15 years ago.  Rosalie came to work as a house help in my mother’s home in Quezon City, going back to Bataan once a month, while her husband took on odd jobs in construction sites. Before long, she became pregnant with their first baby, and so she had to quit working.  I did not see them again after many years later.

The couple, with two kids in tow, approached me one day while I was planting some mango saplings in the 1.5 hectare lot I keep on the slopes of Mt.Malasimbo.  I didn’t recognize them until Rosalie introduced herself as my late mother’s former maid. They asked if I had someone to look after the mango farm.  I smiled, thinking that the place, with 30 mango saplings, was hardly a farm.  Rosalie has always been the confident one; she did most of the talking. She asked if I would let them put up a small shack on the property and use the space between the mangoes and the coconuts to plant seasonal vegetables.  Of course, I said without hesitation.  In return, they promised to watch over the trees I planted.

That’s how I found myself “thrown” into a relationship of dependence and patronage for which I was neither psychologically nor ideologically prepared. First, they needed a small financial assistance to complete the tiny shack they were building.  They asked to “borrow” money, offering to pay it back in kind or in labor.  I gave them the money and called it a contribution.  Then they needed pesticides, fertilizer, and balls of string for the vegetable patch they cleared.  I gave them what they needed and this time I said it was a loan.  Harvest time came and what they earned from the sale of their produce was less than half of the money they owed.  I accepted a few bunches of the string beans they brought to me in payment, but I didn’t have the heart to take the cash.  I advised them to use the money instead to plant corn and mongo.

The kids came one after the other, until there were four additional mouths to feed.  The eldest, a boy of 14, is in high school.  The two girls in between are in grade school.  The youngest, an 18-month-old boy, is still feeding from his mother’s breast.  For the last five years, I have been giving Rosalie a monthly allowance of P1000 to help with the food and school needs of the children.  In search of regular work, Dodoy left for Manila, but what he earned in the big city as an “extra” tricycle driver was barely enough for his own needs.

One summer, the couple explored the possibility of going back to Bicol and live with Rosalie’s parents. Their visit didn’t last more than a month; they could not endure the hunger and deprivation in her father’s home.  It was worse than they suspected.

Last month, Rosalie came to see me. Calmly, this frail woman of about 35 and mother to four young children told me that her husband had left her.  She wanted to know if they could continue to stay on the property. I assured her it was no problem with me, but I inquired how she intended to feed her family. She said she earned a little from buying and selling at the nearby market.  She just wanted to make sure, she said, that her children’s schooling would not be interrupted, and that her eldest boy at least would finish high school. That was her big dream. I was stunned by her staunch belief in the miracle of education and by her fierce determination to carry on without her husband.

It was then that I began to reconsider my initial skepticism about the government’s conditional cash transfer program. Out there, there are millions of other Filipino children equally mired in poverty who deserve society’s protection, whose future should not be compromised by their elders’ inadequacy, misfortune, or irresponsibility.