Text and images by Vars Sunio
In November of 2016, I went on a short pilgrimage to the Manila Cathedral with two friends. Afterward, I invited them to accompany me on a visit to the slums of Intramuros to interview a large family.
Raising a large family is a tough task. So I was thinking that listening to stories of struggle, of faith and love of couples trying to support a huge family, may be inspiring for me and my two friends.
I didn’t know anyone in that slum so I asked the locals to introduce me to one such family. One of them then led me to a small and dark home, where a certain Aling Nena lives with her family.
I don’t remember now all the details of our conversation but there is one thing I can still clearly recall. Having learned that the Bernardo couple only earned about P80 per day, I asked Aling Nena if she had ever asked God why they lived under such difficult circumstances.
Aling Nena told me she in fact asked God about it many times in prayer. “And what did God tell you?” I asked in jest. “Nothing. He was silent,” she said, laughing a bit. “But we can always feel He is by our side.”
I graduated from a Catholic university and remembered giving a presentation in class about human suffering. So I knew somehow that human suffering is difficult to fathom and rationalize. I don’t really buy simplistic explanations to it. But Aling Nena, who was thrust in the midst of suffering, giving testimony of God’s assuring presence, born out of her experience, was very credible for me.
To this day, I still fondly remember that experience. So I thought that probably I should invite friends to something like this more often.
And the opportunity came just last month, when two of my friends from Japan came to Manila. They did not go together so I had to organize two separate visits to the slums for them.
I told them that a visit to the slums should be part of the “must-do list” of any tourist in Manila.
Some call it “slum tourism,” but I simply want friends from abroad to discover and experience the joy, faith, and love one can find in the depths of Manila’s most impoverished areas.
The first friend I showed around was Ryosui. He came to the Philippines to volunteer in a service project in Palawan. After the service project, his other companions returned to Japan but Ryosui had to spend two more days in Manila after his flight got delayed because of the recent runway mishap in NAIA.
I thought that a worthwhile way to spend his extra time in Manila would be a visit to the slums. So off we went to the slums in Makati.
This is where we met Aling Edna. She has a big family of six children. For a living, she runs a small store in her neighborhood. We talked to her while drinking from a bottle of Coca Cola we bought from her store.
I asked Aling Edna to tell me the toughest years of her life. She said that it was the long time that she, her husband, and two children spent as “mangangalakal ng basura” (garbage traders). They had to do this for a number of years, beginning late in the evening and finishing early morning of the next day.
Some call it ‘slum tourism,’ but I simply want friends from abroad to discover and experience the joy, faith, and love one can find in the depths of Manila’s most impoverished areas.
Listening to her stories, I was completely taken aback. Just to survive, does she have to go this low? I wondered.
I politely asked her how she and her family managed to last with that kind of job, trying not to offend. She said that while it was a difficult and lowly job, she never felt it was inhuman. “Dahil po sa trabaho na ito hindi tumigil sa pag-aaral ang mga anak ko (Because of that job, my children never had to stop going to school),” she explained. “Marangal ang kahit anong trabaho basta hindi ka gumagawa ng masama (As long ss you’re not doing anything wrong, any job is dignified).”
I could not remember now how they managed to leave their old livelihood and put up their store. But what I clearly remember was how when she was recollecting the toughest moments of her life, and how she got through them “sa awa ng Diyos,” she was in tears. And not only Aling Edna. Others I visited in the past would also easily cry when they tried to recall how tough life had been and how God showed mercy to them.
It seems it is the poor, those who have less in life, who are easily moved and deeply touched by the mercies they receive from God.
A great majority of my Japanese friends are non-believers. And so I thought that to witness the faith of the Filipinos should also be part of their experience in Manila. For many in the slums, God is a reality, His mercy they have experienced firsthand. So what better way to witness the faith and piety of the Filipinos but to see it lived by the poor?
The second Japanese friend I brought to the slums recently is Taiki. After our brief sightseeing tour of Fort Santiago, San Agustin Church, Manila Cathedral, and Casa Manila, I brought Taiki to the slums in Intramuros. There, we met Ate Nikki. I approached her for some help. Since I didn’t know anyone in the slums, I asked her to introduce me to a large family for a short interview. She told me she had six children, so she happily volunteered to be interviewed.
She led us into their small home. She asked me what the interview was about, and I said: “Ate, gusto ko lang malaman ang drama ng iyong buhay (I only want to know the drama of your life),” I jokingly said.
“Sir, marami (There are lot),” she replied laughing. She then recounted the toughest years she spent living in the streets of Intramuros with her husband and their first three children, as well as the time her husband could not work after being stabbed by a stranger because he refused to hand over the money he was supposed to use to buy milk for their children.
“Kaya naman Sir, noong gumaling na ang asawa ko, laki ng pasasalamat namin sa Diyos (That’s why we are very grateful to God),” she said. On that day, they both became devotees of the Black Nazarene.
“Ate, paano po kayo nagkabahay? Hindi ba dati nabubuhay kayo sa kalsada? (How did you manage to finally get a house, after living on the streets before?)” I asked. She told me that her husband now has a regular job in a travel agency, working as a messenger.
“Kailangan magtiis para sa mga anak. Hindi pwedeng habang buhay nasa kalsada sila (We had to endure everything for our children. They shouldn’t live on the streets forever),” she continued, showing me the photos of her children—all six of them.
One of my Japanese friends wrote later on about his experience: “Despite their circumstances in life, it is impressive that people in the slums still find things to be happy about.” Another one remarked, “The unity of the family is very strong. I think this was brought by their strong belief in God, which I liked.”
In the slums, there is poverty. There is misery. But when you see past that, there is also joy, faith, and love.