04 April 2007

Staring poverty in the face

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

THE last working day for government agencies had me shuttling by FilCab van for what is supposed to be a quick trip to Legazpi. An unexpected power outage in the land of Mayon and the Tiwi Geothermal Plant stretched it by at least three hours.

As a result, my plan to get back to the office before 12 noon did not come to pass, forcing me to munch on a small Tortillos pouch, a handful of dried puto and a bottle of ice tea in what passed for lunch inside another van that would take me back to Naga.

While I was doing so, a crippled man in his early 40s suddenly popped in and earnestly began begging. “Puedi tabi manoy, manay makiolay nin dikit na tabang?” he repeatedly asked everyone inside the van, the frequency increasing with every passing moment that silence greeted his pleadings. I was not alone in pretending we did not hear him, as if he did not exist, choosing instead to look the other way, blankly staring into space.

But the more he was ignored, the more persistent he became. Moments later, after the van’s door closed and reopened again to accommodate a new passenger in the backseat, he began to directly address the lady seated to my right and later me. “Ika tabi ma’am, sir, pueding makiolay nin dikit na tabang?”

That episode kept playing back on my mind over and over again. It reminded me of a similar incident at City Hall, where a stocky woman in her 40s, from whom I would buy delectable steamed puto with bukayo fillings, suddenly appeared at our School Board office one afternoon.

Instantly, I knew it was for a different reason. “Did I somehow forget to pay the puto I got from you?” I asked her, as there were times I was out of cash and she would still sell me her wares on credit. No, she said; but can I give her another job as the putomaker from whom she would get her goods wholesale suddenly closed shop? Politely, I told her my work is not to give jobs to people, and referred her to the Metro PESO office which is just outside and from which the School Board unit only shares our small space.

In situations like these -- when poverty stares you in the face -- everything you learned in school and from books you have read, including the theories why poverty and depravation exist, start flying out of the window, seemingly inadequate in explaining why life must remain miserable for vulnerable segments of society when man has made tremendous advances in science and technology.

Management theory, for one, advises us to avoid owning other people’s problems because we might end up unnecessarily bearing a burden that to these people is no burden at all. Modern theories on poverty put the blame on existing societal structures that prevent people from fully realizing their capabilities. Free marketeers argue it is because of market failure, especially the market is not as free as it should be. Politicians point their fingers on the system, proposing instead a different one, which is claimed to have brought progress and prosperity elsewhere, as the “magic pill” that will solve all our problems.

But clearly, something remains amiss, and episodes that force you to stare poverty in the face serve as a grim reminder that it is a fact of life for many of our fellowmen, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise. And being so inured to this evil makes us fail to consider the possibility that the solution to this problem does not really lie in our hands, but in somebody far greater than us.


mschumey07 said...


I guess I have to sometimes stop an tell myself I'm no god. Everyday, I stare poverty in the face. I see kids and adults alike, needing and wanting.

Like you, I remember the old lady outside my school. I give her my baon of 5 centavos everyday. I ended up working as a student not because we lacked the money but because I was sending kids to school.

If only those who have much can share a little, something concrete so that our neighbors do not have to beg, maybe, just maybe, we can make a difference.

I hope our leaders would heed the plight of the poor. They do not expect dole outs but something they could start with.

Keep up the good work, I know you're making a dent somehow.