Sharing a rich experience concerning poverty - December 10, 2015
I want to share with you an experience I had with poverty. This wasn't my first experience because as a younger man I had travelled via merchant ships to many parts of the world; some wealthy, many with poverty as the main theme. Since merchant ships berth at docks that are inevitably close to the quarters of cities where poverty reigns supreme my exposure was immediate. I had seen, and was affected by poverty, and reacted to the poverty I saw. My reaction was an altered mindset, from that of a working class son from working class families that had little in the way of excess, but enough to not have to beg, to one of extreme gratefulness for what was in comparison an endless bounty. Enough food, enough clothing and most definitely enough to eat. Schooling was free and I was educated by the City of Birmingham in post war England which city had some enlightened attitudes from which I benefited.
But the same could not be said of many of the countries I visited.
I had an experience much later in life where I became quite ill, barely sixty years old I felt that my life was coming to an end. I was extremely ill. However a relative in the Philippines had passed away and for the first time I was going to visit my Filipino family branch. I was prepared for the poverty I experienced, I was also prepared to mourn and to live in conditions that were not conducive to my well being.
My experience in that remote and dangerous part of Mindanao was utterly pleasant, the people happy to finally meet me and I was treated with great kindness and forbearance. I couldn't go anywhere, white and more than six feet tall I stood out like a sore thumb in an area where I was distinct. I needed the protection of the males of the family I stayed with and it wasn't a joke, my habit of going where I wanted and doing what I wished was severely curbed. There was real and ever present danger for me, or so I was told.
There were no furnishings in the hut I stayed in. I slept on the floor and could see pigs and chickens running around under the house. None of this bothered me emotionally or intellectually, I suffered from the physical deprivation that was my illness.
I slept a good deal of the time.
When I left the village and arrive in Zamboanga City I stayed in a comfortable hotel with intermittent water in the shower but comfortable beds. With only days left to my trip to the Philippines I was anxious to find some artifact that I could return home with and to explore the city. A three wheel motorcycle driver was hired for the day, he was taller than I and the idea that I might be in danger was utterly dispersed. I could once again go where I wanted, and do more or less, what I wanted. I was dismayed when we stopped at traffic lights and we were surrounded by beggars. Men, women, children holding their hands out for a few pesos. That wasn't the shock, the shock was that the people, men, women and children were for the most part naked and what clothing they had was extremely ragged. In my past experience I had never seen such a sight. Adults that were exposed except for a small article of clothing and children even into puberty were utterly naked. I gave each time but it was never enough.
I wanted a shop that sold something Filipino, something that was part of the culture of the past and not the layered cultures of invading Europeans and Americans, but something that was part of their heritage, a replica was expected would have been fine. The driver found a shop and we went there.
As I struggled out of the cab of the motorcycle the driver went ahead and I noticed he gave some coins to a little girl, possibly ten or eleven years old. She was dressed like a Catholic schoolgirl, plaid skirt, white blouse, she had dirty bare feet, not a Catholic schoolgirl but someone who wished they were. But she didn't look like the crowds of schoolchildren in school clothes I had seen in my travels. She was rather unkempt and her clothes were somewhat dishevelled. Obviously she was doing her best and who knows what burdens she bore. She may have been supporting siblings younger than herself or even a whole family.
I reached into my pocket and grabbed a coin, the only coin in my pocket. I didn't see the value until it was in her hand. It was a ten peso coin, whereas before I had been handing out smaller denomination coins. She hadn't raised her head for the driver and she stared for a second at the coin and then looked up at me and smiled.
What happened next is beyond any explanation I can give, I do not understand it. Perhaps it was because I was still quite ill. But somehow I doubt it was that alone.
A bright light emanated from that girls face as she smiled and smacked me square in my solar plexus. It took away my breath and I swayed a little from the impact. I was immediately filled with a tremendous sense of well being and happiness. Something that had been eluding me for some months now. No words passed between us. After I regained my composure I smiled back at the girl and turned and went into the shop.
I had no idea how long that transaction took me, but it must have been a more than a short while because my companions, a nephew and the driver, were waiting for me. Neither said anything and I resumed my search for memory piece to bring home. I didn't find it.
Ten pesos would have been riches indeed for such a person, survival for several days had been assured. But I did not know any of these things until later. Some chastised me for giving so much, other praised me for my generosity. Neither was correct in their judgements for I had no idea of the face value of the coin when I gave it. The memory of her and the desire to send her more help did not leave me for some years. And even now nearly ten years later I cannot shift that image and that experience from my mind. It seems to be imprinted on my very soul.
I wrote this after I saw a post by Jennifer Motisi, a contact of mine, and this picture:
Thank you Jennifer, and thank you all for allowing me to express an experience that until now I have only shared with close friends.