24 January 2011

Princes and paupers


By: Alec Francis A Santos

Joe is a trusted pedicab driver in our subdivision. Some years back, he used to pick up my sister from our house and bring her to the nearest jeepney stop. Now he often helps out with some chores at home.

A father of five, Joe struggles to make ends meet like millions of other Filipinos. His meager daily income is never enough to feed his children. Like millions of other Filipinos, Joe and his family don’t have their own house. Their makeshift shelter, made from scrap metal, rickety plywood boards and some rusty nails offer little protection from the cold, wind and rain. They live on private property, and are in danger of losing the only home they have.

One time, a panic-stricken Joe came to our house. He seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown. His voice cracked up as he told me his 4-month-old baby had high fever and he was at his wits’ end on what to do. He said he needed P500 for his baby’s medicine and offered to pawn his pedicab, his only source of income.

I was shocked by his proposal. Here was a man who was ready to give up his family’s source of income because he could not afford to buy medicine for his baby.

Joe told me and my aunt that the cold wind and heavy rains made their youngest child sick. Without proper nutrition, the baby easily developed high fever with the cold and damp.

Being a nurse’s son, I knew enough to realize that without proper medical attention, his baby might suffer an unspeakable tragedy. As Joe talked, I could not help but notice his eyes welling up with tears. He was trying to be composed, but his parental instincts were overwhelming him.

Instead of taking Joe up on his offer, my aunt Joan gave him the sum he said he needed without condition. We told him to bring his baby to the city hospital immediately and to let doctors take a look at it.

I can remember how his lips quivered and how his hands trembled as he took the money and struggled to speak. The look in his eyes expressed his gratitude more eloquently than any words could ever have. The way he looked at us moved us deeply and in ways we cannot explain.

As Joe rushed back home, my aunt and I couldn’t help but discuss how things in our country and society are turning from bad to worse. She observed that even though we are not rich, we are still lucky. But more important than just making us feel fortunate, Joe’s situation stirred in us a willingness to do whatever we can to help our struggling countrymen.

We discussed at length the greed and selfishness pervading society and our people’s widespread apathy and ignorance. Indeed, some Filipinos would prefer to immerse themselves in trivial televised fantasies than face reality head on. Some relegate charity work to overworked foundations and NGOs and don’t care if street children sleep on flattened cardboard boxes. They might spare a few pesos at the fast-food counter for charity coin banks yet they cannot share excess food with starving children on the other side of the glass.

I think the huge glass walls in fast-food restaurants accurately reflect the elite’s response to poverty and social strife. The privileged “princes” stay inside, safe, comfortable and with plenty to eat. A few centimeters of glass is all that separates them from their hungry countrymen out in the heat. The princes can see the poor clearly. They see rows of starving children peering through the glass, their eyes following the food even as the princes pretend not to see them.

In the mother of all ironies, palatial houses sit next to makeshift scrap metal houses. Abject poverty and lavish lifestyles lie side by side, with the princes oblivious to the plight of the paupers.

I am appalled by the lack of concern many people show. Often, I and my girlfriend Abigaille (Youngblood, 2/14/10) wonder if our people still have a conscience. I appreciate the fact that she is well aware of our society’s ills. As writers, we have regular discussions and try to make good use of our skills to initiate change whenever and wherever we can. She has her own stories to tell about poverty, inequality and injustice in our society. We are sometimes sickened by the extreme apathy people to show. How can people consciously ignore the face of poverty staring at them through the glass and still enjoy their meals?

Each and every day, our hearts are torn when we see people passing entire families lying on the pavement, pausing only to glance at them and feel fortunate and good about themselves. Many Filipinos take for granted the widespread poverty and misery around us. But for the countless homeless, this is their life. This is not just a 30-second intermission in the lives of the princes, rather this is their world.

The sad thing is, we can do so much to help alleviate poverty and yet we are doing so little right now. The solution does not lie with the government, or with charitable organizations alone. The first step to having a meaningful change in our society starts with ourselves. The answer lies within us. We have to awaken to the reality surrounding us. We cannot always run away from our country’s problems.

A few pesos may not seem much to us, but to those in need they go a long way. A few extra pan de sal during breakfast may mean nothing to us, but they are feast for the hungry. For some of us old clothes can be easily discarded, but for the naked they are blessings. We keep so many things in excess and spend too much on non-essentials, even as our countrymen scrounge for whatever useful items they can make use of. Making a few insignificant sacrifices and giving whatever we can to those in need can initiate the change society so desperately needs.

Our country’s history has been an unending cycle of subjugation, abuse and oppression of the poor masses by the privileged, the powerful, the princes. Not much has changed since the time of the Spaniards. The wealthy and the landed still control our economy, our government and our society.

Poverty in our country is a systemic. It is the result of society’s failure to resolve inequality and injustice. I wish people will wake up from their apathy. I wish they will soon realize that it’s never enough to feel pity and that we can truly transform our nation into one without princes or paupers.

-Youngblood (Philippine Daily Inquirer)


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