On the streets of Manila, homeless Sally is the first of her siblings to go to school
Sally with her mother Grace. “I don’t want Sally to be illiterate or to drop out of Grade 3 like I did,” Grace says. © UNICEF UK/2011/Andy Brown
The Philippines will always have a special place in my heart. I lived and worked here for three months in 2009, following Typhoon Ketsana and the flooding of Manila. It was my first overseas posting and I was captivated by the friendly, outgoing people, the colorful chaos of the cities with their brightly decorated ‘jeepneys’ (public buses made from converted army jeeps), and the unspoilt natural landscapes of the islands and mountains.
One of my tasks back then was to collect photos and stories of children living on the streets of Manila, to feature in UNICEF UK’s ‘Put it Right’ campaign, which aimed to raise awareness of children’s rights and money to protect them. One girl who featured heavily in the final material was three-year-old Sally, along with thirteen-year-old Mary and fifteen-year-old Crisanto (not their real names). Although this time I was in the country to help UNICEF Philippines develop a digital communications strategy, I took the opportunity to revisit the three children and see how they were getting on.
After a morning in the office, I made my way to Childhope Asia Philippines, a local charity supported by UNICEF that works with street children. Childhope is run out of an old Spanish villa in Paco, a district of Manila. The road outside was potholed and lined with posters from local politicians wishing residents a ‘Happy Fiesta’. Inside, the villa was full of faded grandeur – high ceilings, teak wood panels, antiques and oil paintings. An administrator worked on an old typewriter surrounded by paper files, while electric fans thudded rhythmically, moving hot air around the room. Above the bay window hung an alternative take on Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’, with the disciples replaced by Filipino street children.
I was here to meet Butch Nerja, a street educator with Childhope and himself a former street child. I’ve got to know Butch quite well over the last two years and have a great deal of admiration for him and the work that he does. Butch arrived wearing a pink Indian shirt embroidered with gold thread. With three necklaces, chipped nail varnish and long curly hair tied back in a ponytail, he looked more than ever like an aging rock star, a kind of Filipino Keith Richards. “How’s life in Thailand?” he asked me. “I’ve seen your photos on Facebook.” After catching up over rice cake, we took a car to Binondo, where Butch lives and works.
Binondo is Manila’s Chinatown. Its hot, humid and chaotic streets are full of the smells of dim sum emanating from kitchens at the back of the restaurants, mixed with the less pleasant fragrances of sewage and vehicle exhaust. There is a constant roar of traffic, with jeepneys and rickshaws cutting each up other up, their horns blaring furiously. It’s also full of crumbling colonial architecture. Butch pointed out a small soot-blackened statue on one building – a miniature statue of Liberty. “She was born here in Manila before she grew up and went to the States,” he joked.
This is Butch’s ‘patch’ and he knows the streets, families and children by heart. He was constantly greeted by children and families as we made our way past the market stalls. We soon found Sally’s family on a bridge over the canal. It might have been picturesque once – a whitewashed structure over a pleasant waterway. But now it spans a fetid channel where sewage and rubbish drift slowly downstream to the Pasig River and out into Manila Bay. This is the family’s spot, the closest thing they have to a home.
Sally with street educator Butch “Sally is the first of her siblings to go to school,” he says. © UNICEF UK/2011/Andy Brown
Sally is now five years old. She was noticeably taller than last time I saw her and the shape of her face had changed, although she still had the big round eyes that made her such a compelling child to photograph. She was delighted to see Butch and clung onto his hand or wrapped her small arms around his leg.
Last time I met Sally in 2010 she had just recovered from a broken leg, after being hit by an SUV– an incident that highlighted just one of the many dangers facing children living on the streets. This time, thankfully, the news was much more positive. Although the family were still poor and still living on the streets, they were managing to send Sally to elementary school. She started three months ago in June. “Sally is the first of the family’s children to get an education,” Butch says.
Sally’s mother Grace showed me her school uniform, bag and books, carefully packed away in one of several baskets lined up along the side of the bridge. “I’m happy because Sally is at school and she’s learning to read and write,” Grace told me in Tagalog, the local language of the Manila region. “Without an education she’ll go nowhere. I don’t want her to be illiterate or to drop out of Grade 3 like I did. If we can save enough money, I’d like her to finish school and maybe even go to college. It’s up to her what she studies, but if I had to choose I’d like her to be an accountant. I gave Grace a framed picture of the family sitting in her husband Datu’s rickshaw, taken by photographer Sharron Lovell, and she showed it excitedly to her friends before carefully stowing it in one of the baskets. Datu had joined us by this point and I asked him how he felt about Sally going to school. “I’m very light in my heart,” he replied. “Knowing Sally is in school, my heart is not so heavy. I hope we can send the other children as well.”
Sally showed me her school book, which had an impressive number of gold stars. “I like learning letters and how to write my name,” she said. She demonstrated by writing her full name in my reporter’s notebook. There were a few back-to-front letters, as with any child learning to write, but I could read it clearly. I took some pictures of Sally with her schoolbook, although I had trouble getting her to smile. “She lost her front teeth recently and she’s feeling a bit self-conscious,” Butch explained.
Grace is a former student of Butch’s and he’s been counseling her on children’s rights and parenting skills. “It’s really encouraging to see Grace helping Sally with her homework,” he said. “It shows that she’s taking her responsibilities as a parent more seriously. I want to set up a counseling group for all the parents in this area.”
Sally with her school book. “I like learning letters and how to write my name,” she says. © UNICEF UK/2011/Andy Brown
Struggle to survive
Unfortunately, not all the news was good. The family’s youngest child, a one-year-old boy, was in hospital with tuberculosis and Grace was clearly very worried. She was also heavily pregnant with her sixth child. The entire family survives on Datu’s income as a rickshaw driver, which comes to about 100 pesos a day. The more mouths they have to feed, the less there is to go around. This is a massive issue in the Philippines, a Catholic country where the population is fast approaching 100 million. Attempts to change the law to make it easier for people to access contraceptives and information about birth control have so far failed to pass Congress.
The family was already going hungry. “Sometimes they can eat twice a day but not always,” Butch said. “When there isn’t enough to eat they just sleep through the day. Even when they have money, they buy junk food over the counter in Chinatown. It’s cheap but it’s not nutritious. The children are often malnourished as a result. But at least Sally can get healthy food at school.”
Despite their ongoing problems, Grace and Datu were clearly proud to be sending Sally to school and giving her at least the chance of a way out of poverty. I was deeply relieved that the news was mainly good, as this is not always the case. My former boss Angela had just got back from the troubled southern island of Mindanao, which is currently facing a malnutrition crisis. “I met children in treatment centers there and thought ‘they’re not going to make it through the night’,” she told me. “It’s really hard.”
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