While stuck in Matina’s traffic jam, a child of no more than 10 years entered the jeepney I was in and deftly placed little white envelopes on each passengers’ laps. Scribbled in children’s script was a message, “give me money for food,” and written in the dialect. He then proceeded to stand behind the driver’s seat, faced us and played crude notes on a rusty harmonica. As most of the passengers were students at a university nearby, only a few among us obliged him with loose change. After about two minutes, his short recital was over, and he calmly collected each envelope and disembarked from our jeepney without a word said.
I followed him with curious eyes as he ran underneath the shadow of a giant billboard that ironically advertised a food chain, filled with pictures of hamburgers and hotdogs. There, he deposited his meager earnings to a man who waited in the shade. Then he was off again to another stalled jeep.
My little boy’s tale sadly ends there, although I would have preferred that it ended earlier, at the moment he went down our vehicle. Who was that man, a parent? Friend? Or a handler? Was it a joint family undertaking or a syndicate operation? I wanted to know, but what interests me more is this, did he get to eat at all?
Years ago in Tagum, I witnessed a group of teens of indigenous Badjaos alight from a jeepney near the highway crossing entry to the city. As they quickly dispersed into small groups of twos and threes, I distinctly heard the driver’s companion call out that they meet at the same junction at around six in the evening.
While the two scenarios show poverty as a common topic, they nonetheless depict lesser-known perspectives. In our household, whenever someone comes calling and begs for small money, we instead offer packets of biscuits and cold water. Biscuits and bread may not be the same as having actual food on the table, but it is temporary relief from hunger just the same, especially when one walks the whole length of a big subdivision seeking alms. Cold water (that we store in re-used water bottles) also helps, and greatly eases one’s thirst on any hot day. Because others often come with little kids in tow, we also keep old toys and used clothes handy, just in case.
Now, in the end, these may all just seem to be insignificant gestures, yet after considering the things I have seen and believe to know, it is the safer compromise. While on one hand we empathize with less privileged people everywhere and their sad plight, we likewise have our own views when it comes to mendicancy.
How about that mysterious shadow under the food billboard who collect little boys’ earnings, or the driver who ferries a group of Badjaos from one point to another? While their existence may leave a bad taste in the mouth, they need to be mentioned and exposed, when one contends with all these poverty.
As one balances all these bits of reality and attempt to find their place in the overall equation, one helps but wonder, who are we really helping here?