Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dignity in the Philippines

There is no word in Tagalog for "dignity", I learned, but I saw it during my time in the Philippines. My time there was filled with snapshot images of human dignity.

I was visiting dear friends who have worked and lived in a "railway communities" for the past several years. Manila's main rail line has been the site of a long string of slums, squatter homes built in the intended buffer zone between where trains run and what the government considers a safe distance. These homes are built right up to where the trains run (at least once an hour on average, it seems) and children play on the rail lines while adults use the space for a variety of purposes, jumping off just in time for the train to come through, then smoothly returning to their walks or games or visits.

Since I couldn't speak the language, I think my senses for other types of input were heightened. I noticed smiles, conversations, children's games and so many other things that were just a part of regular human life. I saw people who live in material poverty but who have this sense that their lives, and the lives of their children, are valuable. They took good care of their children, kept them from the bad kids and made sure they were safe when the train rumbled through. They found creative ways to keep clean when there was no running water for four days and who swept the dust away even when it seemed like a futile endeavour. They welcomed me with a smile and took it upon themselves to ensure that I was well-fed, even though they didn't necessarily have enough food for their own families. They were courageous, took leadership and initiative, and were a testimony to moving forward in life even if physical limitations are daunting.

This is an expression of dignity I have seen elsewhere. Many Middle Eastern shopkeepers rinse the ground in front of their stores with water every morning, with the seemingly-pointless hope of keeping the dust down. I've seen parents who, though they have so little and humbly consider themselves to know little, look after their children with such care, keep themselves and their homes clean, and go so far out of their way to provide me with a simple token of kindness. I think of my friends who give me about 10 kisses on the cheek in greeting and make sure my plate of food is full.

Not everyone had this elusive yet beautiful quality about them. In Manila I also saw people who do not seem to have that sense that their lives have value. In the railway community, I was told of people who pick pockets and deal in underhanded markets for a living, but only do so when they need the money - the idea of a regular job is difficult for them to handle, because they get so much less money for so much more effort. There were men with wife and child who were not working to support them. There were women who spent all day smoking and gambling and who did not often bother to notice if their children were close to the tracks when the train came through.

I've certainly met people without this sense of dignity elsewhere as well. Often, it seems that it's the people whose lives are most physically comfortable who somehow neglect care and courage and responsibility in everyday life. When I was an Arabic student, there were many girls with a listless attitude about life, similar to that of the smoking and gambling women in Manila: they often just sat around and smoked all day, and didn't assume their responsibilities to study, clean or look out for each other. Those were usually the students with special status because of the location of their village or of their ethnic background: it's like they had earned without deserving and so didn't learn to deserve.

So during my four days in Manila I was reminded of some basic truths. That all of humanity shares a common nature, and that values are often much less rooted in culture or location than they are in what is taught and believed about priorities and human worth. That material poverty is a tragedy and should be worked against, but true poverty and wealth are to be found in the heart. That I have so very much to learn from people who are different from me, often less privileged than me, so I need to keep reminding myself to be humble and to seek to learn.

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