After writing about hungry children, what next?
His name is Aguinaldo.
He seemed shorter than the average 6-year-old. But this doesn't bother him, since most of the kids from his neighborhood are also short. It’s hard to tell their ages; a 10-year-old may be mistaken for a first grader.
Looks can be deceiving. (READ: Stunted children)
Aguinaldo’s grandmother had big hopes for the boy; after all, he was named after the country’s first president. “Hanggang buhay ako, papaaralin ko ‘yan,” the 59-year-old grandmother said. (As long as I live, I’ll send him to school.)
The boy was excited to soon turn 7, but not so much about school.
I asked him what he wanted to do when he grows up. “’Di ko alam,” he said after giggling. (I don’t know.) He had two fingers inside his mouth; his lips glistened with saliva and drips of snot.
He first entered school in 2013, but his grandmother pulled him out only after a month. “Mahina siya noon,” she explained. (He was weak.) (READ: Kids who can't enter kinder)
But in the next school year, the grandmother is determined to send the boy back to school. I asked her how she’ll do that. “Basta,” she asserted.
She has 9 children, 3 of whom are dead. She has 18 grandchildren, all of them are alive.
Aguinaldo’s mother works as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia.
Before leaving the Philippines in 2014, the 26-year-old solo mother spent nights in a beer house in La Union. “Nagpapadala siya kahit noong 'di pa OFW,” the grandmother said. (She sent money even before she became an OFW.)
But nights when business was slow meant trouble for the family.
The grandmother is currently raising Aguinaldo and his 3-year-old brother. She has been living with her children in a small makeshift home in Manila since 1988. Three of them still live with her, while the rest are away with their own families.
Right across their crowded community is a fish port quite notorious for its child laborers. But Aguinaldo, she said, will never be one of them. He’s going to find a way out, she believed.
The household’s primary breadwinner was a porter, and now he’s dead.
She recently lost her good son to a “gunshot.” She didn’t elaborate. “Siya ang laging sumusuporta sa akin.” (He always supported me.) The son gave her a sari-sari store which is now no more.
I asked her where they get their money now. “Sa anak kong OFW, minsan sa bingo,” she said. (From my OFW child, sometimes, from playing bingo.) Two of her children love bingo; sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t. “Parang buhay,” she said. (Like life.)
The grandmother then spoke proudly of her youngest child. “18 siya, scholar sa high school.” (She’s 18, a scholar in high school.)
The grandmother worked odd jobs and was also a household helper. For a year, her employer gave Aguinaldo food and vitamins. “Mataba siya noon, kaso noong natigil, pumayat ulit,” she said. (He was fat, but when my employer stopped providing, he lost weight again.)
Aguinaldo then got too sick for school.
Aguinaldo’s baby brother is growing up on powdered milk instead of breast milk.
If money’s tight, they usually eat champorado or chocolate rice porridge. If they have enough, they eat fried fish and rice. Yesterday’s leftovers are tomorrow’s meals. Sometimes this cycle repeats itself for too long.
The two boys have never experienced check-ups, according to their grandmother. “Malayo kasi, mahal pamasahe.” (Clinic’s far, fare’s expensive.)
One jeepney ride costs P8 per person, and this competes with water which sells for P5 per container, she said. I asked if she knew about the free health services offered by barangay clinics. She didn’t.
I met them in March 2014. I never saw them again.
I met Aguinaldo and his grandmother after working on a documentary. They were not the subjects of our film; I only met them by chance after finishing our shoot. I was guarding our equipment when a group of children approached me.
They asked me to take their picture. They were already grinning.
It was past noon so I asked, “Kumain na kayo lunch?” (Have you eaten lunch?) “Ano ‘yung lunch?” an 8-year-old girl asked. (What’s lunch?)
I asked them what they usually ate. “Lugaw, pandesal at kape o peanut butter,” they recited as if in class. (Porridge, bread and coffee or peanut butter.) “Tsitserya, minsan sopas.” (Junk food. Sometimes soup.)
Some of them skip breakfast, others also skip lunch. “Nag-memeryenda ako 3 pm,” the girl said. (I eat snacks at 3 pm.) She buys peanuts or chips for P1. Their classes begin at 12 noon and end at 5 pm. They didn’t have classes today – “summer vacation na,” they chorused.
I asked them if they’ve ever been to a doctor, and just like Aguinaldo, most of them said no.
Work was over, I had to go. I said good-bye to grandmother, Aguinaldo, and his friends. As I left, some of the kids followed and asked for money or food. A man also approached me with an empty envelope.
I explained why I was there and apologized for not having anything to give. The kids asked again, and I said no. Again. We turned our backs against each other and walked away.
Something felt heavy.
This was not the first time I met hungry children, and not the first time I left after writing about their stories.
While writing these stories about hunger and poverty, I meet and work with a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Once stories are published, sometimes NGOs or LGUs step in to provide assistance to these children. Readers also ask how they can help and we refer them to these NGOs. And of course, we try to call the attention of the government.
I’ve met dozens and dozens of families whose stories I still carry with me. I will never forget the children who ate soil in lieu of food; the 70-year-old fisherwoman who can’t retire; the female farmers who remain landless for years; the children literally playing with fire; and the many other Filipinos who were and are still being left behind despite the claims that our country’s economy is “booming.”
We write hoping that these stories can inform the public about the roots and effects of hunger; hoping to make sense of the statistics. Knowledge is empowering. The goal is to expose not only the problems, but also possible solutions.
Hopefully, these stories can inspire people to work together on solutions – they don't have to be grand; they can start small within their own families or communities. These small results can have big impacts. Ideally, we end up influencing the way the country’s programs and policies are crafted.
But not all stories have happy endings. Sometimes nobody listens, nobody moves. And the story becomes just another story; nothing changes in the end, not even mindsets.
Yes, our country has a lot of problems, layers upon layers.
Which is more solvable: indifference, poverty, or corruption? I say that the last two problems can be better defeated if we get rid of indifference first.
I'm wondering whether Aguinaldo is at school today like what his grandmother wished, and whether she finally brought them to the barangay clinic. I've always wanted to visit them, but just wasn't able to. And yet here I am preaching about indifference.
I have so much left to learn from all of this.
Writing about hunger is only a small part of the process of solving it, but once more people become better informed about it, the chances of positive change following can be bigger. For now, I’m betting on the power of compassion among Filipinos. – Rappler.com
Fritzie Rodriguez is a writer at Rappler. She mostly writes for the #HungerProject.