Rising from the Smokey Mountain rubbish

A former scavenger, Manuel Manarang now helps those living in the Smokey Mountain community to achieve their dreams

WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERNCE. Manuel and fellow Smokey Mountain advocate Cecilia Martinez-Miranda playfully pose with children from the community. Photo by Mik Bjorkenstam

MANILA, Philippines – The story of Manuel Manarang is not your typical story about overcoming adversity. Breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger from his days as a scavenger in Smokey Mountain, he reached as far as Scotland and had opportunities to live and work abroad.

But despite all the opportunities sent his way he chose to return to the community he grew up in so that he could help others break the cycle.

Manuel made a choice and his choice was to stay.

Growing up in Smokey Mountain, Manuel saw nothing wrong with scavenging. Waking up at 4 am to climb over mountains of trash and scour through recyclables to be resold was a way of life. Old clothes were also profitable. Washed in the ocean, he sold them by the kilo to shipping companies by the pier.

“Wala naman kasing masama sa pamamasura dahil nabuhay naman ako diyan, nabuhay ko yung magulang ko kahit papano. At the same time nakapag-aral ako dahil sa basura… Hindi ko nakikita yung amoy, di ko nakikita yung panganib – pero nandyan lahat ng panganib,” he said.

(There’s nothing wrong with scavenging because I was able to make a living out of it. It supported my parents in some way. At the same time I was able to go to school because of scavenging… I didn’t mind the smell, I didn’t see the danger – but the danger was there.)

This is how Manuel supported himself through school. This is how he provided for his family.

On the dumpsite one day, he was dumfounded by the sight of a group of American missionaries visiting homes around the area. 

“Ginagamot nila yung mga bata puro galis. Eh kahit basurero, hindi mo kayang hawakan yan. Nandidiri pa rin ako eh.” (They were dressing the wounds of the children. Even a scavenger won’t be able to handle that. I myself am still disgusted by those.)

It intrigued him. Why were they doing this? How come foreigners are willing to help out when scavengers don’t even help each other? 

He approached them and they answered, “Out of love. Because God loves these children.”

It struck a chord. He was not really a religious man – a Catholic but not devoutly so. The foreign missionaries prompted in him the beginning of what he describes as a very spiritual journey – away from his life as a scavenger and towards a life of service, giving back, and paying it forward.

From Smokey to Scotland

Before long, Manuel joined the missionaries on their medical missions around the community as an interpreter. That’s how he learned to communicate with people.

 “Doon ko natutunang ipakita mo lang sa kanila yung needs. Ipakita mo lang sa kanila may magagawa sila kahit sa maliit na paraan. Kikilos eh.” (That’s where I learned that you just need to show people the needs. Just show them that they can do something even in a small way. They’ll act.)

So he took the initiative and started the Welcome Friends Association, a community organized group aimed at engaging people to provide better avenues for outsiders willing to extend their help. From there Manuel worked with other organizations and NGOs in the area.

Job offers started pouring in – even from outside of the country – but Manuel decided to stay in Smokey Mountain. He left his paying job and underwent training with Youth with a Mission to work as a missionary for 14 years.

Through his work with the mission he was accepted to a Leadership Development Course in their university in Scotland but with no scholarship or financial means, Scotland seemed impossible.   

Solely living off faith and the kindness of others, he believed it would happen if it was meant to be. Sure enough, in the days leading to his departure, a Dutch couple who had learned about Manuel’s predicament through a mutual friend sponsored his airfare and provided for his tuition. To top it off, when he arrived at the university to pay his tuition, he found out that it was already paid for by an anonymous donor.

He spent 5 months in Scotland and even traveled to Germany and Holland where he was offered a job working with refugees. He turned it down because his heart was still in Smokey Mountain.

BREAKING THE CYCLE. Manuel Manarang shares his amazing story. Photo by Michaela Romulo/Rappler

Advocate for education

When Manuel returned to the Philippines he continued handling the sponsorship program of Youth with a Mission but he felt that he could do more.

“It’s not enough to send the children to school. Provide lang yung mga school supplies. Hindi yan sapat. Lalo na kung yung mga batang galing sa komunidad kagaya ng Smokey Mountain.” (Just provide school supplies. That’s not enough, especially for kids coming from a community like Smokey Mountain.)

The approach needs to be holistic. You need to change the mindset of the children so that they understand the importance of finishing their education. You need to provide them a venue where they can study, receive support – even for their families – if you want to break the cycle of poverty.

Born to illiterate parents who never placed much value on education, Manuel attributes his love for education to his older brother. When his parents refused to support his education, he left home. Like his brother, Manuel vowed to finish school even if it meant supporting himself.   

From a morning of picking he would go to school on an empty stomach. His classmates were driven away by the stench of the garbage still clinging to his pores. During recess he had no baon and no friends. But he had a dream and he was happy.

“Nung maliit ako yung Smokey Mountain tingin ko dyan malaking playground ko, malaking eskwelahan ko. Yan ang komunidad ko. Yun yung Smokey Mountain sa akin.” (When I was young I saw Smokey Mountain as a giant playground, my giant school. It was my community. That’s what Smokey Mountain is to me.”)

Double dead

Although Manuel looks back at his childhood with nostalgia it was not without struggle. As a young father and husband, he worked two jobs – scavenging in the morning and at a rubber wear factory in the afternoon – but they still barely got by. Having 3 meals a day was a rarity and a cup of coffee for breakfast was a luxury. But he didn’t mind sacrificing meals as long as his children got to eat and go school.

In the dump he found leftovers that got recooked into meals. Discarded, half eaten fruit were stripped to the core and sipped dry of whatever juices remained. The site of a leftover piece of chicken elicited joy. 

There is a term for that, Manuel said – double dead. “Pag nakakita ng manok kunin nila yan bago balatan nila yan. Hugasan nang konti yan. Yung manok nagkukulay green na…lulutuin nila yun, tapos kakainin.” (When we find chicken they would skin it, wash it a little bit. Even if the chicken was already green in color it would be cooked and eaten.)

Paying it forward

LIFTING SPIRITS. Caught in a playful moment joking with children on the dumpsite. Photo by Cecilia Martinez-Miranda

Today Manuel works as a community empowerment and relations Manager at Young Focus for Education and Development Foundation, an NGO that shares the same vision and holistic approach he believes in.

Although the Smokey Mountain Manuel grew up in was closed in 1996, a newer one just a few miles away still exists. It’s officially known as Sitio Damayan, but to its residents, it’s Smokey Mountain 2.

When asked why he chooses to remain in Smokey Mountain despite all the opportunities that have come his way he replied,  “Makita ko yung mga bata nakatapos ng pag-aaral, makita ko yung mga bata may trabaho, masayang masaya ako.” (When I see children finishing school, when I see that they have a job, that gives me so much joy.)

Dati ang Smokey Mountain kilala tayo bilang mga basurero, kinatatakutan, sinasabi ng tao mga walang pinag-aralan, na umaasa, mga tamad…Kahit mahirap yan paglalaban ko yan…10 years from now tatawagin ang Smokey Mountain isang komunidad ng mga professional…yun ang pangarap ko.

(Before people from Smokey Mountain were known as scavengers, feared, uneducated, dependent, and lazy… Even if it is tough I will fight for it so that 10 years from now Smokey Mountain will be known as a community of professionals. That is my dream.) – Rappler.com

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