Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Extraordinarily Ordinary Story

Her story is the stuff of telenovelas. At a young age, her father died, and since her mother was also jobless, she was sent to live with an aunt who promised to send her to school. She packed what little belongings she had, and left her mother and siblings. Unfortunately the aunt lied, and she was instead sent to work in the fields.

After several years of enduring this, another of her mother’s siblings promised the same thing, and thinking she would finally be given the chance to continue Grade three, she went willingly to Alang-alang, Leyte. Alas, she was instead turned into a maid and yaya- and without pay! This aunt was even worse, maltreating her and leaving her to eat only rice and dried fish all the time- and sometimes their leftovers. There was even an instance where she was sent to sleep outside the house, upon one of her aunt’s whims.

Seeking to escape, she did the neighbor’s laundry and earned twenty pesos every time. When able to finally raise money for her fare to go back home, she ran away but her pertinent belongings which included her report card, were left in Alang-alang.

Back home, it was the same story- extreme poverty which rendered her and her family hungry. Sometimes, they would make a few pesos by going into the fields to collect fallen coconuts and sell them at the market. Her mother remarried- but to a part-time laborer who beat her mother when he was drunk.

A distant relative of Nanay, an old maid who lived in her town took pity on the girl. They both decided to work as maids in a middle class household in Pastrana, but after three months and never receiving a single cent of their wages, they once again decided to leave.

Nanay pleaded our distant relative’s case- this old lady was hardworking (she once worked in Manila as a seamstress, according to Nanay) and could help around the house. The only thing was that she had the young girl in tow.

At first I protested at having to hire two people when we already had one maid at present. But Nanay said that we only had to pay minimal amount for the girl since, officially it was the distant relative we were hiring and that she just took pity on the girl’s situation.

I finally consented. They started working at our house in Tacloban- this girl looked shockingly young (because of the previous malnutrition, she has not developed normally, much like a nine year old kid who still looks like a pre-schooler because of poor nutrition) and dressed shabbily. My late mother took pity on the girl and bought her new clothes- she had in her possession only three underpants, two tattered shorts, and a few threadbare t-shirts.

And so she stayed with us- withdrawn and very shy at first, but eventually warmed up to our family, especially after taking active care of my year-old nephew. Of all our previous helpers (they’ve come and gone), she was the one who stayed. Honest, hardworking, and respectful of Nanay.

We’ve increased her wages several times- and just today, upon handing over her wages, she asked permission if she could go visit her family. She does this on a regular basis- buying rice, food, and toiletries for her family, and give 2/3 of her wages to her mother, keeping a mere 1/3 for herself. Now, she even is already sending two of her siblings to school, and told them to do well, as she never had the chance to finish even her Elementary education. She’s now 16 years old.

I persuaded her to continue her studies at the public school a stone’s throw away from our residence, but for a number of reasons she refused- partly, according to her, she’s too old, and is embarrassed to continue at this age.

A large number of Filipinos live in extreme poverty just like her family, without even having the chance to get an education and break the cycle of poverty. I count myself lucky to have been among those fortunate enough to have gone to school- and she certainly is a daily reminder to me that nowadays education is more of a privilege than a right.

I just thought sharing her story would be one way of helping people become aware of what the true state of our country is- as seen through the lives of ordinary rural folk. Her name is Angeline, but as she would gleefully insist, she still wants to be called by the nickname people at home call her- Umbang.

photo by: Harmut Scwarzbach

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