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From Cradle To Grave: Squatting In Cemeteries Beats Slum Life For Poor Filipinos

Squalid conditions in the overcrowded slums of the island country force people to look for new shelters.

Filipinos living in Manila's South Makati Cemetery
Filipinos living in Manila's South Makati Cemetery
Wojciech Tochman

The following is an excerpt from writer Wojciech Tochman’s new book Eli, Eli, in which he journeys to the Philippines to report about its most vulnerable citizens.

MANILA — The Philippine capital of Manila, with some two million people, is no bigger than Warsaw. But the metropolitan area of the city, in this Southeast Asian island nation, includes 17 cities and 17 million people, making it one of the most populated urban areas in the world.

As metro Manila goes, so does the whole country. This archipelago of more than seven thousand islands hosts a nation of 95 million people.

Twenty years ago, Filipinos were half as numerous, but after the introduction of anti-contraception law in this largely Catholic country, the population exploded — and misery along with it.

Today the Philippines is both a booming market with big labels and high rises spread across its major cities’ glass-and-steel landscapes, and a homeland of domestic help for the world.

About 11 million Filipinos work abroad. Many of them are cleaners in rich cities around the world. Those who have jobs back home slave away for a few pesos without the right to days off or sick leave. Worker advocacy groups claim that half of whites traveling through the Philippines are sex tourists.

One-fourth of Metro Manila’s inhabitants live in slums. Half of them are children. Old people are not very numerous, presumably because conditions are so poor that longevity simply isn’t possible. Almost nobody has indoor plumbing, sanitary sewer services or legal electricity. Yet everybody has to pay too much for what little they have because the protection racket is like a local cholera.

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In Manila's North Cemetery — Photo: Hywell Martinez

The average age in the Philippines is 22, but in slums it can even be as young as 12. It is dark inside, even if the sun burns all day long. Densely arranged and easily flammable barracks create a network of labyrinths, impermeable to sunlight or fresh air. People inhabit this land illegally. So if somebody had a lucrative real estate prospect on the slums’ territory, an unknown suspect could come and set a fire and it would be over.

Graveyards are preferable

It is much safer to live in a cemetery. The one in Makati, one of Metro Manila’s 17 cities, is the newest shelter for the local poor. They are called sepultureros, or gravediggers. People build their hovels on top of graves. The grate doors at the entrances are shut with a padlock or simply a piece of string.

Nevertheless, there is fresh air, liberty and calm. Nobody asks for money, neither for the grave nor for electricity. People get the latter from the nearest utility pole. A pump provides water for washing, and if the pump breaks down, each grave’s tenant contributes to fix it. Sepultureros pay only for drinking water: one peso a gallon.

They make money from the garbage. In Metro Manila, hundreds of thousands of people live from going through waste to find what can be salvaged. There is a junk shop in each neighborhood, and many of the trash bits are worth something: from pieces of paper to metal parts.

There are also other ways to earn a living. Some young girls put on make up, short skirts, secondhand sheer T-shirts and spend the evening on Burgos Street.

Old people find passengers for jeepneys, urban buses. Drivers pay 20 pesos (about 30 European cents) for a full car. After a couple of hours of waving and screaming, they may make enough for cigarettes, coffee and rice. If not, they must economize their energy and go to sleep.

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