I WAS already late for work, but the jeepney I’ve taken, to my consternation, was waiting for more passengers. Just as it was about to go, a man with a tin drum jumped in and sat on the back step. Then a woman with a very young child also got in and started to distribute small and empty brown envelopes.
The man started playing the drum as the woman knelt on the jeepney floor, put the child down, and started swaying her hands in beautiful, graceful movements. I watched her more closely. She was very young, maybe only 16, but she looked like she was the child’s mother. Her hair was neatly fixed and she wore a yellow malong. I could tell she was a Badjao. Her face was devoid of any expression as she danced to the drumbeat. In fact she seemed to be unaware of her child she had placed standing in front of her. Then the child lost his balance. “Ang bata,” one could hear the chorus of anxious voices of the passengers as the child went down hard on the jeepney floor and began to cry at the top of his lungs.
The mother quickly grabbed the child and stood him in front of a young girl near her. The girl kindly held the hand of the child while the mother retrieved the brown envelopes that now contained coins. Some passengers, feeling for the child, gave her some food. When the mother was finished collecting the envelopes, she bundled the child under one arm and hastily got off the jeepney, looking more concerned with the brown envelopes than with her son.
But she stayed in my mind for the rest of that ride.
I could sense that almost everyone in the jeepney felt bad at the sight of the mother using her child to beg. Me, too. In particular, I found it detestable that she didn’t care exposing her son to danger as she jumped in and out of jeepneys. And then I remembered the Badjao women I had met a year earlier in one of Urban Poor Associates (UPA) communities in R10, Tondo, Manila. I had gone there to check on a newly constructed office of UPA.
Inside the office, there was a curtain that served as a “dividing wall” separating the sleeping area of the Badjao women from the rest of the office. I couldn’t imagine how 20 women could be accommodated by the makeshift dormitory. At first, the women refused to engage me in a conversation. I tried several times to talk to them, but they wouldn’t even allow me to go beyond the curtain divider, where they had retreated. They seemed to be very afraid of me with my camera and my pen. I had been informed the Badjao women of R10 didn’t know how to write and read. They didn’t even know their age or the date they were born.
With the help of one of their leaders, Lydia, I was finally able to strike a conversation with them.
The “ice breaker” was Kabutsuan. I thought she must have been 16 years old. I saw many similarities between Kabutsuan and the young Badjao mother in the jeepney. For one thing, they look like sisters.
Kabutsuan told me she had just married. Her husband gave her parents P15,000 for the marriage. One by one, the Badjao women joined us in our conversation as they became more and more comfortable with my presence. They were giggling when they told me that one of them was “bought” for P30,000 because she was still a virgin. They were laughing and teasing one another in their native tongue.
For them a woman is educated if she went to elementary or high school. They said that the P15,000 for the “purchase” of Kabutsuan was just right considering she never went to a school. At the time I spoke with her, she was pregnant. She didn’t know when she would deliver the baby. She just said they’d know it because the tummy aches. She also said she knew, like most of the Badjao women, how to give birth using natural birthing processes.
Her husband has three wives. She said she was in Manila to beg and save every penny she’d get for her baby.
Rowena, between 30 to 40 years old and one of the oldest among the Badjao women of R10, was preparing their food. She was frying fish and ground cassava which was their main staple, in lieu of rice.
Rowena’s husband was killed by a group of extremists while fishing off Basilan island. The extremists cut off both his hands and stole the engine of his boat. She left Basilan with her two youngest children; the others stayed in Basilan.
In Manila, she said, she goes around from 4 a.m. to 12 noon begging for money. She “earns” from P50 to P100 a day. She saves the money to buy an engine for their boat and to buy clothes and shoes that she can sell in Basilan, and for their transportation expenses.
She said the women usually go back to Basilan when they have saved enough for the engine of their boat and food. But not to worry, she said, “they’ll be back again if the extremists steal their engines or if their boys’ hands are cut off.”
Princess L. Asuncion, 25, works as a media advocacy officer at Urban Poor Associates (UPA), an NGO that works for the housing rights of the poor.