How a banana in water gave me a new view of the urban poor

(Photo by J. Ellao /
(Photo by J. Ellao /

fringes-logoBy BETTINA CATLI

When I first heard that we were to attend an urban poor situationer, my first thought was, what is there to talk about?

In my head, it was pretty clear what the situation was. I was remembering the crooked and dilapidated shanties, dirty-faced children running naked, and the occasional loud voices, sometimes spouting foul language. How could I forget their situation when I see them at every turn? But still, I went along with my co-interns thinking that I could maybe glean a few more information about them.

To break the ice, Kuya Kaloy Cunanan of the Urban Poor Resource Center of the Philippines, had us participate in a little activity. One of us was blindfolded and made to touch a banana floating in a Tupperware of water.

Before we began though, Kuya Kaloy mentioned that the activity was to be done in the bathroom. Of course, if you’re the one who was blindfolded and made to touch an unknown object in the “bathroom,” your first thought will be something indelicate.

My blindfolded co-intern gingerly dipped her hands into the Tupperware, barely touching the banana, and guessed what she was touching. Afterwards, Kuya Kaloy asked us what our reaction will be if we were made to touch the banana too. All of us said the same thing: we’d be hesitant, wary, and disgusted.

The activity was meant to represent how other people see the urban poor. It was then that I understood that I didn’t know much about these people whom we call squatters or informal settlers. Before, I thought that if you lived in squalor, you must not have a job. Your only activity for the day was to get high, drink, play cards, or make more children you can’t afford to feed.

Clearly I was wrong. These people are like the rest of us too. Some of them snort shabu, not cocaine, steal cellphones, rather than billions of money, drink cheap beer rather than a Php500 ($11) shot of alcohol.

These people have jobs too, they work many hours but earn very little. See, they are all earning minimum wage, or much less, and living in the city is very expensive, so they opt to live in such settlements.

Another thing is why there are so many of them living in the city. If living in the city is too expensive, then surely living in the province is much better. Kuya Kaloy said that the reason they preferred to live and stay in the city is because there is work in the city. As if it weren’t already a struggle to live day by day, they have to face the risk of demolitions, too. But in their eyes, they would rather face demolition crews than be relocated in a place where there is no job, or if there is, what they earn would be less than what they make in the city. They would rather live the way they do now, than to stay in the province and die with their eyes open.

There were many more things that Kuya Kaloy discussed with us, each topic a deeper insight than we could have imagined, and each insight revealed layers upon layers of causes and effects.

So what can one do to help, I wondered. Kuya Kaloy said that the first thing that must be done is to address the labor situation. If the regional wage was abolished and the national wage raised and set up again, then there will be no need for them to migrate to the cities to find work. This solution, I think, is the best first step in eliminating several problems at once. They would have enough money to eat three meals a day, send their kids to school and still have enough money for the future.

The labor situation is, what I think, the common thread that connects all the problems in the country and this solution is one that I can fully agree with. It doesn’t have such drastic measures, like flooding the country with more foreign investors, or giving out Php 500 a month to destitute households to “reduce” poverty. (

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