Cramped Quarters & Community Spirit

29 Apr

I find myself doing a strange thing ever since coming back from my volunteer expedition to the Philippines during January and February of 2010. Every time I enter a new house, I silently evaluate how many Filipino families could squeeze themselves into the space.

It’s bizarre. But every time I calculate a realistic number, it really hits home how lucky I (and almost every person from a developed country) am.

It started with my family home. It’s a two-storey country home complete with 3 regular bedrooms, a large kitchen with an attached dining room, a living room, a bathroom, a laundry and a large space downstairs which is inhabited by my brother. At one time, my entire family of 6 members lived there. Now, it only has 2 people living in it year round; with me making appearances in the uni holidays. I’ve come to the conclusion that 6 Filipino families (consisting of 3-8 members) could comfortably live in my family home.

From there it has spiralled to the point that I’m making these rough calculations all the time. My semester share-house could fit 7 Filipino families; my oldest brother’s home, 4; my dad’s home, also 4; my good friend’s home, 6; another friend’s home, 7. I could go on. And on. And on.

All of this came from my brief home-stay with a small family in Manila’s slums. I counted myself lucky as the place where I stayed only had 3 adults and 2 small children living in it. For some of my fellow volunteers this number was higher. The home I stayed in consisted of 2 clearly defined spaces: one was a small shop, dining room and kitchen (including a cupboard where one of the adults, who I don’t think was related to the other inhabitants, seemingly slept); the other was a lounge room and bedroom for the mother, father and two sons to sleep and rest in. (Both of these areas added together were probably not much bigger than my entire bedroom.) Their bathroom was outside and was a small shed with the bowl of a toilet and a large tub for showering.

my home-stay, a building which did not extend much farther than the parameters of this photo

There was no privacy to speak of. The lights were left on all night, apparently to scare off rats and other rodents. Three fans were on constantly but the house still sweltered in the heat. I learned one night when the power went out that these fans served a purpose other than cooling: cutting out the noises of the slums; the walls were so thin that I could clearly hear (though I couldn’t understand) the conversations of the next door neighbours.

But it’s funny. Even though these facts are always in my mind and are constantly making me re-evaluate my surroundings: I don’t mention these whenever I am asked about my home-stay experience. Whenever I speak of my experiences I always make a point of saying that the slum I stayed in had a stronger community spirit than any other place I’ve encountered. It was only recently that someone asked me why I thought that. After a moment of thinking I answered, “They have nothing. So they share everything.” It’s an oversimplification of the situation but I think it’s one of the best explanations that I’ve ever come up with.

So every time I enter a house, two opposing thoughts battle it out inside my head. On the one hand, I am infinitely grateful for the space, privacy and general quality of the homes that I reside in. On the other, I cannot help but feel that – somewhere along the way – we Australians have lost the intimate sense of community that still exists in the slums of the Filipino capital.

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One Response to “Cramped Quarters & Community Spirit”

  1. prupodum May 1, 2011 at 1:36 am #

    I’ve been having a similar feeling! Interesting stuff though, really rams home the notion of everything being relative. I often think of how many small sleeping mats could fit in the standard australian bedroom – we had three in one room, each up against the walls, and two up against each other. In another room they got four, with about a 30 cm walking space.
    I actually miss my little mat, and the simplicity that came with that.

    And I loved that – they share everything, what little they have, is for everyone. I made this mistake the first time I ate an orange, thinking my hands were dirty and no one would want any, soon to learn that it was quite rude not to.

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