A Visit To The Slums Of The Smoky Mountain Trash Dump

August 21, 2009 · By Sloane Davidson, Founder and CEO, Hello Neighbor

I visited Smoky Mountain a few weeks ago which is the trash dumping ground for metro Manila here in the Philippines. The actual dump site has been moved three times over the past 30 years, as the sites reached maximum capacity and so the entire Tondo area of Metro Manila is affected by this dumping.

After my visit to the trash dump and slum inside, I and was completely numb and shaken for days after. I was also offline and the following week when I could look at this video on my computer, well, I can remember every emotion I felt that day and it's hard to share with you, the world. Hard because where do you even begin?

But it's a crucial story to tell. Poverty is at its worst when children can't even be in school because they are needed to help earn money for their families to eat. The conditions of this slum were the worst I have ever seen. This video is just a small window into the pain my heart felt seeing children scavenging through trash, covered in mud and dirt, surrounded by mounds of smoldering garbage and others scavenging trying to earn at least $1 a day.

How did I end up there? It's not-Kiva related, and it was my day off and I went by myself. I can only say my curiosity is insatiable to see first-hand all I can about the poverty that exists in the world and continue to reflect on my place in helping make the world a better place.

One day I heard about it passing from someone I met very briefly, the next day I asked around to my MFI about it (most of them have never been and in fact most Filipinos have never been - people have since been shocked that I went there and went alone). The next day, a really great staff member of ASHI helped set me up with a visit to Young Focus International, which operates a day care center within the dumping ground and could host me for the morning. They have scheduled feedings for the babies who live there and are malnourished and I could help feed the babies and then walk around the dump site.

When I first got to Tondo and the Smoky Mountain trash dump, they gave me (actually require) knee high rain boots to wear, and I wouldn't have made it very far without those. The trash and muck and dirty water was over ankle-height. I wasn't wearing socks and the boots were too big and the sweat inside caused a sucking sound with every step and I was sure I'd lose one with every step deeper in the dump.

Upon walking into the area, it hits you like a smack in the face. Garbage trucks passing me one by one with small children in the back already having climbed inside kilometers from the entrance to get a hear start on the scavenging for plastics and bottles, the sound of babies crying, the sight of skin problems and sickness from people as they walked by, the smells of decaying trash, the sounds of crushing and crumpling trash under the wheels of the trucks, the heat and sweat just pouring down your face - the whole thing - I had three immediate thoughts:

1) I really wished the day could end with a hug from a loved one. I'd never felt so far away from the people I loved or so completely alone. This hole just opened inside of me and absolute pain went rushing in from seeing the living conditions there. I wanted to curl up with my sisters in our living room at home and just let it all go. I wished I didn't want to see this place at the same moment I felt so lucky to be there and be seeing everything with my own eyes. I felt like the world was pushing down on my shoulders and I suddenly ached physically all over. My body just hurt.

2) My immune system is never going to be the same. I had just ended antibiotics from my terrible cough and looking around, thought "my health insurance premium would so go up if they knew I was here." Literally surrounded by mounds of trash, in the hot Manila and SE Asia sun blasting down, the stench rising, a barge mere feet from me in the very back of site being loaded with trash out to a new dump site on an non-inhabitable island. Back at the day care center holding babies who live there (their parents scavenging) and walking around the slum where 1,500 people live actually in the dump, yes I was sure the bacteria levels there were off the charts.

3) I will never look at trash or consumption the same again. I will never forget that just when you think you know something about poverty, about the conditions people live in, you realize you never will truly know it all. There is always more to learn. The human spirit has the ability to triumph. There is always hope but it has to be matched with action. Kids will always find a way to play and laugh (for I saw a few kids with old tires jumping in and out and having fun and I thought - wow - even in here KIDS ARE KIDS).

I don't know which of those thoughts came first, but they all came and rushed over me and swelled and swirled me around and everything hurt and nothing was the same and it was terrible, truly horrific, but also life. And life has a way of not being able to be described one way. So it was also heartwarming - the mission of Young Focus, the story of how they came to work in the area, the resolve of the children to go to school and learn - all of it is truly incredible. I don't want to dwarf that. To know someone is there EVERY DAY spreading message of hope, access to education and a better way of life is amazing, inspiring and I was truly humbled around the staff there.

Below is another video from the Executive Director of Young Focus International talking about their programs within the trash dump and also their educational center outside:

I have more to share but wanted to start here as it's really such a powerful story, that I'm almost too overwhelmed to know where to start. I did my best here, this post has taken me longer to write than any other. I just keep looking at the screen and then closing my eyes and opening them and typing and closing them again and it's suddenly hot and my mouth is dry and I don't feel quite like myself.

In closing, I'll say this. I became addicted to slums after this visit. I visited two other huge ones in the Philippines and it never got easier, but I'm really happy I went. And proud of myself too. I always felt safe I don't take crazy chance, there are things I just wanted to see with my own two eyes. Maybe I want to be scarred so badly I can't turn back from this humanitarian path I feel I'm destined for. I don't know what it is that makes me want to go and see places that cause most people to look at me with the most perplexed look. "But you're not a journalist?" they ask. "No, I'm just curious and wanting to learn everything I can and experience as much as I can so I can know where I can begin to help."

I always looked for the children playing, the men talking, the women doing the wash - it's all there - just the landscape was different.

And I'm different. I can't say or see it all yet, but I hope by sharing some of my recent experiences with you, you can start to open your heart too. Is it so crazy to believe we can all make a difference?

Thank you to Young Focus for hosting me. It was a day I'll never forget.