Children in a City of Garbage: Inside the Philippines’ Most Notorious Slum

More than half of the residents in the Filipino capital of Manila live  in slums. Few are as notorious as the aptly named Smokey Mountain, a massive landfill that produced so much methane gas that it repeatedly burned for over 40 years. Here’s what I found in the Philippines’ most infamous slum.

All photos by Michael Johnstone

All photos by Michael Johnstone

An overwhelming portion of the Philippines is far below what we in the west would consider the poverty line. This is a place where the poverty line is something to strive for, where continued existence relies on unthinkable struggle. Not far from the glassy skyscrapers of Manila’s downtown core the standards of living rapidly plummet.

Smokey Mountain TaxiAs my taxi pulls away from Ninoy Aquino airport and begins to barge its way through rush hour traffic, I’m startled by a young girl, no older than five. She’s filthy, barefoot, and stumbling across traffic to a small, run down park area where several other children are sitting. Their clothes are torn and faded, with vacant faces. A certain glassiness has come over their eyes.

“Street children,” the cab driver says as a boy of about eight or nine taps on the window on the driver’s side. The man shakes his head and the boy walks between the cars from vehicle to vehicle, hoping someone will roll their window down for some change. No one does.

“They leave home very young and beg on the streets because they are addicted to drugs or are getting money for someone who is. Many of them don’t have parents, or were abandoned. Terrible.” He doesn’t even glance their way. I can’t seem to shake the image of the bewildered girl crossing the street until we arrive in Malate, a low-income suburb of Manila where I’m staying in a guest house. The only thing that knocks the impression of the girl from my head is the sight of the security guard at the front gate who is wielding a rusty shotgun. He smiles and opens the gate for me.

Smokey Mountain BoyIt’s a day or two later, and I’m sitting in the hostel on my iPad when I overhear a New Zealander unsuccessfully trying to convince another guest to accompany him on a trip.

“Ever hear of Smokey Mountain?” he asks me. I haven’t. He explains that it was an enormous landfill site in Manila where a slum community had formed. Residents, including young children, made a living digging through the garbage in search of anything that could be sold, like copper wiring. But the methane gas from the rising mountain of garbage frequently ignited, causing horrific burns and countless deaths. The government shut down the landfill in the 1990s.

“I went there, yesterday, but the driver wouldn’t let me out of the cab. It’s not exactly safe. Interested?”

I most certainly was. It’s not until later that I learn that people still live there. Despite the ending of dumping, it remains one of the the most infamous slums in the Philippines. But I’m still determined to go. We are able to find two others who are also willing to make the trip.

Smokey Mountain Alley

On the road we stop at a small shop, itself in the middle of one of Manila’s slums, and purchase a large bag of candy. Our mission, we had decided, would be to bring something to the children in the village that would hopefully brighten their day a little. A measly contribution, but something. We’re not entirely certain what we will find, if we will even see children.

We make a few stops along the way, cautiously wandering down alleys and chatting with some of the locals. One of the fascinating things about the Philippines is how widespread English is in this part of the world. Coming from South Korea where finding fluent English speakers can be a challenge, we’re shocked at how many people are easily able to talk to us. Back in the cab and we’re almost at our destination. We’ve been driving through immense poverty for almost 20 minutes.

SM HillAnd then Smokey Mountain comes into view. From a distance, it appears as a series of rolling green hills. But as we get closer and the cab slows to turn into the village, it becomes immediately apparent that we’re staring at hills of decades-old garbage. It has been sitting so long in the hot sun that plants have begun growing between the torn plastic and shredded waste.

The cab slowly makes its way through the village, and we are suddenly very conscious of our situation, as if the obvious has suddenly donned on us. Four caucasian westerners pulling up in an impoverished slum is not a good idea. We’re not with an NGO. We’re not doctors here to bring vaccinations. We’re four bewildered young adults with a stupid bag of candy. Outside the cab, hardened Filipino men, tattooed, scarred, and much larger than us. What are we doing here? We resolve that we’re not getting out of the cab.

“I think maybe we should turn around” someone says. We agree momentarily, but decide to push on a little further. Along a row of shacks we ask the driver to stop the cab, and we roll down the window next to a woman standing outside. One of us hands the bag to the woman.

“Can you give this to the children in the village?” he asks, and for a moment, she pauses. Then hollers something in Tagalog. Almost instantly a small group of children appear from shacks and dark corners. She hands them some of the candy. Their faces immediately light up and they start hollering. More and more children appear, until more than dozen surround the woman, laughing and giggling, hands eagerly awaiting something sweet.

Smokey Mountain CandyIn that instant, all tension melts. Seconds later we are out of the car surrounded by kids. The woman gestures to us and says something to the children, who immediately start asking questions. “What is your name, sir?” “Where are you from, sir?”  “Thank you, sir!” We spend the next half hour talking to kids, taking pictures while they chatter and play, peppering us with questions, eager with curiosity.

Smokey Mountain Gun Girl

Smokey Mountain is one of the most horrible places I’ve ever seen, filled with the most beautiful children I’ve ever met. Against the background of rancid garbage, shacks made of plywood and sheet metal, and half-finished housing projects that seem long abandoned, illuminating smiles and piercing eyes walk in flip-flops through blackened water on the streets, bathing in buckets on the side of the road.

Smokey Mountain Bath Girl

It’s simultaneously squalid and immaculate, devastating and inspiring. A lot has improved here since the 1990s. But whatever this world is doing for the children of Smokey Mountain, its not nearly enough. They should be in hot showers, clean beds, and the best schools imaginable. But they aren’t. And we need to ask ourselves why.

You can help by giving to one of the following charities working in the Philippines:

USAID Philippines

Bahay Bata Center

Buklod Center


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