Saturday, July 08, 2006

the politics of poverty

I was surprised when my cell phone vibrated with an invitation to participate in a political demonstration. The caller was a woman named Melba Maggay. She knew of my interest in the politics of the Phillipines. She knew that I am a competent guitarist. She might even have suspected that my presence at the protest rally would be a significant message; my being a foreigner and all.

So there I was, alone on stage before a crowd 300 people, all of whom would like to see the current president ousted. The congress building loomed beyond a row of trees, stark and imposing. Cheers erupted as I strummed a minor chord. Many have been recently killed for advocating the same cause I now supported with my music. I shuddered slightly when that realization eventually came.

Melba is a one of the first women we met when we arrived in the Phillipines. She is the director of an NGO by the name of the Institute for the Study of Asian Church and Culture (ISACC). Her organization was responsible for our cultural orientation. She herself is holds a doctorate in English literature and studied at Cambridge University. She gave us a lecture that opened our eyes to the Filipino idiosyncracies of social conduct. She inspired us with the intellect and depth of insight that I would expect from an ivy league professor. I was taken by awe and admiration for her keen perceptiveness and ability to articulate sophisticated ideas in a clear and succinct way.

During the dinner after her lecture, I eagerly plied her for political views, seeking a greater understanding of the systems of governance and the history that has shaped the Filipino society. I learned details of the Spanish colonial rule, features of the American occupation, and how the indigenous culture subversively manifested itself amid these external influences. She wove an intricate and erudite narrative. I tried desperately to absorb her knowledge.

I became particularly fascinated when she spoke of the more recent political history, the People Power movement of 86 the ousted the president Marcos. Dissatisfied with his dictatorship, the mass of Filipinos took to the streets and demanded he leave. The military was dispatched, but soldiers were met with smiles, flowers, and baked goods. None had the heart to open fire. One by one the military leaders stepped down. An authoritarian regime collapsed under the passive weight of the will of the people. ISACC, Melba's NGO, had played a major organizational role in this successful political act.

The current president is, to many intellectuals and concerned citizens, reminiscent of Marcos. It is almost common knowledge the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stole the election that hoisted her into power. A recorded phone conversation between her and a sycophantic election official has been widely disseminated. Most worrisome is the impending threat of martial law. The legal process to validate such a drastic measure has already begun. Many political opponents and detractors have been assassinated. More journalists have been killed in the Phillipines the last five years then anywhere else, save for Iraq.

If there is one thing we've learned during our stay here in the Phillipines, it is that the population suffers from a tremendously uneven distribution of wealth. Beyond that, there is a complete neglect for the basic amenities and infrastucture in many areas that we've visited that we in the west hold as keystones to civilisation: water, roads, electricity, waste removal, houses...

The Phillipines desperately needs good governance to help the available ressources reach the desperately needy. Unfortunately, the questionable ethics of corruption seem to be widespread among the elite and ruling class. I have heard from informed Filipinos including Melba that the aristocracy regards the poor with apathetic disinterest.

We, as architecture students, have come to the Phillipines to involve ourselves in the problem of housing the poor. We hope to bring skills and provide assistance as best we can, but we are students first and foremost. The role of the university student is to learn, to integrate studies into a comprehensive worldview, to discover the issues that shape the lives of individuals and societies. Architectural thought and discourse have provided us with a context and framework by which delve into the problems we've been exposed to here, but it is obvious that the root cause of the problem is far more systemic than poorly designed housing, or even lack of money.

When the full scope of the problem of urban poverty is glimpsed, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Any work we do can feel like we're addressing the symptoms, rather than combatting the disease. Large social structures must mobilize to repair torn urban fabric. Government exists for this purpose: to respond to societal needs and allocate resources where they can best be used. It is clear that the goverment of the Phillipines has much work to do.

When Melba called me I was both thrilled and honored; honored that she would think of me since I think so highly of her, and thrilled that I could in some small way address the problem of poverty by appealing to the highest levels of political power. I saw that as a complement to the grassroots work we've been doing, which is equally important. In dealing with these families and providing them with designs for their homes, we are not solving their problems. We are trying to give them hope; we are trying to help them articulate their dreams and maybe even contribute our limited knowledge to their benefit. People must want to help themselves if they are to receive the help of others.

The rally itself was touching and energized. It began with ISACC leading a short service of worship that included a Latin-american hymn and a Filipino protest song, both of which I accompanied. After there was a ritual performed be a single woman that was rooted in the indigenous culture of the Phillipines. Passionate speakers followed, as well as a choreographed dance number. I was asked if I would like to perform and I agreed. There was some concern over who I would be representing: BuildAid, McGill, Canada, White Man, etc. I finally agreed to be completely personal and not implicate anyone else. I decided to recite a poem, then perform an improvisation based on the melody to which the poem has been set to music. I'd like to transcibe the poem as the conclusion of this lengthy epistle. It's by a guy named Ed McCurdy:

Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
Filled with women and men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again

And when the paper was all signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful pray'rs were prayed

And the people in the streets below
Were dancing 'round and 'round
While swords and guns and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war.

The most valuable fruit from the tree of knowledge is always a hybrid. Your essay comes from that tree.
matt has anyone ever told you that you are awesome, talented and a beautiful person?
i hope you know you are.
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