By Larren Jo Basilio
“Happyland” is not a happy place, not by a long shot.
Happyland in the notorious Tondo District of Manila is where riots between gangs are a way of life, where “Rugby” is not the boys’ favorite team sport but the preferred brand of a chemical solvent boys and girls sniff to pacify the hunger that rages inside their bellies, where a gourmet meal means the re-cooked food they salvaged from a fast-food store’s trash bin.
They call the left-overs “pag-pag,” which literally means “shaken up,” something they do so they can have reason to believe that the nourishment they are about to partake has a semblance of being clean and edible.
“Happyland” itself is founded on garbage, literally. The wastes of Metro Manila are dumped there. Over time, houses were built there. The dwellers are the people who make their living by recovering anything of worth out of the things other people threw away and sell them for any amount.
No wonder the boys and girls of Happyland dream little or not at all. Even their lives matter little to them, welcoming even the flimsiest reason to entertain themselves, like getting involved in a bloody riot, which they consider as some sort of rite of passage.
“Sir, binata na si Papo; nakikipag-riot na,” a teen-aged student of mine told me matter-of-factly. (Sir, Papo has now transformed into a young man—he has joined a gang war).
They were classmates, Papo and him, although the former is younger at only12.
Drug use is as common as riots. One is inextricable with the other. It’s a perfect formula for more troubles, like the Tokhang operations. When the smoked cleared, several gang mates of Papo ended up in behind bars.
But that, too, did not faze the residents of Happyland. “Operation: Tokhang,” the anti-drug trafficking program of Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte, brought much controversy to the Philippines and triggered protests by the international community, especially the European nations, against the Philippine “strongman.”
But not to the residents of Happyland who are already desensitized to such news. Nothing shocking about it, as far they are concerned.
This is Papo’s environment, the place where he grew. Papo is a former student of the Alternative Learning System (ALS) of the government’s Department of Education (DepEd) and being implemented in Happyland by the Kapatiran-Kaunlaran Foundation Inc. (KKFI).
He is the youngest of six siblings. Two of them had died and the other three live on their own. Hence, Papo is the only one left to his parents’ care. In 2018, Papo and a dozen other male students from Happyland, attended the summer tutorial class of KKFI.
Having missed attending school for years, they were all very excited about the experience.
It’s easy for Papo to make an impression to a teacher like myself because he was the smallest in the class. His size naturally magnetized bullies to him. But what he lacked for size, he made up with his brains. He was one of the smartest and fastest learners in the class.
We, the teachers, were impressed enough with his performance in ALS that we referred him to formal schooling in the 6th grade.
After the first grading period, he was admitted to a regular class. To help him transition to the new environment, the KKFI tutored him on various subjects.
We were pleasantly surprised to learn that, after a year, Papo graduated from elementary level. Thereafter, he became active in participating in KKFI activities. He even became an assistant teacher of LikhAral, KKFI’s version of the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) Vacation Christian School (VCS) held every summer.
The VCS experience allowed him to fellowship with other young persons around his age. Unlike his ALS classmates who bully him, his VCS colleagues made him feel loved.
He loved to spend time in the KKFI Compound, where he finds comfort. But it was apparent Papo was fighting tremendous struggles just to keep his newly found dreams alive.
Nevertheless, the staff members of KKFI’s Program Department found Papo to be adorable and sweet. They gave him a bag, a set of uniform, and school supplies that will be useful for him come school year 2019-2020.
He used to tell me: “Sir, huwag kang mag-aasawa para aalagan mo lang ako lagi.” (Sir, do not ever marry so that you can always take care of me).
Then something happened. I didn’t know what it was but it was apparent Papo had changed.
At the start of Grade 7, the KKFI staff saw less and less of Papo. We thought it was only natural since the poor boy had to focus on his studies in order to cope with his classmates, who had an obvious advantage of starting early.
As time went by, I began to feel uncomfortable about Papo’s “aloofness.” I tried to reach him out through his Facebook account, but his was already inactive. I once chanced upon his brother, Rajif, who told us that he was doing fine with his academics.
So it was a surprise to us to later find out that Papo once again dropped from school. Not only that--he began joining gang riots that were becoming more and more physical and violent every day.
Authorities of his schools soon learned of Papo and his friends dangerous behavior and banned them from enrolling in their school again. This made Papo scarcer. He said he was so embarrassed that he did not want to show himself to us. He knew KKFI provided his school needs and was afraid of punishment.
He ignored our mobile phone messages and even his parents could not tell us where he went although we inquired about their son every day. We decided to give him enough time and space to decide his next move, praying God will guide him to choose the right one.
His parents were able to convince to refrain from getting involved in riots and they were successful in their effort. The time came when he was ready to face us and he went back to KKFI. The staff welcomed him once again with arms wide open. He was once lost, but since he is still KKFI’s child, he would know his way back.
Papo was gearing up for the next school year when the Covid-19 came. Schools were forcibly closed. He chose to help the family’s economic survival by cooking a street food called “chicharon” or fried pork rind that his family sells around the community. This he does three times a week, earning PhP150 each time.
In April 2020, a fire razed to the ground a number of houses, including that of Papo’s family. Hunger and homelessness haunted them at the same time. But God is still good. Donations from various organizations came and they were able to start again.
The future is still uncertain. The school year was about to start, yet he was still uncertain if the public school he applied to will welcome him. Otherwise, he might join the ALS tutorials for the meantime to help him cope with the demands of online and modular classes.
The future is not so clear, but Papo is unbowed and still wants to continue his study and become a seaman. He is still optimistic because he knows he’s not alone.
After all, KKFI has never failed him before, has it?