Tell it to SunStar: A life in the day of kinless street children

Tell it to SunStar.
Tell it to SunStar.SunStar file photo

By Terry McGuire

It’s Saturday morning. I’m on my way to M.J. Cuenco Ave. in Cebu City with my 12-year-old son, Eugene. At 7 a.m. we enter Sunshine Home, one of the night shelters for street boys. They are all at breakfast, about 40 of them. Most of them know me as they were respondents in the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) research on Cebu City Street Children. Aside from that, I’ve been visiting them on and off for the last two months.

I ask Jimmy, a 14 year old and a regular at Sunshine Home, if we can go scavenging with him for the day. He smiles in disbelief, too kind to tell me what he’s thinking. I promise him we will keep a respectful distance between us and them as I want to observe what happens. The other boys have a laugh and encourage Jimmy to take us. Jimmy smiles and agrees to my proposal. Gerry, who looks six but is actually 11, volunteers to join us. Gerry is a dynamic and spontaneous fellow who has the ability to get everyone laughing. Gerry signals to Nugnug, a 16 year old about the same size as Jimmy. Nugnug agrees to join us. Nugnug’s family are now in Olongapo City. He is the only one left in Cebu City. It’s 7:15 a.m. Jimmy, Gerry and Nugnug along with me and my son, native in Cebuano, hit the road for the day as scavenger apprentices.

Little Gerry has a jute bag hidden in the street with other similar bags inside. These will be used to carry the metal and other junk they find. Jimmy and Nugnug have no slippers. They lead the way, off to Reclamation Area. Jimmy finds some steel wire. Into the bag it goes. Their eyes sweep the street, left and right. We continue, across M.J. Cuenco, around Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral. Their sacks are getting heavier so the boys decide to head to the (timbangan) weighing station, ABC store at Bonifacio and Sikatuna streets. It’s 8:15 a.m. and there are already about 25 people at the ABC store, mostly street boys.

Jimmy, Gerry and Nugnug finish weighing their goods. They have brought eight kilos of assorted metal and glass and they receive P3.60. The money goes to Gerry who is wearing a pair of shorts that happen to have pockets with no holes. Gerry, the youngest, is now the banker.

We head out again; it’s getting hotter. This trip we head towards Ramos St. and Mango Ave. We seem to cover more distance but there are fewer garbage sites to dig into. From Mango, we hook a right to M.J. Cuenco again. Gerry gets too close to a motor rewind shop. He knows the price of copper. He asks for some scraps but gets firmly shooed away. Jimmy is now picking up pieces of glass even though he has no slippers. I decide to buy them all an ice cream bar from a small boy vendor. The accept reluctantly and thank me politely afterwards.

It’s now 10 a.m., we arrive back at the weighing station. This time the boys have 24 kilos and receive P12.50. Into Gerry’s pocket it goes. The boys look pleased. We rest and talk awhile, then move on again for the third trip of the day. This time we move along M.J. Cuenco looking at the engineering shops. Suddenly, Gerry disappears into the interior of an alleyway. He reappears with some old tin cans and puts them in his sack. We walk on. After a few minutes or so Gerry starts jumping up and down. It turns out there were ants in the cans and they moved to his body. He shakes his bag, bangs it on the ground and tries to remove the ants from his body.

It’s now almost 11 a.m. Eugene fits in well with the boys. They’re telling him the prices of various metals, glass and paper. The boys are ready for lunch so we follow them to their regular cantina near Sunshine Home. Many of the Sunshine Home regulars eat here. I volunteer to pay for their lunch. Gerry looks pleased and orders his favourite dish whereas Jimmy and Nugnug are more cautious. The owner comes to my rescue and tells them this only happens once in a while. We all eat; the boys heartily.

Before we finish in comes Boy Negro, a Sunshine regular of about 15 years of age. He has been stabbed in the lower back and front ribs with an ice pick. He shows us the two wounds while we finish our food. The wounds are now covered in merthiolate. The wounds were inflicted by a “stand-by.” Boy Negro says he did nothing to provoke it. He sits down to eat and we leave. We all rest at the corner of M.J. Cuenco and talk about Boy Negro and stabbings in general. Someone says we should go to Pasil dump but this is rejected as too many people get stabbed there and it may not be a good idea with an “Americano” and his son in tow. No Pasil dump today. Tomorrow, Sunday, the boys are planning a swim at the Pier.

It’s now 11:30 a.m. and very hot even so we hit the road again. Opposite Cebu Trade School, Gerry disappears again. Then he calls to the others: “Jackpot!” The others go to him and gather some old yeast cans and an old aluminium deck chair. The sacks are quickly filled, and as luck would have it, we’re still close to the weighing station. The boys are smiling carrying the load; Jimmy has the old deck chair on his head. They have forgotten about the hot sun as they move happily to the weighing station.

It’s now 11:50 a.m. and we’re back at the weighing station. The 17 kilos load gets them P13:50. The boys have delivered 49 kilos of junk and earned almost P30. The new money finds its way to Gerry’s secure pocket. We rest under the acacia tree near Pari-an Fire Station. Two other boys join us. Rodel looks about six but is actually 12. He has no shirt and no slippers. The other boy is Juancho; he’s 13 and has only one hand. He tells me the missing hand was blown off while he was dynamite fishing with his father.

The five boys, myself and Eugene move out again, this time down Sanciangco St. Gerry hears some music so he starts to dance. The others look on with tired smiles. By 12:30 p.m., we’re at the University of San Jose-Recoletos. Juancho and Nugnug climb up the university’s steel garage container and pick the junk they want while the rest of us sit on the curb and watch. The two boys throw the junk down while the rest of them pick it off the street and put it in their sacks. We move towards Carbon market then into Lincoln St. The boys see a large box almost filled with sheet metal cuttings. The Chinese owner comes out and encourages the boys to take the lot.

Now the sacks are filled and it’s a long way back to ABC weighing station. The jagged edges of the sheet metal are cutting into Jimmy’s back. The boys are in pain carrying this stuff. Eugene asks them how much per kilo for the metal. It’s galvanized so it’s only 13 centavos per kilo. Along the way we see lots of flattened card board boxes outside a department store. I tell the boys to take the card board and sandwich it between the sacks and their backs. They are reluctant to do so. They check out the area for the security guard. They can’t see him so they take the card board and move off swiftly. On the way we meet other boys, they all seem to know each other, it’s like a brotherhood. Eugene has been a big help as without him I would look too conspicuous walking behind five street children.

It’s about 1:30 p.m. and we’re near Pari-an Fire Station again under the acacia tree. The last trip to the weighing station they delivered 30 kilos and earned another P14.45 for Gerry’s pocket. They divide the money “sangga style.” Eugene knows this from children’s games so he explains: Each child receives an equal share of the cash that results from each trip with no regard for size, strength or who found what. Everything is pooled and divided equally. There’s no worry about being cheated. No one wants to check Gerry’s pocket. One has to be impressed with the children’s sense of distributive justice and fair play. No adult supervision needed. They have delivered 79 kilos of junk and earned P43.55. Jimmy is smiling and thinking of swimming tomorrow. Gerry says he will go ahead as he has a debt to pay. They call it quits; they are tired. They will wait outside Sunshine Home until opening time.

Governments come and go but for the street child the quality of garbage is just about the same every day.

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