"Look at them," muttered a friend one morning weeks ago as we sat chatting over coffee at a popular fast food joint in San Francisco town in Agusan del Sur just some 35 or so kilometers west of Lianga.
He jerked his head over to point to a young boy silently begging for loose change and food scraps, hands and face pressed against the restaurant's thick plate glass windows, while his companions, some even younger, coached him and shouted encouragement from behind a parked car in the parking lot. "Ten years ago," he added wistfully, "that was a sight I never used to see. Nowadays you can't walk the sidewalks without stumbling over them."
As a native and long time resident of Lianga, I have been, in many ways, become inured to the sights and signs of the grinding poverty that is the lot of many in this part of the world. One cannot live here for long and not see it mirrored in the ramshackle huts, the listless, sickly and malnourished children, the illiteracy and ignorance, and the bleak despair and fatalistic hopelessness of the rural poor.
But there is something profoundly and emotionally distressing about seeing with one's own eyes the sight of small children foraging for food scraps and handouts in the streets especially when such a scene is in sharp contrast with the backdrop of what essentially is fast becoming a city or urban environment.
Under such a situation, one is forced, as so many others in many areas all over the country that are rapidly becoming urbanized, to become deeply conscious of the fact that not only does progress, or what passes for it, has its own quota of victims but also, more importantly, that urbanization, despite all the hype surrounding it, often highlights rather than hides the endemic poverty and the resulting economic and social dislocation caused by it that continues to bedevil Philippine society even in the provinces.
My friend in San Francisco sees the proliferation of street children as primarily a problem of aesthetics. The streets and sidewalks of towns and cities must be free of them because they make urbanization and progress look bad. They make the town look bad. They, themselves, look bad, they smell bad, they heckle and hassle people and they just don't fit in the town's emerging landscape of pseudo-malls, fast food outlets and ukay-ukay (used clothes) stores.
There was a time long ago when I would have agreed with him, when I could afford to be as just as coldhearted, cavalier and dismissive on that issue. But more than a decade of living in Lianga has disabused me of such pretentious thoughts.
For when I see these scum of the streets I can't help but think for many anxious minutes that, where it not for the grace of God or by a random, lucky throw of some celestial dice, I could have been easily one of them. And that would have been for me a reality far too horrible to contemplate.