Monday, September 25, 2006

Picking on the poor

I BELONGED to one of the last few batches of iskolars ng bayan (state scholars) that paid less than P300 for a semester of study at the University of the Philippines.

At the Cebu campus, I felt thrice privileged: to be challenged by teachers and peers, to wear slippers to class, and, not least of all, to pick from the prolific tambis (waterapple) tree growing outside the administration building.

I stepped inside the school canteen maybe only twice a year. I told myself only the children of Marcos cronies hanged around there: at 18, my snobbery was more ample than my purse.

I ate at Brown Gate where you had to fish around first in your bowl of monggo in case someone accidentally dropped a coin while paying Manang.

Before going in my evening class, if I did not have P2.50 to buy bananacue, I joined other students gathered under the tambis tree.

I think I only survived the killing boredom of listening to libel and Latin because that tree always had more fruit than we could cram in.

Years later, while working in the countryside, I observed that what I did in college many public school graders had been doing for generations.

Pamayabas (literally, picking guavas) is frowned upon by parents and teachers. I could sympathize though with the truants because I still remember the nights when, replete with tambis juice, I sat in class, calm as a Dalai Lama, never arousing my professor’s suspicion that I had not read the cases at all.

The matter of picking fruits to ease hunger came up a few days ago when I read that 14 children in Tondo were hospitalized after eating tuba-tuba seeds.

Aged five to 13 years old, the children were walking around their neighborhood in Vitas about 3 p.m. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, one boy saw the plant and tried eating one of the green globe-like fruits.

Learning that the seeds were delicious, his other companions joined him. After 30 minutes, the children became dizzy. Some vomited.

Rushed to a hospital, all 14 were later discharged.

Tuba-tuba is scientifically named Jatropha curcas. According to the same newspaper report, the plant belongs to the coconut family. Just one seed contains toxins that harm the liver and the heart.

Under the photo of a tuba-tuba plant, the page editor attached a caption that read, “lovely to look at but dangerous to eat.”

Dwelling on my pamayabas days, I reflect that the editor may have missed the point. Upland students cluster around guava trees for much the same reason I looked expectantly up those tambis branches so many years ago in UP.

There is nothing lovely about hunger.

But uglier than slum children poisoning themselves on tuba-tuba is the denial of authorities blind to the hunger of the poor.

National Economic Development Authority Director General Augustus Santos recently said that the Arroyo administration was having a hard time finding “the poorest of the poor.”

Santos has even accused the poor of exaggerating their plight to extract more money.

It may be inferred that Santos does not read the papers. According to the latest published survey of the Social Weather Stations (SWS), the level of hunger among Filipinos has become more acute during the last quarter of 2005.

There are now 2.8 million families that have nothing to eat at least once a day.

As head of the top number-crunching agency in the country, Santos can explain away the rise of moderate hunger to severe hunger as a statistical anomaly.

It is perhaps safer to conclude that Santos has not tried pamayabas at all.

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