Bridging Cultures in a Filipino Trash Dump
by Jeffrey K. Mann
In Manila, capital city of the Philippines, the midday weather can be … well … hot. At the Smokey Mountain trash dump in May, it becomes simply oppressive. Dust fills the air, along with smoke from people slow-burning wood to make charcoal. And, of course, there is the inescapable stench of the waste dumped there from all over Manila and brought in by ship from Japan. With the heat index easily surpassing 105 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s the last place you would probably want to play a game of basketball. Yet that’s where students from GO Philippines find themselves each year. And many will tell you it was a highlight of their Global Opportunities (GO) experience.
The first group of Susquehanna students visited Smokey Mountain in 2007. We were all shocked, saddened and frustrated to see thousands of people living there, literally building their lives on other people’s garbage. We stayed a short time that year, talked to a few people, snapped a few photos and left, permanently changed by what we saw, smelled and felt.
The next group returned in 2008. Again we walked around with pity in our eyes. But then something both extraordinary and rather mundane happened: We found ourselves in a 3–3 pickup basketball game. The distinctions of class, wealth, opportunity and nationality disappeared. There were just six guys on the court playing ball, and a whole lot more standing around cheering, laughing and simply spending time together. The Filipinos had to figure out how to play against 6-foot-4-inch Steve Satterlee, co-director of GO Philippines, and we had to try to deal with guys in flip-flops who flew around the court at breakneck speed.
David Kingsborough ’10 was one of the students who played that first year. During that game, he realized the people living there didn’t want his pity, they wanted respect. “It’s something that I will never forget … it was very important for me to play basketball with the Filipinos when we were there. It’s definitely really good to show that you don’t think you are better than them,” he said.
Since that year, that basketball game has become a tradition, the Annual Filipino-American Basketball Challenge. The rough dirt area we first played on has been replaced with a cement court, donated by some politician eager for votes. We now make use of a referee, usually Pastor Jun from the Baptist church inside the dump community. Despite his pious credentials, we invariably accuse him of favoring the Filipino team, on which his sons sometimes play. There is still a great deal of laughter during and after the game, and some pretty intense play on the court. The young Susquehanna women who play are treated with deferential curiosity by the Filipino guys, not used to playing against females. But there have been those like Sarah Johnson ’12 who showed them that ladies can play just as aggressively, if not more so, than the guys. Sometimes the Americans win, and sometimes it’s the Filipinos. This year, the American team was defeated 21–17 in a full-court game. That’s not too bad, considering the program directors get older every year.
Basketball is not all we do with the Smokey Mountain community. Over the years we have distributed vitamins, clothing, toiletries and first-aid materials. One group of students even decided to sponsor the education of three children who live there. And there is always a bunch of kids who enjoy the time, attention and play of our visiting group. However, that basketball game represents that there is more going on here than rich Americans coming with some handouts for poor Filipinos. There is exchange, respect, friendship and always laughter. That simple game helps us overcome the differences we perceive and to appreciate one another as people. Yes, there are challenges and dissimilarities to be faced, and issues with which we must struggle, but our common humanity is underscored for an hour each year in the blazing sun as we try to beat one another to the hoop. And that’s a good thing.
Jeffrey Mann is associate professor of religious studies and director of the PLUS (Philippines: Learning, Understanding and Service) Program at Susquehanna.