The Slums of Davao – exiting The Philippines the right way – Part 1

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ December 13th, 2010. Updated on September 22nd, 2014. Published in: Travel blog » Philippines.
Young girl living in the squatter camps in Davao

Young girl living in a squatter camp (click to enlarge)

Slums, squats or just home?

I don’t particularly like the term “slum” nor “squatter”, these are quite simply people’s homes. I’ve visited such places in the Philippines in Manila, Palawan, Mindanao and now Davao (which is in southern Mindanao). I’ve also visited such places in West Africa and Nepal, Pakistan and India. I don’t like the situation these people are in, but I do like the people who live there.

Exit for me

Davao holds the key to the vital piece of paper anyone staying over 6 months needs; to leave the Philippines. An exit clearance. Finger prints, photos, and a mass of photocopying. Now available nationwide at varying costs, depending on your “express fee”. No, in truth it is quite easy. And, actually makes sense. If you’ve been arrested in The Philippines, or charged it “should up” show here. In other words it is a  mandatory line of protection to prevent the bad people from leaving without due process.

Good people live in slums

Narrow winding streets in the squatter camps of Davao

Narrow winding streets in the squatter camps of Davao

Davao, a friendly enough city, depending on where you look. In Gaisano mall I spent 2 plus hours walking around. I don’t think one person said hello to me though. Excluding the sales girls wanting me to buy something. I walked the streets of Davao and I think only 2 people gave me a nod. However, within 2 minutes of being in the squatter area in Davao I was getting hello’s, welcomes, “are you lost?” and great cheery smiles. This was the complete opposite to what the tourist in my hotel had depicted as his face dropped in horror when I suggested he come too. His young local girlfriend looked even more horrified.

“It’s dangerous,” she commented. “Dirty. They’re on drugs, they’ll rob you. It’s not good to go there.”

Locals building a boat in Davao

Safety in the slums

For me it’s one of the safest places you could possibly be in Davao, or for that matter in The Philippines. For me at least. Maybe not for the average tourist or traveler. I walked down the dilapidated side street into the narrow wood surrounding side streets of the slum. People were getting hair cuts on the street, washing clothes, chatting to each other. Every day life. Each person looking up to give me a wide-eyed stare before smiling widely with a greeting.

Why and who are the squatters?

Filipinos call these people squatters. They live here because it’s beside a large city which is good for causal work, hand outs, opportunities and the sea. In fact most of the houses are actually in the sea. They’re built on wooden stilts. When the tide is out it’s best not to walk under these houses. Each house has a direct toilet aimed below. The flush happens only when the tide comes in. The sea also offers food. Crabs, fish and various seaweeds are within shoreline distance. And so, as I walked along the shoreline the boats, raised on platforms 7 feet off the ground, made sense. When the tide comes in, they are all ready for departure.

The plight of the squatter

Unfortunately during my time in the Philippines I’ve rarely heard a good word about squatters. Locals turn their noses up at them and deem them dirty and crime ridden people. The higher richer class of Filipino only seemed to talk about the eyesore they cause to the cities. And, the due date for the planned demolition of their homes.

Squatter houses on stilts in Davao City

Squatter houses on stilts in Davao City

Talk is cheap when it comes to life in the slums

I’ve heard from at least one NGO who tries to protect their right for a place to live. And, one high-ranking official who babbled off a plan to rehouse them. Sadly it reminded me of a similar scenario from the slums in Lagos, Nigeria. People were told they’d be offered alternative housing. This was said as their house was being destroyed in front of them.

Due process

In The Philippines two letters from the authorities are meant to be delivered beforehand warning of this. They said alternative housing was awaiting them. The reality was; they are yet to be built, and even then it would cost money. It was after all only an “offer” of alternative housing. Moreover these areas are far away from the cities. Too far from the food source of the sea, income possibilities of a city. Never mind the non-existence of sanitation, electricity, and water.

“It looks good on paper, in the media and in legislation. But in reality, it meant no houses.”

I hope the same does not happen in The Philippines. But fear it will. These people are the most friendly people I’ve met in the Philippines. Argue what you may about the legalities of squatting. In this day an age, it’s a matter of survival, not ill will.

A query on life today?

I continued my walk along the shore as people stuck their heads out between the cracks in their weather-beaten houses. Some covered in soap suds from their morning bath, others with toothbrushes still in mouth. All with big smiles and welcome greetings. Why is it that people from the “slums” are ill spoken of, mistreated and cast out from society. Yet, are more friendly than those in the expensive malls and along the city’s streets?

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Coming soon: Last Feature Article: Deadly Islam in The Philippines … then ( last journal entry)

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24 Great responses to The Slums of Davao – exiting The Philippines the right way – Part 1

  1. Those that have tend to feel the need to protect what they have. There is no bigger force of restriction than the feeling the you have something. The squatters with not much of anything, in contrast perhaps, threaten the people who HAVE, they are the outsiders, the challengers, the ones creeping in through the back door. Rich society is often built on fear of these people.

    Good story, I too have found, in many instances, the slums of cities during daylight hours are some of the safer places that you can be — there are people everywhere.

  2. Lois says:

    Thanks for writing about my hometown in a different light. I have been away for more than 4 years and I wonder about what’s different and what remains the same. Perhaps I should go back and try to look at the Davao slums through your eyes.

    It’s sad to know you are leaving the Philippines but great that you are continue your search for home in another place.

  3. Jim says:

    I have differing feeling towards squatters. They are what they say they are living on land that someone else owns. If they are squatting on say Government owned land i.e local authority then fine. But when they set up house on your land thats a different matter.
    It can cost you a lot of time and money to remove them and remember it’s your land not theirs so until it happens to you its better to keep your own council on the subject.
    The problem is people leave the hinterland to come to the cities to seek their fortune and discover that life in the city is worse than where they left but by then it’s too late to go back as they would loose face so the saga continues. Whats needed is local authority housing to get rid of the slums but and a big but that comes with rent to pay untility bills and land tax and guess what currently they pay nothing to anyone.

    • I can certainly understand your view point. And, I certainly would not like someone living on my land / house without permission. And, I will also say that not every person is nice in the slums, just like in the rest of society there are bad elements.

      However as I mentioned above in the article. The rights, and wrongs of squatting aside. It is a fight for survival these days. If you had a family to feed and are eating off the land, saw an opportunity of living in the city and earning money. Wouldn’t you take it? I know I would. Such is life to day.

      Let’s not for get the big building contractors who offer wages to many people from the rural areas for cheap manual labor. They turn a blind eye to people setting up temporary homes while the big commercial areas are built. Then once complete, objections to the slums arise. Same such objections don’t happen during the construction …

  4. Anna's World says:

    Love the first photo! And really enjoyed this. I’d be too nervous going to a place like this. It’s why I read your blog. But I’m also nervous going to my tax office. I shouldn’t be. Looking forward to Part 2.

  5. Bruno says:

    Again a wonderfull and accurate description from my 2th homeland, the Philippines. My opinion of the kindness, and greatings, is that any opportunity wich passes, should be taken.. meaning anything besides the daily humdrum can be a chance to get, at least temporarely, a better life. On the other side are the better-of people, wich had an education mostly, and who feel shy to say hello, certainly to be the initiator for a contact. This makes, to my opinion, the big difference which you wrote about. I must say, lived for a few weeks in there myself, that in a squatter-area, i felt more at home then in what other society/community ever. People are very poor, happy to have food for the day; nevertheless hospitable, and sharing.. and always smile, coz making jokes takes the mind of from them poverty wich they all try to escape from. Some of them will try to loan money, wich they can/will never repay, others want you to take them with you to the land of opportunities.. but once they saw, the responce was just a smile, they didnt insist, but remained friendly, warm and hospitable, and thats why I love them.

  6. Laura says:

    A really informative piece about a way of life I can’t even begin to imagine. I’m grateful to writers like you for letting me have a tiny insight into a world in complete contrast with my own.

  7. Kristina says:

    It’s true in these times what matter is survival. And yes, squatters tend to be warmer and friendly. However, they are infesting the area and polluting the sea. It is also unsafe for them and more often than not they are the source of community fire.

    I hope though governments would be able to prioritize these people’s needs and provide a home for these families.

  8. Ted Nelson says:

    I got lost in a slum area in Cebu City. I was concerned because I was lost, but I was not worried about my personal safety. Someone quickly came to my rescue and gave me directions. The rest of the people mostly ignored me.

  9. Marco says:

    hey man, thanks for featuring Davao, this is where I live now. We should have met. hahah. are you still here?>

  10. Stuart says:

    An amazing insight mate. I think your points are valid

  11. LeslieTravel says:

    Interesting article– thanks for sharing your insight into this neighborhood, and Filipino attitudes about slums. I’ve never been to the Philippines but you’ve peaked my curiosity.

  12. really thoughtful and balanced post — thank you

  13. Earl says:

    I’ve learned that in order to survive as a whole, the communities in these ‘slums’, whether in the Phillipines, India or elsewhere, are typically much stronger than you’ll find in wealthier areas of a city. And I’ve also found most slums to be full of good, hard-working people who are much more likely to extend their hand for a handshake than a punch.

    But it’s just too easy to associate poverty and ramshackle living conditions with crime and ill-intentioned people. Like anything, it often takes a visit to these areas to discover that this is not typically the case, so the description of your experience is not something to be ignored.

  14. ciki says:

    i’ve never felt threatened either. these ppl are so nice and kind. it’s a real shame they have so little.great post dave.. as always, riveting stuff.

  15. den says:

    wow..i really appreciate your work..any way, i am planning to make a thesis about the urban slum areas in Davao City. of how difficult their lives are when it comes to public good deprivation and impact of new infrastructures to be build in the places in which they are currently living.. please e-mail me if you have suggestions of what should be included in my thesis.. i love your work:)..thank you..coz actually, im from davao city.. God Bless