I first met Rowena…

Story of change writted by Mary Quennie Salangsang

I first met Rowena at an [ATD] Festival of Learning event years ago. I found her jolly and full of energy. As I got to know her through various activities, learning about her life living under a bridge touched me deeply.

Rowena’s family was well off financially when she was a little girl. Her parents provided food and the family lived in a house. Her childhood home stood high above a creek over which there stretched a 25-meter long highway bridge.

As she grew older, Rowena realized that there were people living under the
bridge in houses made of scavenged lumber and plywood scraps. One day, she asked her father, “ Tatay (the Filipino word for ‘father’), what is life like for people who live under the bridge? How can they endure living there? ”
Her father answered, “ If you want to find out, then go live there and experience it yourself. That is how you will find the answers to your questions. ”

Rowena’s mother died when she was a teenager, and things became difficult for the family. Her father’s health deteriorated as he aged. He also gambled. Rowena felt betrayed when people who were so close to her family started keeping their distance the moment her father gambled all his money away.

Since Rowena’s family could no longer afford daily meals and expenses, she looked for relatives who could help. Instead of help, they gave her rotting food. She felt so humiliated because she had to take what they gave her so that her family would be able to eat. She accepted work as a nanny in a cousin’s house. She left after a relative accused her of planning to steal money from them. She felt that her relative believed this because Rowena was in dire need of money and that was a good enough reason to steal.

Rowena got married, and then separated from her husband. She ended up raising her children by herself. To earn money, she took on one odd job after another. She worked as utility staff at a hospital, as a laundress and a food vendor. She would often bring her children to her work place to keep an eye
on them while she did laundry or sold barbecue.

Rowena met Victor, who would become her second husband. He was one of the people living under the bridge. When Rowena started to live with him, she found the answers to her childhood question : “ What kind of life do people under the bridge have? ” At first, living there was hard for Rowena. And even
after she had lived there for years, she would say, “ I am worried about the bridge just collapsing any time or when a big truck passes over it and our roof shakes so hard. ” (The roofs of the makeshift dwellings touched the underside of the bridge.)

Despite the hardships and her worries, very soon she embraced life under the bridge because of the people who lived there. They made her feel welcome and she found them to be warm-hearted and honest. Everyone understood one another because everyone knew what it was like to be poor. Rowena experienced how important “bayanihan” is in the community. (“Bayanihan” is the Filipino version of volunteerism and solidarity. With “bayanihan”, everyone gives his or her full effort towards a common objective.)

The couple worked together to earn a living. Rowena’s children from her previous marriage pitched in. They peddled street food or separated garbage along with other families in the community. Rowena heard taunts from relatives who found out how she earned a living but she was not ashamed of her work.

Years later, Rowena started going to ATD Fourth World Philippines’ activities in her community. She met many people there with the same hope of changing things for the better for their families. Soon she also became involved in ATD activities in other communities.

In 2012, government agencies, aided by a foundation, started rounding up people living along Manila’s waterways. They said that Manila’s main river needed revival and living by a waterway posed a threat every time the water overflowed. Families would be relocated to new government housing projects, all outside Metro Manila. The first group of families relocated included some of those who lived under the bridge. Their makeshift houses were demolished. ATD Fourth World members, including Rowena, supported these families as they went through the steps of the relocation process.

For Rowena, it is important for families to find solutions to their problems in life. She helps families going through relocation because she wants them to have their own homes. Through her experiences dealing with people involved in relocation and facilitating ATD activities, Rowena became more confident. She learned to face people in prestigious positions, particularly those in government.

When she ran for public office in her “ barangay ” and won, Rowena felt greatly affirmed by her community. (Barangay is the smallest administrative unit of the government in the Philippines, the equivalent of a village, district or ward.) She is now a “ kagawad ”, the barangay council official who
drafts and passes ordinances at the barangay level for communities within its jurisdiction. This position makes it possible for her to better assist people in her community. She continues to help people being relocated and to support others who have not been relocated to find solutions to their concerns. Rowena and her son Christian are also very much involved in ATD activities in a number of communities.

I could not forget what Rowena said when I last saw her :

“ I learned that I should not be ashamed because I am poor. Instead, I should be strong enough to speak out about what we people living in poverty need so that the lives of the poor will change. ”