The Despair of Disparity

by Jan Baughman

June 19, 2000

Note from the Editor: Libraries are filled with long-winded treatises about the origin of war, the nature of men (and women) and their repressive tendencies. We write the treatises, we read the treatises and we conclude that it's always been and so will it always be. Yet, if we could keep the studies within the KISS concept (Keep It Simple Stupid) -- a concept that we, in the USA, love to apply to all practical purposes -- it would not take a rocket scientist to understand and explain the root cause of conflicts. Think about poverty and wealth unevenly distributed. Looks too simple? Think twice. Think KISS. Jan Baughman traveled to The Philippines where she kept her eyes and her mind open. She understands, indeed.

Cebu is an island nestled in the south central portion of The Philippines. The weather is steamy, the roads are crowded with motorcycle taxis whose sidecars are overflowing with passengers, and one or two young children hang on the saddle behind the driver. Old U.S. military jeeps, repainted and decorated with catchy and colorful designs serve as buses, filled to the brim with locals covering their faces with handkerchiefs to dim the choking exhaust fumes. The streets are mottled and unkempt, and a frightening disorder rules the flow of traffic, though an apparent unwritten code seems to guide the vehicles through the maze, disregarding lanes and stoplights.

Lining the streets and alleys are one-room shacks with wooden walls and corrugated metal roofs. Many of the roofs are littered with old tires; garbage lies among the houses and in the gutters and empty lots, with no scheduled pick up. People sort through it, perhaps looking for food or some discarded item that may be of use. Animals roam the streets - dogs all seemingly of the same ancestry, a sort of nondescript dingo, cats with their ribs exposed, all with purpose in their movement and somewhere to go, more purpose than that of the people. Roosters, goats and oxen wander as well, all obviously someone's resource, though their home is not apparent to the unknowing passer-by. Children stand and watch, the youngest often unclothed. When there is the occasional bank or car dealership, there is a guard with a rifle.

Two days in a row, I make the 45-minute ride through these streets, to the outskirts where a 60-hectare expanse holds a leprosarium, previously referred to as a "leper colony". It once housed over 2000 patients, today about 400. I visit the women's ward - a simple rectangular stone building with openings in the walls for ventilation. About 40 beds line the periphery of the room, and each one is occupied, many with beautiful girls in their teens, their lower legs ravaged by disease. The older women bear the disfigurement in their fingers and hands. All have the darkened, unnaturally black skin that is a side effect of the treatment, which only adds to the stigma they must endure. Their eyes are sad, but many meet mine with a smile, as they sit on their beds suffering, enduring, waiting. Today the patients come for effective treatment; decades before, the islands were devastated by the disease, and its victims were merely secluded from society.

The laboratories are hushed, and only the sun, muted by the shades to keep the rooms cool, provides light to work by. The equipment is minimal, but the determination and compassion of the researchers is immeasurable. Their warmth and generosity is amazing. On the second day, my hosts serve Big Macs for lunch out of deference; before eating they pray for peace in Mindanao (a strifeful southern island), and give thanks for food and good health.

For two days of my life, I am uncomfortable with my surroundings. I want to take photos so I will not forget, but it would seem intrusive. I feel that even my glances are invasive. The photographs in my mind are indelible. I am overwhelmed by the poverty, yet my hosts ride along unnoticing, seemingly oblivious. I try to picture what I would see through their eyes. And I imagine that if I were driving them through the highways of America, I would be oblivious to the excesses, and they would be equally appalled.

Once out of the poorest neighborhoods, the streets widen and smoothen as they carry the more fortunate and the tourists to grand hotels, casinos and proud new shopping malls. There are police officers and armed guards everywhere. The contrast is startling. How can the government turn its eyes on the extreme poverty and crumbling infrastructure, and yet allow such exclusive wealth? I ask this question in a reactive way and quickly catch myself.

Why not here, too? After all, it is the same in my own backyard. I have absolutely no right to judge. But I know in my bones and feel in my heart that our so-called free-market system is plain wrong; too many inequities, too many excessive disparities. I know it and I hope you do too.


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published June 19, 2000
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