Manila’s Happyland — No place for Happiness

Ted McDonnell
Jan 14, 2018 · 5 min read

Improvements in daily life in Manila are evident. Billions of dollars are being invested, there are cranes on the skyline, international visits are increasing and Filipinos, at least in Manila, are happy. Most see a bright future. The Philippines is poised for economic prosperity, all be it from a very low base.

Over the past two years, the western media has focused on President Duterte and his war on drugs — an estimated 4000 people have been killed on the streets of Manila.

Surprisingly to Westerners, Filipinos seem happy with the efforts of their President. They believe the streets of Manila are becoming safer and ultimately they have greater issues facing their daily lives.

However, scratch a little below the surface and many of the problems that have plagued Manila for the past three decades remain unresolved. More than 35,000 children under 5 die every year of Malnutrition across the Philippines and in excess of 100,000 young people and adults die from preventable diseases.

The biggest problems facing Filipinos remains poverty and homelessness in Manila’s vast slums. You only have to drive a few kilometres outside the thriving Manila metropolis to suburban Tondo to be struck by the sheer hopelessness facing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.

Just a short drive outside from Manila’s city is the slum area of Tondo where more than 600,000 people live in poverty. Severe malnutrition and disease is an everyday reality for the residents living within the putrid slum areas.

“Deaths from disease and malnutrition far outweigh the so-called extra-judicial shootings of people involved in drugs,” says one NGO.

Founder of Las Vegas based US non profit Kilos Bayanihan, Alan Niewald says the problem at Tondo is magnified at Happyland and has become a multi-generational trap.

“Education is extremely important in the Philippines but most children do not attend school because the parents have to choose whether to feed their children or send them to school then possibly not have enough food to feed them. It’s a tough decision,” Niewald says.

“There is a decided lack of opportunity to improve their lives. There should be more livelihood or community training programs available. There is also the age restrictions that most employers have. This also makes it harder to find a job. Most of the homeless are usually from the province that come to Manila to try and find a better life but end up homeless,” Niewald adds.

The worst of the conditions can be found at Tondo’s ‘Happyland’ BRGY105 where the population has grown from around 3500 in in 2006 to more than 12,000 today.

Happyland is literally built around a dump, or many dumps where people daily wade through rubbish looking for anything of value. Tons of chicken scraps are collected from takeaways garbage bins then recycled by boiling. It’s called ‘pagpag’ and sold to hungry families in the slums for a few pesos.

The stench, heat and storms create a toxic combination of disease, but inadequate government health services mean the people of Tondo’s worst slum just get sicker and sicker.

Niewald says the cycle of poverty is hard to break without opportunity.

“Imagine a child being born to a mother who is say 15 years old that lives in the slums and has no education. She does not have enough money to send them to school. That child gets pregnant at 13 or 14 years old. She is now in the same situation as her mother was. The cycle just keeps repeating itself.”

Niewald says that the Duterte government has turned its back on those that need the most help.

“I don’t see anything being done by Duterte to change anything in his first year,” he adds

On the first anniversary of his election landslide, Duterte pledged every Filipino will live a “comfortable life”, however, try telling that to those who live the daily nightmare of Happyland.

An Ebook version of his book is available at the Apple store ALL proceeds go to directly to families in Happyland —

*Photojournalist Ted McDonnell will launch the hardcover version of “A Life in Happyland” in Manila in early 2018. He is represented by SIPA Press in France.

Ted McDonnell

Written by

Award winning Photojournalist; Reportage & Humanitarian assignments; Commercial work appointment only: Twitter/IG: @tedmcdonnell -

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