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When poverty almost killed me

I never really knew what happened at that time, but I know I felt death

   5 mins read

When poverty almost killed me

Today I visited my mom and sister after weeks of not seeing them in person due to the coronavirus. Almost two months ago, I moved to a wealthier neighborhood a few blocks away from our home. It wasn’t because I have so much money to spend now. Neither was it because I am building a family of my own. It's because I need it for my job — I am now the breadwinner of our family.

Initially, it was all fine. My startup was doing incredibly well before the pandemic happened. From operating fully-digital in the prior months, we finally moved to an office in Mandaluyong January this year. Then we hired three full-time staff to scale our impact and move faster, which would eventually make us highly profitable. With so much growth, I was in full hopes everything would be better this 2020.

Besides, I didn't deserve all the pains of 2018 and 2019.

Going full-time at Tagani

I started my full-time work at Tagani when I return from my fellowship in the United States. I had to leave my job and graduate studies for a while to focus on earning more. I had to focus on Tagani.

As our primary revenue source, we did monthly hands-on workshops in partnership with the Philippine Trade Training Center. Our trainees would come from North Luzon to as far as Davao. Often I would meet balikbayan (returning) overseas Filipino workers, retiree corporate professionals, and career-shifters. They all enrolled to learn more about opportunities in agribusiness and farming.

During my first workshop, I had 85 attendees. It was too much to handle. I would set a cap of 30 seats in the coming months, but it would still reach 50 as some would enroll as walk-in participants.

With all these blessings, I assured myself I would have enough funds to pay all of my dad’s unpaid hospital bills if everything falls into place. But of course, it was not the case. How we are doing now was so far from what I had expected.

Tonight was the first night I tried to sleep in this house after two months of moving out. I could not sleep well, besides the fact that I am trying to sleep in our dining-area-living-room-turned-commercial space and lying on a hard bench, the noises outside were too much for me now. I might have accustomed to the peaceful neighborhood of BF Homes, where the only noise you would hear during the were the winds whistling the windows.

I never really intended to move out of our home, especially in the middle of the pandemic. But my job is my only job, and I had to protect it.

When the pandemic hit, we immediately shifted all of Tagani’s workshops online. Not everyone was happy about it. As the months progressed, our maximum number of registrants would be a quarter of my workshop’s average attendance. Worse, in many embarrassing situations, my students would complain about the distracting noises in my background: babies crying, couples arguing, engines rambling, and you know it — dogs barking. I couldn’t do anything about it. Our village is densely packed with people.

The thing is, for most of my childhood, I lived in the slums. 

Today, our house stands on the same ground. If not only for my grandfather fighting for our rights, we wouldn’t have any place we can call home. Years after its transformation as a socialized housing village, you would still see the remnants of what it used to be.

A near-to-death experience, literally

Living here in this village during the 90s was dangerous. I could still vividly remember when I saw two men exchanging shabu (cheap methamphetamine) in broad daylight while I was playing outside our home. Their eyes were bloodshot red, and they were never afraid to show the guns in their pants.

Police raids and killings were regular in this place. Not only was this place home to drugs, gangs, gambling, prostitution, and poverty, it was also plagued with diseases such as leptospirosis, malaria, and dengue. 

“Today, our house stands on the same ground. If not only for my grandfather fighting for our rights, we wouldn’t have any place we can call home.”

My parents would always tell me how a mosquito bite could've killed me. I was one of the novel cases of dengue fever during its outbreak in the 2000s.

The dengue fever is curable, as long as it is detected and treated very early. But my parents did not know anything about the dengue situation back then as we didn’t have a television at home. 

When I first started exhibiting dengue’s symptoms, my mom and dad visited every manghihilot (quack doctor) they knew. We saw one after another, but no one was able to cure me. They all had their own diagnosis though: one thought nature spirits were playing tricks on me, the other said it was because of the “devil” in our home. My parents were so afraid of bringing me to the hospital as they knew they could not afford it, even for a consultation, which is at least P500 (US$10).

My dad earned only P150 (US$3) on a good day.

Instead of a trip to the hospital, they resorted to syrups, juices, and traditional medicines until I was deliriously shaking in my bed due to my severe fever.

My mom said I was unconscious most of the time. And due to the severe loss of platelets in my blood, caused by the dengue virus, I needed a transfusion of 12 bags of blood. The doctor said that I was in a 50/50 state.

My parents had no money. They were in their early 20s trying to start a family. My father was a tricycle driver while my mom is a full-time housewife. We had no assets to sell, nor did my parents had enough savings to spare. It was a dead end.

They had to sell all of our second-hand appliances — our rice cooker, radio, and electric fan. All of these still weren’t enough to pay the hospital bills.

It was only when my mom’s friend lent some money, clutch-move, that the doctor tried to revive me. I never really knew what happened at that time, but I know I felt death.

Indeed, poverty is a serial killer.

For sure many families today are in the same situation, especially in the context of the pandemic. In this economy, if you are in poverty, you only have two choices: to be buried underground or be buried in debt.

Worse, it is both. — Tagani.ph (To be continued) 

Keb Cuevas
He is the Founder & CEO of Tagani Philippines. He is a startup coach, GoNegosyo Mentor, and digital agriculturist. He studied at the University of the Philippines, Brown University, and the United Nations’ University for Peace. 

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