Sta. Mesa is one of the more depressed districts of Metro Manila. Considered to be one of the towns surrounding old Manila in the early 20th century,it was swailowed up in the expansion of the city. Now it reels from the effects of poverty,rapid population increase and rural to urban migration.
The Sta. Mesa of today is typical of inner cities. Vehicles can hardly pass through the narrow streets because of the mass of pedestrians vendors, pedicabs and children playing. Garbage litters the pavement,where anything from disposed plastic containers,peelings,and animal waste is displayed for public view. Overhead in confusing directions are telephone and electrical lines providing services for the two storey structures typical in the place.
Noise is defeaning and everywhere.But such an environment has not defeated the human spirit's will to survive. People continue to do business,and commercial activity has flourished despite- or perhaps because of - the teeming population.
Along Dangka St., where the Old Sta.Mesa Credit Cooperative( OSCC) is situated,almost every house has something to sell: candies, clothing,fishball,vinegar, soy sauce, snacks, softdrinks,anything. And one of the survivors slugging it out is Virgie Simbaco.
She's been through a lot. Born in Ceneral Sanros City in L960, she grew up helping her mother sell fish in the city's port while her father was a machine operator in a ricem ill. Theirs was a big family of 12 children. And life was not exactly comfortable. Virgie Simbaco came to Manila in 1984 hoping to study college and widen her horizons. Though she lived with an elder sister while in the city, she supported herself, again as a vendor in Divisoria selling small items. She took up a business course in the National College of Business Administration (NCBA) in Morayta within the University Belt.
"Hindi namana ko mapili sa kurso na kukunin ko basta makatapos lang ako" (I was not particular about what course to take,I just wanted to finish college),she recalls. She graduated in 1992 taking longer than the usual four years to get a degree.Shortly after,she married Manuel Simbaco, who worked as a delivery man for a glass and mirror trader in Sta.Cruz, Manila. Vrgie was stiIl unable to get a job and so continued to sell on the streets.
Manuel and Virgie were blessed with three sons,Van Damme, 8; Victor, 6; and Joey, 4. "Sadya naming dalawang taon ang pagitan nila para hindi kami gaanong mahirapan" (We made sure they came two years apart so that we would not have a hard time), she says beaming with pride knowing that most couples in depressed areas neither knew nor practiced family planning.
Virgie's sister owned a small building and ailowed the Simbacos to occupy the ground floor rent-free.The kids attended a nearby school and were gone almost the whole day. While Manuel was out working, Virgie sold fruits, usually mangoes or banana, and vegetables in front of their house.
Virgie would sometimes borrow money from her sister to use as capital.In 1999,sales began to pick up and she urged Manuel to leave the minimum-wage job he held since he was a teenager and instead help her in their business. After all, his low salary was almost totally consumed by his own daily needs.
Manuel would then go to Divisoria at dawn to buy merchandise for her to sell. He would hire a jeepney to help deliver the goods to Sta. Mesa. Despire their teaming up, business became rather unsustainable.
Virgie Simbaco recounts, "Pag naubos ang kapital, tigil muna kami. Minsan humihiram ako sa kapatid ko pag biglang tumataas ang presyo sa Divisorra." (When the capital runs out, we stop selling.Sometimes I borrow from my sister when prices in Divisoria suddenly soar.)
With their very limited capital,they were practically at the mercy of fluctuating prices until, "Tapos isang hapon, may napansin akong lalaki na may kinokolekta sa lahat ng mga nagtitinda,kaya tinanong ko iyong mga tindera ,kung anu yun. Sa Kooperatiba daw." (Then one afternoon, I saw a man going from one vendor to another as if collecting something. So I asked what it was and they told me it was for the cooperative.)
With more inquiries,she found out that the cooperative gave relatively lower interest for loans. The following day,she waited for the collector to pass by during his rounds.
Simbaco recalls,"Tinanong ko sa kanya kung ano ang kanyang kinokolekta hapun-hapon. Ay, sa kooperatiba nga raw. Tinanong ko kung puwede akong maging miyembro at kung paano. Kasi kailangan ko din ng kapital" (I asked him what he was collecting every afternoon and he said it was for the cooperative. Then I asked if I could be a member and how to go about it. I really needed capital.)The collector agreed to introduce Virgie to the cooperative's account manager Weng, who personally came the following day. She advised Virgie to atrend a premembership seminar for prospective members.
And attend the seminar she did, "Sa seminar na iyon,nalaman ko na kailangan palang mag-deposito ng P1,000 muna. At habang lumalaki ang iyong share capital, lalaki din ang maari mong utangin." (At the seminar, I learned that I needed to make an initial deposit of P1,000. And as my share capital grows, I can borrow bigger amounts.)
She remembers having learned about the mechanics of how the organization operated, and began to appreciate the cooperative principles of voluntary membership,equal voting rights regardless of a members capital and sustained education for members.She values the fact that she has a stake in the cooperative, and benefit from it as well.
Simbaco particularly likes the democratic style of governance in the cooperative. She was excited when she attended her first General Assembly in December 2000. She enthuses,remembering," sa General Assembly, maari mong itanong ang anumang hindi mo alam. At pwede ka pang bumoto." (At the General Assembly, you can ask about whatever it is you don't know. And you can even cast your vote.)
Her loan application of P5,000 was easily approved. The money was used for additional capital to revitalize their fledging business, and within a month,she had repaid the loan.It was a small victory for Virgie that,"Madali naman naming nabayaran ang utang basta may kaunting benta araw araw." (We easily repaid the debt as long as we had daily sales no matter how small.)
She adds, realizing that she passed a test of sorts, "Maari na akong umutang ng mas malaki matapos kong mapaunayan na nagbabayad naman ako ng utang." (I can borrow a bigger amount of money the next time because I had proven myself a good borrower.)
Virgie Simbaco took another loan worthP10,000 in December 2000, which she quickly repaid. Then in early 2001, she borrowed P20,000, her biggest loan so far. She says having a large capital enabled her to rise above the sudden fluctuations in the market,at least most of the time.
Vegetables are no problem because the supply and demand is rather constant. The difficulty was in the retail sale of fruits, which are seasonal in supply, but constantly in demand. Fluctuations in the supply and the corresponding prices are quite common, depending on the season.
For instance, when the supply of mangoes peak during the hot months of March until June, the prices go down. Then it begins to rise again when supplys lackens. Virgie Simbaco considers it fortunate that mangoes are relatively predictable. Her problem though lies with bananas. Its supply is relatively constant throughout the year, but fluctuates on a weekly basis, depending on the arrival of deliveries from nearby provinces.
Because of the loan from the co-op, they were not just able to surf the fiuctuating price waves, they also had a stronger purchasing power to buy more merchandise. And the more products they had,the easier it was to attract customers.
Simbaco meditates on this, "Mahalaga kasi ang marami kang paninda at madaling makita ng mga mamimili" (It is important to have lots of goods to sell becauseit is easily seen by customers.)For a while, business was good. But on JuIy 4, 2001 , Virgie Simbaco went to pick up Van Damme in school as she always did and left Manuel to mind the business. As she alighted from a jeepney another one right behind lost its brakes and sped towards her. Virgie's legs were crushed between the bumpers.
Bystanders rushed her to a nearby private hospital where she received first aid. But treatment was suspended when she was unable to post a deposit. Manuel was informed about it an hour later but it was not until late in the afternoon that he was able to borrow money from Virgie's sister to pay for the deposit.
Doctors found Virgie's bones and tendons in the knees crushed by the impact. She was confined in the hospital for nine days. Expenses began to mount so Manuel decided to bring her to the National Orthopedic Center,a government hospital,hoping for lesser expenses. Doctors there decided that Virgie's left leg had to be amputated because an artery had been damaged.
She remembers what was to be the moment that changed her life, and the tragedy that many poor people undergo," Sabi ng mga doctor, naagapan sana kung sa pribadong ospital pa inasikaso na kaagad ako. Eh naghintay pa ng deposito kaya natagalan."(The doctor said my leg could have been salvaged had she been attended to in the private hospital. But there was no deposit and we had to wait.)
Manuel borrowed money from relatives. The cooperative immediately released an emergency loan worth P5,000. Manuel also filed charges in court against the jeepney driver who at first, gave P4,000 for Virgie's medical expense and promised to give some more. However, a few days later, the man's wife visited Virgie in the hospital and sadly informed her that her husband's earnings from driving was not enough even for their own consumption
He was going back to the province to "look for money," the wife promised. Of course, he never returned. Neither did he appear in the court hearings again.Virgie remained for another month at the Orthopedic while the kids stayed with her sister. Manuel was a faithful husband throughout, staying at her bedside but unable to make a living. All in all, they spent close to P300,000 for the medicines and hospitalization, not including yet the loss they incurred from havlng stopped their livelihood.
Today, Virgie is home. Doctors expect her to be able to stand on her remaining legs oon. Manuel continues to sell fruits though to a lesser scale because of the debt they have to repay. He doesn't even allow Virgie to do household chores.Shortly before noontime everyday, he takes a break from,work and goes home to cook lunch for his bedridden wife and three sons who come from school. He takes a short nap right after lunch, and then goes back to selling at 2 p . m . .
Virgie can't wait to walk again. "Gusto kong matulungan ang asawa ko" (I want to help my husband), she says. They have repaid the emergency loan obtained from the cooperative. But there is still the P9,000 balance left from the P20,000 loan they got in early 2001. The cooperative graciously put all payments and interests on hold.
The humane nature of cooperatives particularly in its micro-lending program where majority of borrowers are poor, shone through. OSCC General Manager,Rey Villarin says,"Nagbibigay naman kami ng konsiderasyon kung talagang may problema ang isang miyembo di makabayad sa utang."(We give consideration to members whenever possible if we can see that borrowers are really unable to repay their loans.)
The trust from both sides is valuable to make cooperativism work, Villarin adds,"Lubos din naman ang tiwala namin sa mga miyembro dahil karamihan sa kanila ay may maliliit na negosyo at ayaw mawalan ng pinanggagalingan ng kanilang puhunan. Minsang madala ang kooperatiba ay wala na silang mauutangan kundi ang mga usurero. Mahirap yon." (Wet rust most of our members because many of them are small entrepreneurs who do not want their source of capital offended. Once the cooperative is cheated, they can no longer avail of loans, which they need badly, They will then be forced to borrow from usurers who have tougher terms.)
The Simbaco save fortunate to have the support of their "koop" in hard times. Many in the area borrowed from usurers and ended up being "consumed" by their loans due to the high interest These victims also run to the co-op to bail them out, according to Villarin, "Ilan na dito ang tinulungan namin Marami na. Kasi kung hindi sila tutulungan, talagang mauubusan sila ng mga usurero."(How many have we helped here Many already. Because if they don't get help, the usurers would strip them out.) True enough from an initial capitalization of P8,000 and P841 in deposit and savings from 16 members in 1996 after just 5 years, Old Sta. Mesa Credit Cooperative is now 344-member strong. Its capitalization has blossomed to more than P2 million, and its deposit and savingsto P1.43 million.
The Simbaco are confident that they will be able to repay their loan balance.It is amazing that even in crises they did not shirk on their responsibility to the co-op. Most banks criticize the poor and marginalized as often delinquent in repayment,and so have closed their doors on many of them especially the most needy,those without collateral.
Virgie and Manuel have proven that they are true and honorable. She says, "Mahalaga sa aming mag-asawa ang aming reputasyon. Kasi pag hindi ba nagbayad,hindi ka na pauutangin." (Manuel and I value our reputation as paying borrowers. Because if we don't pay, we can no lose our source of capital.)
But she is also practical about it, "Depende naman sa umuutang yun kung talagang gustong mabayaran lahat ng utang mo. At wala sa laki ng utang yan, kasi kung malaki ang utang mo, malaki rin ang maipupuhunan mo!" (It all depends on the borrower if he wants to repay his loan. It's not really in the size of your loan because the bigger you borrow, the bigger your capital tool).
In all these, the cooperative pays tribute to its members, knowing they will not let it down. The life of a credit co-op after all, lies in the hands of people like Virgie Simbaco, who knows what mutual trust and responsibility means.She may not be walking yet, but she stands as an example of courage, honor and an entrepreneurial spirit that defies the odds. She has actually three legs,come to think of it, one her own, the other her husband, and the extra one, their cooperative.