Archive | August 2012

The weavers of Salingan

At the end of a windy track in amongst rice fields as far as the eye can see and copses of palm and mango trees, we arrived into the little community of Salngan. There are 585 people in 92 bamboo and thatch homes scattered in glimpses randomly among the trees along with tethered cows, goats and of course, chickens.

Outskirts of Salingan

There is great fanfare. The people come out and meet us in a courtyard under a giant mango tree. We are served buku juice and fruit. Four colourfully dressed women come out to perform a dance for us. They are laughing, goofing off, and teasing each other.

It is a thriving happy healthy community. But it wasn’t always like this.

One by one the women stand and give their testimonies. There is lots of laughter, a few tears. They tell how six years ago the village was aimless and poor. No sanitation, little education, no economy, malnutrition. The villagers sat around under the same tree, bored and purposeless, often gambling away what meagre cash they had.

Mrs Zenit at her loom

Our hosts today are Taytay Sa Kauswagan (TSKI)  a local Christian microfinance  organisation dedicated to spiritual transformation and human development. They began work with the folk of Salngan in business mentoring, leadership development, skills training and small loans to absolutely transform this community. A loan of $120 built them a community hall and a weaver’s loom. Today they have 18 looms and a booming industry as weavers of beautiful cloth. Kids are fed and educated, the people are working. They have a child care centre and community meetings. They even built a road through their village. It is a shining example of transformation.

Not an optical illusion

I bought a 4 metre length of beautiful and intricately woven fabric , hand woven on the loom next to me. It took a day to make.  I asked how much: $8.00.

TSKI have 200 000 clients.

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Channeling Danny Zuko

It is not often that I am gobsmacked. But last night was one of those occasions. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with inspiring stories of poverty alleviation.

Our hosts, Alay sa Kanularan, put on a lavish farewell dinner for us in a packed function room of a local hotel. There was Mere and third person Pete, and six other Aussies from Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as the Board and numerous staff of ASKI.

The Family von Aussie Singers

Turns out Filipinos love to sing and dance and perform (who knew?), and us Aussies were told at short notice we had to do “an item”. OK, whatever, fine, right? We hastily slapped together a rousing tribute to our hosts to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, which we promptly delivered standing in a line, with all the style and talent of a karaoke buck’s night in its dying moments. Polite applause. Then it was their turn.

Twenty or so of their staff suddenly jumped up. It was only then that I noticed they were curiously and elaborately bedecked in 1950s outfits, an observation surprisingly not made by me up to that point.

Summer Lovin’, Filipino style…

The head-splitting sound system kicked in and these reserved and demure people instantly transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing triple threat tour de force as they belted out a highly-choreographed short version of Grease. There were totally-devoted harmonies, greased- lighting cartwheels and be-bup-aloo-la-bup-bang-boom re-enactments.  It was breath-taking, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Only capped by what happened next. I’m laughing as I type this just thinking about it.

The next act was a bunch of kids. “Dancers”, apparently. (Yeah, whatever, I’m not really a officianado of the dance.) They started with all the typical shock-and-awe MTV-esque dance moves, but then it happened…  all the lights went out and the kids “lit up”. Someone had given these kids access to petrochemicals. Lots of it. And they weren’t afraid to use it.

Suddenly in the darkness, there were flaming bamboo poles flying across the room, kids spitting exploding plumes of fire out of their mouths, whirling pots of inferno helicoptering around us. We were instantly enveloped by pin-wheeling spirals of acrid black smoke a la the worst moments of Apocalypse Now, complete with the yelps and horrified faces of the assembled guests flickering  in the smoky haze. (Scary thing?: No smoke alarms, or any concern from the staff. WH&S? What?) And bizarrely, an old woman near me was still singing, “You’re the one that I want…” Just check out this photo…

Give a kid a match….

These guys sure know how to party.

Having survived the conflagration of death, and a flight today to Iloilo on the island of Panang, tomorrow we get back to the gear of visiting more amazing people. Stay classy, San Diego.

Couldn’t stop crying

Meet Remedias Mendez. She lives at the end of a windy muddy path in a maze of huts in among the fertile rice paddies of the province of Nueva Cija. She welcomes us to the “shed” where she lives, with fresh coconuts and fried bananas. It has a corrugated iron roof and chickens run around, and it is clear that despite her modest surroundings, she takes pride in her home. The space where we sit has no walls, but there is a tablecloth with some fresh picked flowers on it.

Mere, Remedias and 16 piglets

With a micro-loan of 5000 pesos ($125), Remedias started a business selling pressed meats from her bicycle. She bought some pigs (with a pen as part of her living structure0 and now has two breeding sows and a healthy income. She sent her children to school.

Get this: Her oldest daughter just graduated from Ohio State University in the US, Magna Cum Laude in Computer Science and Maths. Power of education!

Meet the Kalasag Onion Co-op. Once, “poor simple farmers”, these entrepreneurial hard working knockabout lads got production loans to build their co-op farmers enterprise.

“This way to the giant onion mountain, Po!”

I couldn’t stop crying when I heard their story. Or maybe it was that they are now producing 200 metric tonnes of onions, sold exclusively to Jollibee (Filippino McDonalds).

Meet the rice farmers of the awesomely named Salvacion 2 village. We were guests at a community meeting in a thatch hut where they prayed, had bible inspiration, testimonies and stories all in Tagalog.

Community meeting

Their loans allowed them to start small businesses, send their children to school, make improvements to their homes. Hanging out with these guys is “fun”. They are very funny people who love to laugh and rib each other. They have a joy of life and of each other and a sincere faith which I find invigorating.

Tomorrow we fly on a small plane to the island of Panay to visit microloan clients in Iloilo.

Prayers?: Small plane to Filipino island. What do you think?

Sack of Happiness

We are four hours north of Manila in in San Isidro village, also known as the “rice bowl” of the Philippines. It is part of Cabanatuan province, which translates as “sack of happiness”, an ironically optimistic title given that 45% of Filipinos live on less than $2.00 a day and 80% of the poor live in rural areas, which would tend to suggest more a sack of an entirely different substance altogether. But the Filipinos are hardy, resilient, hard working and good humoured. They are impressive and it is now not uncommon for me to feel, several times a day, pathetic and indulged.

Angelita Moga, asking, “Who is that handsome guy?”

Spent some time with Edgar and Angelita, a couple with three children who received a micro-finance loan which allowed him to purchase some tools to make furniture. They live in a thatch hut and his workshop is a tiny space with dirt floor and bamboo roof. There are a few simple tools and a rough and ancient looking circular saw run by an asthmatic motor. Roosters and cats run around our feet. Kids sit next to the band saw. No WH&S here. We ask to see some furniture and instead of some dodgy chair, out comes a beautifully carved and solid chaise lounge. He sells it for $75. In Sydney you wouldn’t get it for $1500. Someone somewhere is making a lot of money and this annoys me, but at the same time it is so great to see the difference this loan has made to this family.

Five seconds before the farmer came out and said, “If I were you, Po, I‘d move away… quickly.”

Also visited the Francisco family who every day hike an hour to cut bamboo in the jungle and then an hour back before spending the day weaving it into giant mats used for walls in these rural villages. The microfinance loan has allowed them to build a work shed. They are “saving” to build their dream home, and by “saving” I mean they have a growing pile of 4 x 2s and a horde of corrugated iron. Different world. But again, inspiring to see the difference a simple loan of $250 has made to this family.

The aftermath of my “Knock knock… you start, joke…”

We are the guests of Alay sa Kanularan (“Partners in Progress”) who have over 100 000 similar loan clients. And we get to meet more tomorrow. Wow. Wow. Wow. And again, wow.

Thanks for reading.

I met Imelda

Yesterday I met Imelda Marcos.

I was going into the building where we are living and she was coming out of the building. Turns out she lives nine floors above us.

This may require some explanation. After all, I get the idea some of our friends and family think we are staying in a half-submerged corrugated iron hut iron in the middle of a rubbish tip. Not so. For our first week here we have been staying in Meredith’s boss’ condo, on the 25th floor of a skyscraper. Congresswoman Marcos (a.k.a. “the steel butterfly”) lives on Floor 34. As you can imagine, we’re not “slumming it” (just yet).

“Oy, up there! Keep the noise down! Selamat Po!”

During the day we have been engaging in projects in the stix with street-dwellers, rescued prostitutes, abandoned children, schools and microfinance groups in the slums… but at night we have been retreating to the condo and life here has been pretty sweet.

Manila: View from our bedroom.

We have had a driver (Steve) and a live-in maid and cook (Delima). Beers cost 85c, cocktails a couple of dollars, a movie ticket is $3 and we can eat amazing banquets in nice restaurants for half of what I’d pay for take-away at home. Yesterday Meredith went to a world-class day spa for three hours and I went to one of the biggest and swankiest shopping malls in the world, just across the road.

But the carnival is over and that all changes today as we head out of town. We leave for a week with microfinance groups in rural provinces before returning to move to the Baseco slum. Please continue to pray for us, and that we would be a blessing to the people we meet.

POSTSCRIPT: when I say “I met Imelda”, it’s not like we’re BFFs or anything like that; more like I saw her, waved at close quarters like an idiot and said in a reedy voice, “Hello!” Felt totally stupid. For an 83 year old she looked pretty awesome although she didn’t look greatly impressed. Neither did her security guys, but that may have been because I was carrying a guitar case, and considering even guys who watch over public toilets here in Manila are packin’ pump action shotguns, they may have wondered if I had a bazooka in there. And before you ask, no, I didn’t look at her shoes.

Our destinations for the next week

Anyway… we’re off to Cabanatuan and Iloilo. Stay tuned.

Near death experience

Today, travelled three hours south of Manila to Laguna, right out in the provinces, through rice fields and bustling rural communities, up into the hills where soon the road turned to mud and giant pools. I was travelling with new pals Dr Dan and Amy, Pastors Steve and Rai and our friend Philippa from Mosman (who in a bizarre coincidence, and unbeknownst to us until last week, flew to Manila on the same flight as us to visit a range of street dweller programs, so I crashed her party).

On the road to Magdelena

Right out in the dense tropical sticks, came to a metal gate, which opened to reveal an expansive paradise – buildings, footy field, gardens and crops.

This is Magdelana, a boarding school run by CCT for the children of street dwellers.

We were met by a marching band and lines of immaculately presented children chanting their welcomes, and whisked into a room to be presented with buku pie and coconuts with straws protruding. (This pomp and ceremony for guests is pretty standard in the Philippines).

The youngsters singing a worship song

A few of the smallest children – aged four to seven – marched in and earnestly sang a song for us thanking God for all their blessings and for loving them. These kids are former street-dwellers, the same as the ones we visited on the traffic island on our first day (see 21 August). Their parents are still on the street, or in prison, or they have died or are missing. But CCT “rescues” the kids, gives them a place to live, three meals a day, character development, bible teaching, education, love, and monthly parental visits.

And that was that, we all teared up. Thought I’d last longer than four days. But to hear these kids sing about gratitude and blessing put us all right in our place.

The teenagers then came in and performed a dance. Amazing to think that these kids who once sat in the gutter and foraged for rubbish are now receiving care and training in auto mechanics, food processing, electronics, and spiritual and moral nourishment.

Then came my near-death experience. Someone suggested we teach the kids rugby.

My rugby team.
Rugby was a bad choice.

This was all well and good but it was 30+degrees and 95% humidity. Ten minutes later us I was sweating and hyperventilating in the shade trying to lower my thunderous heart rates. A kid asked me if I was dying. She was serious.

The thing that struck me was that these street-dweller kids aren’t a “type”. The teens are into fashion and music. They want to know what singers and movies we like, and our favourite Bible stories. They want to “high-five” and learn our names. They plan to get paying jobs or maybe do further study. The boys wanted to wrestle. They laugh a lot and rib each other. The little ones ask when their parents are going to visit. They loved having their photo taken and were all experts in “striking the pose”. They’re just normal kids.

It was an inspiring, humbling, tearful (and painful) day seeing the hope in these kids’ lives, where the love of God is a daily palpable thing.

Tomorrow Meredith and I head out for a week to visit microfinance groups in Cabanatuan and Iloilo (on the island of Panay), where I will definitely not be playing rugby.

A tale of two schools

Australia has the lowest population density in the world at about 3 people per sq km. (Understandable, given the deserts and all.)

Today I went to Tondo, a 5.5 sq km patch with a pop density of 72 200 people per sq km, one of the densest in the world.

This would explain my intense feelings of claustrophobia.

I’m not kidding. Deep claustrophobia, like being stuck in an elevator with twenty people, two roosters, a compost bin and a plastic bag with half a dog in it. But that’s for a later post.

The kids of Voice of Hope

Visited a pre-school run by the impressive Mr Go Hoc, a delightful gentleman who has turned a patch of land into a little walled haven for kids. They don’t have much. He is just doing it on his own, getting help wherever it comes. A classroom with some chairs and desks, a book-case, and a whiteboard, but it is clean and the teachers are enthusiastic and the kids are full of life and joy. We sang “kookaburra sits in the old gum tree” and “heads shoulders knees and toes” and read some stories. The kids lined up and chanted Bible verses at us. Lots of them. It was so inspiring to see these joyous kids enjoying learning, especially in the light of their “difficult” circumstances, and to meet Mr Hoc, a gracious servant of his community.

School Apple Store. Wow.

This was a striking contrast to my visit to International School yesterday (which began with security guards using the “Nullarbor Quarantine Border Inspection Method” (mirrors to check under the car).) Picture a vast University campus, and you’ve pretty well got it. An athletics stadium and track like Narrabeen Sports, a theatre like the Orpheum, a canteen like a shopping centre food-court (yep, I’m talking Tex Mex, Deli France, Japanese, Italian serveries… (but give me St Luke’s school canteen any day!) And to top it off, they have an Apple Store on school campus. BTW, I am not a fan of armed guards in the corridors, but  it’s a different world, so who am I to criticise.

It’s such a bizarre thing to go to two so-different schools, both awesome in their own way, and both in their own way worlds away from my own.

Toddler on the highway

One minute I was on QF19 watching The Avengers and sipping a Heineken, and seemingly the next, I was watching a toddler carry another toddler across a busy three lane highway. Manila certainly is a different world.

Began our first day in a feeding program for “street dwellers”, although I hadn’t really pictured it as being on a dusty traffic island on a busy road underneath an expressway overpass. (“Why?” “When rains, they have roof.”)

Meredith handing out bags of rice and fish… on a traffic island. Didn’t see that one coming.

Spent today with CCT team (Centre for Community Transformation), a very impressive grass roots Christian organisation who provide innovative services to the poorest of the poor (inc. 13 feeding program sites accommodating around 1800 people).

Heard inspiring words from Frankie, who ran away at 13, essentially caught up in a people smuggling / slavery deal, and ended up on the street involved in drugs, theft and then jail. CCT helped him get up on his feet and it was inspiring today to watch Frankie, now a CCT leader, leading a group of people on a traffic island in a bible study, prayers, and then distributing food. Frankie describes CCT as “a burning bush drawing people to God.”

I am humbled by the optimism, humour and cheeriness of people who have so little (in fact, nothing) and of the people who so generously work with them daily.

Also spent a great deal of time with heart in mouth watching little kids crossing roads, and playing in gutters next to speeding vehicles. Traffic and driving here seems to be something of a zen deal. Cars move around in an organic flow like blood through the arteries of a misshapen beast, drivers using ESP to navigate and squeezing their heaving jeepneys, scooters and four wheel drives through spaces that the laws of physics and dimensional geometry do not generally allow, all at speed and with car horns blaring.

Day 1: an eye opening day, although I spent a lot of time with eyes wide shut.

Hi ho, Qantas… away!

Passport? (check)

E-Ticket? (check)

Guitar? (check)

Red wine? (check)

Data roaming? (off)

250 boxes of Combantrin? (check)

This is it friends. Meredith and Pete in all their third-person glory are on their way to the Philippines, an archipelago of over 7 000 islands with a population vicinitising 100 million. And as we go… two things:

Thing 1: Thank you to so many of our friends (St Luke’s, Upper Room and random mates) who gave us money and helped us buy several thousand dollars worth of Combantrin, pregnancy vitamins and other stuff. We really appreciate it… unless of course, there’s a problem at Aquino Airport Customs and we end up in jail. In which case, our friendship is over.

“Our Combantrin cubby house”

Thing 2: For those who pray – please pray for courage, humility, safety, and physical, emotional and spiritual strength. Pray that our work will be dignifying and respectful of the people we encounter, and that we will be worthy ambassadors of God and country. (Pray for our daughters!)
For those who don’t pray – it will be reassuring to know you are thinking of us from time to time. Appreciate your support and good wishes.

“Thanks to our “Supplier”, Grant Ovens of RPA Hospital Carillion Pharmacy”

So, “so long… and thanks for all the fish combantrin.” Keep you posted. There’s plenty more to come.

Spot the difference

Hey kids… how many differences can you spot?