Friday, 28 October 2011

Sports day, TVED style!

Last Thursday and Friday, at the end of three weeks induction for the applicants, and after two months of heats for the others, TVED celebrated its intra-murals, an inter-course sporting event, which, having see, I hesitate to translate as sports day, which somehow doesn't seem to do justice to the scale of the event.

Launched by an opening celebratory mass in the chapel followed by a procession to the gym complete with marching band, the opening ceremony lasted the whole of the first morning. Photos can't do justice to the olympic (or intramurals) torch lighting which absolutely blew me away! We had been invited to judge the team mascots and the mass dance competition, a job we had accepted without giving it much thought, but after the opening speech and oath of conduct I was rather feeling the pressure about how important this was turning out to be.

The rest of the two days was taken up with the semi finals and finals of a wide diversity of games and sports: those you might expect, like football and basketball, and those you might not, like scrabble and chess. Everybody was engaged in something: playing, watching, or singing karaoke in the classroom! Other than the diversity of activities included, I was perhaps most struck that all this happened with virtually no adult supervision: matches were organised, played, refereed, and scored by the students: and it all just happened.

The event closed with an all night party: shared meal, prize giving, karaoke, disco and games. And then when you'd think everyone was too tired to take much more, the applicants were congratulated on their acceptance on to the courses, and invited to commit to their membership of TVED, and in particular to affirm their support for each other: and after three weeks like this, why wouldn't they?

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Laughter of Love

There have been a huge number of things that have struck me here, too many to count, and certainly too many to write about without boring people; but one of the things that has most struck me, and most persistently so, has been the real sense of joy. All of the Salesians we have met have seemed genuinely happy, and it is with a joy that generates an energy, and which is communicated to the students they work with through their approach and relationships.

This poem is inspired by that joy, as well as by this quote “For men are made for happiness and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” From the Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, which I am currently reading and, incidentally, would highly recommend.

Though the world can seem a dark, dark place
Yet are we called for joy
To smile and keep on smiling
To laugh with the laughter of love

A smile that smiles through suffering,
Not in ignorance nor complacency
But as a bearer of true joy
A promise
Of better things to come

A joy found deep in silent places
Not emptiness but energy
A joy that is source and summit
Of life
In all its fullness

It is a smile that is more than lip service
A joy that can be read in the eyes
Shining with the twinkle of light
Welling up
Breaking out
This is the laughter of love

Thursday, 20 October 2011

How the other half live

Yesterday, invited by Father Mac, we took a break from curriculum planning, and went out into some of the very poorest parts of Cebu City to see his feeding programme. Departing from Lourdes parish, Fr Mac, along with six student volunteers, themselves Don Bosco "scholars" - students who couldn't afford to pursue their studies but who are supported to do so by the Salesians; takes food to children, mothers and others living in abject poverty around they city.

Three times a week they take cooked rice, lentil stew, some vegetables and a little meat. Some people arrive with containers to collect the food; plastic plates and spoons are provided for those who come empty handed. The main recipients are mothers who come to collect food and take it home for their children to eat after school; and children, called from in amongst the shacks to come and eat. Poorly clothed and barefoot, the children none the less mostly wore beaming smiles (and loved having their photos taken!)

We know that the TVED students, with whom we'll mostly be working, are poor: the training is designed to offer opportunities to out of school youth who couldn't otherwise study; but the poverty we saw at the feeding programme was another thing altogether. Not an easy thing to see, but a very important reality to be aware of.

This is a daily reality for many here in Cebu. But, equally, it should be added, it is also not the daily reality for many other Philippinos. It would be very easy to present only this reality, or at least to emphasise it. It is those things which shock us and which are outside our normal realities which most draw our attention and comment. And it is good that we are shocked by what we see, because this shouldn't be anyone's reality.

We are less conscious of photographing and writing about shopping malls that wouldn't look out of place in a Western European city, or laden meal tables, or fast food chains or the ubiquitous starbucks. But these things are also just as much a part of life here, and are the daily reality for many Philippinos, just as poverty is for many others ... and of course everything in between.

A land of contrast and diversity, Philippinos are rich, middle classed, poor, destitude, and everything in between; but right now the poverty of some very hungry children is fresh in my mind and is likely to remain imprinted on it for ever.

Monday, 17 October 2011

A baptism of mud!

We have been lucky enough to arrive when the 3 week induction programme for the applicants to the vocational training centre is in full swing...and what an induction! Rather than a baptism of fire, these students definitely get a baptism of mud!

These students are only at DBTC for one year, but the induction is considered important enough to dedicate time to. And this is no optional extra: all the students are on site for 11 hours a day, and they all do everything. It is, along with daily mass and morning and afternoon assemblies, the beginning of the “values formation” which is an integral part of the education here.

It is often all too easy for the pressure of academic results or getting through everything on the course to be would be such that the imparting of values gets squeezed out altogether, or paid lip service to, as something it would be nice to do properly but we don’t really have time for ... no such attitude here. Imparting a set of values, human values, Christian values, is seen as just as important as the academic or vocational skills. In schools and boys homes where the young people stay for much longer, these values can be imparted over time, but at TVED, it all has to be condensed into one year, and if you’ve only got one year, rather than water down what you want to get across, you have to make the experience more intense ... and intense it has been!

In a microcosm of a few days, we have already seen the Salesian window in action... and from where I am standing, it looks very good!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Introducing DBTC

It is nearing the end of our second full day at Don Bosco Technology Center (or DBTC) and so far it has been excellent. We have been made to feel incredibly welcome and included by the community here, which, with 11 members, is the largest in the Southern Philippines province.

On the site here is an elementary school (age 6-12), a high school (age 12-16) a college (16plus) and a vocational training centre, which is where we will mostly be working. The training centre offers one year courses in Industrial Electricity, Mechanical Technology, and Carpentry, and a three month handyman skills course, all of which offer opportunities to out of school youth who could not afford to study in other settings. Alongside their practical training, they learn basic English and maths, and follow a values formation course.

The community are hoping we will create and implement an English and Maths skills programme for the trainees here, which will also be used in the other vocational training centres in the province. With 8 sections having two hours a week of each subject, and everything to be created more or less from scratch, that should keep us fairly occupied!  With the students on site from 6.30 for mass, until closing prayers at 5.30, there should be plenty of scope to get involved with some of their other activities too.

Some 65 of the 1500 elementary and high school students are boarders during the week as they come from too far away to travel daily, so we are also expecting to have some involvement with the them, which so far has meant joining them each evening after dinner for their evening prayers.

So there you have it, a brief introduction to our host community here, and if things continue as they have begun, we should have an amazing experience!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Silent Witnesses

Over the dinner table at Provincial House, we shared many conversations, some serious, some less so. One of the priests, talking about the work of the Salesians here, spoke at one point of “Silent Witnesses” and the gestures they offer. This poem is inspired by that conversation:

Silent Witnesses

These are the silent witnesses

Who stretch out a hand in love,
Who feed the hungry so that they can live
Who teach the young so that they can grow
Who create a space so that you can be you
And I can be me

These are the silent witnesses

Whose message is one of love
That tells the forgotten ones they are not forgotten
And the unlovely they can still be loved
Whose message is shared in a smile
A spark of the joy of life

These are the silent witnesses

Who say there is more to life
Turning away from economic profitability
Trusting rather in human value
Who say
You cannot put a price on love

These are the silent witnesses

Who say
Though I cannot do it all
Yet will I do what I can
Who know they offer only a gesture
But know that gesture is already enough
The gesture that says I care
The gesture that we call love

These are the silent witnesses

This is the silent witness
Arms stretched wide on a wooden cross
With a sigh of lonely abandonment
And a waiting in silent love

We are the silent witnesses
To the mystery of our faith.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Telling Multiple Stories

Watching this video, in which Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of telling the "single story when any individual, community or country is invariably made up of multiple stories certainly gave me plenty of food for thought, and I am aware it is something to keep in mind as I write this blog.

We have not been here very long, and both from my own observations and from the conversations we have already had, some of the complexities of history, of culture, of economics, of environment, of daily life ... are already becoming visible. It is already pretty obvious that there are not just two sides to every coin, but that each situation, each reality is multi-faceted: made up both of obvious contrasts and innumerable more subtle differences.

And if I fail, as I undoubtedly will, to express the complexity of the Philippines, of Cebu, of the Salesians, of the people I work with, of my experience, please bear in mind that I am trying to tell this complex story as honestly as I can, but as an outsider, who knows only a very little bit, of only a very few of the stories there are to tell, and remember that whatever I have been able to express, the reality is undoubtedly far more complicated and there are far more stories left untold.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

New Beginnings

A lot can happen in a short space of time - and in the 3 days we have been here, a lot certainly has! There has been a huge amount to take in, not least getting used to the idea that we won't be going to Boys Home, where we thought we would be spending our time, but instead will be based at another Salesian project, the Don Bosco Technology Centre (DBTC).

We have been to visit both DBTC and the nearby Salesian parish of Our Lady of Lourdes, and it certainly seems like there will be plenty to get  involved in and keep us busy: but we'll know more from Monday when we move to our new home.

Meanwhile we have been staying at Provincial House where the overwhelming experience has been one of welcome and friendship. There is also a real sense of joy: everybody seems to be genuinely happy. I am feeling very positive about working in such an environment and sharing that joy: both receiving it from others and giving a share of it too.

During this time of "orientation" we have visited both some of the sites of Cebu and some of the Salesian communities. There has been a lot to take in, a lot to learn ... a process that I have no doubt has only just begun and will continue throughout our time here.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A warm welcome

We made it! We have arrived in Cebu, where we are staying at the Provincial House (the local headquarters of the Salesians) for a couple of days to recover from the jet lag and find our feet a little before heading off to Boys Home.

After a very early start yesterday morning (we were on the road by 6.30am) and missing last night altogether by virtue of the seven hour time difference, it would be fair to say I'm a little tired: but forcing myself to stay awake to beat the jetlag and try to get into a proper sleep pattern asap.

We were met at the airport by friendly smiling faces, then brought here to meet more friendly smiling faces - and even a "Welcome Matthew and Stephanie" sign on the door. We have been made to feel incredibly welcome, but without any pressure; we have met been introduced to lots of people, but also now left to ourselves to rest and relax: all of which has helped alleviate the initial apprehensions and added to my very positive feelings about this whole experience.

I have also picked up my first word of the local language: salamat, meaning thank you. So Salamat Provincial House, Cebu for such a warm welcome!

Monday, 3 October 2011

A few goodbyes

Three and a half months after handing in my notice for my job in France, and about two months after learning that the Philippines would be our next destination, we have arrived at the final evening before our departure.

It is not everyone who, before going away for 9 months, has the opportunity to spend about three months saying goodbye, and I count myself as hugely privileged to have spent time visiting and spending quality time with lots of  fabulous people.

Thank you to everyone who has hosted us, or made time to meet us over the last couple of months, and to everyone for the words of support for this next adventure. I have no doubt it will be an absolutely amazing experience, but it will be a pretty big challenge too, so knowing that although we are leaving friends behind, in a way we are also taking you all with us, is a wonderful support.