New school brings wonderment to Filipino tribe

Our man in Cebu — William Browne

Our man in Cebu — William Browne

GMIT student and Galway First contributor William Browne is part of the SERVE Philippines group who are volunteering

It's so difficult to know what to write. How best can I vividly portray to you what life is like here? No matter what you read, hear or see, it cannot prepare you for the abject poverty that exists in parts of the city of Cebu from where I write to you.

When, and only when, you stand in the middle of a overcrowded squatter camp in the searing midday sun can one appreciate the magnitude of the utter, utter hardship. Raw sewage flows freely down the streets. Unemployment is rife. Hunger is the name of the game.

Twenty three one room huts constitute a home for 110 families. Throw in eight or 10 children per family, a few dozen grannies and grandads, and you begin to sketch a rough image in your head of what life here is about. We were there today. This is real. This is happening right now.

They don't worry about the future. Survival is a more pressing concern. Welcome to a day in the life of the Badjao Water tribe.

The Badjao, which means 'of no value' in English, are seafaring gypsies. They got this name as, historically, they didn't fight and avoided conflict and confrontation. Due to the scant regard for poor people here, they get little or no state support. Poor people are cast to the sidelines.

They see them as a bane on society and well, basically ignores them. Twelve years ago, Sister Evelyn Flanagan, a native of Salthill, saw their perilous position and decided to help. She went to the chieftain of the tribe to ask him how she could assist. At this time, there was a 97 per cent illiteracy rate. Education did not concern the Badjao. That wise chieftain saw that the Badjao had no future without getting the children educated and asked her if she could do anything. From those humble beginnngs, education for the Badjao was born.

This week a school, the first concrete structure in the squatter camp, opened for business. The €200,000 cost of the project was met by the generous support of Irish people. On the first day of school, the children entered the classroom quite nervously.

They saw tables and chairs in front of them. These everyday furnishings to us, left them perplexed. To the children, these objects were alien. Never before did they use them. The new young scholars were accustomed to always just sitting on the floor to eat. They had to be trained in how to use the tables and chairs.

We have spent much of this week here working in the school. I've tried and evidently succeeded in imposing my Mayo twang on them. Ask them now, “howya doing?”, they respond, “ah grand now”. Or “what's the craic?”, to which they'll inform me that 'the craic is mighty'. When Evelyn gave us the tour of the building, I could see how much it meant to her.

Pride was the emotion prevailing over her face. It is so heartening to see somebody devote their life to this cause and amidst all the setbacks she perseveres. In the squalor that is the Badjao Squatter Camp, hope now flickers ever so delicately in the form of this new school building. New houses are also to be built for the Badjao.

Local councils, who without the persistent hassling and harrying by Evelyn would never dream of helping out, have said they will be constructed by December. The problem is they never said which year! With money here anything is possible.

You would be forgiven for thinking the Philippines is a quite wealthy country. It is. It has an ample supply of gold and high yielding crop production.

The problem is total inadequate distribution of wealth. I'm writing this piece from the comfort of an air conditioned internet cafe in a shopping mall of which there is no like of in Ireland in terms of size and grandeur. It is even bigger and better than Dundrum in Dublin. Don't be fooled though people.

All you must do is look out the window. Across the road is a squatter camp that has a bigger population than Athenry. I can see the rusted sheet iron roofs of the shacks. It stinks and is burgeoning with poor people. I need not say any more. Unfortunately, this sad example is the Philippines in a nutshell.

This weekend we break off into smaller groups and will volunteer in different islands in the Philippines. I'm off to Aklan to volunteer with a tribal group. Aklan was affected quite badly by the typhoon last month. It's up high in the rainforest.

A friend texted me just this minute to Bebo them when I'm there. We will reside with the tribe chief during our time there, I suppose I can ask him about the Bebo. I somehow doubt very much that it will be a runner though.

William is part of the SERVE Philippines group who are volunteering for seven weeks this in the Philippines in South East Asia. While there, they will work with some of the most deprived peoples in the world who live in seriously underdeveloped and squalid conditions. If you would like to support the projects, a special account has been opened with AIB Bank to facilitate donations. Account Number: 81392034. Sort Code: 93-74-36. Further information available on www.serve.ie

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