I’ve avoided writing this blog for a long time. I’ve procrastinated over it, found excuses to push it down the road. Truth be told, the thought of writing this made me uncomfortable. My blogs, in the past, have attempted to focus on the bigger picture; issues of corruption, inequality, poverty, perceptions. I’ve discussed inspirational people, incredible work. The Bigger Picture, greater than one individual, approachable with a certain air of detachment. This blog is different; it is all about me. The Smaller Picture.
I arrived in the Philippines on July 8th 2016, the fast disappearing sun doing little to temper the stifling heat. I was exhausted from a day and a half of travel, wanting nothing more than to fall into my own bed, 12,000 kilometres away in a suburban attic. The bus journey into Cebu City in the rush-hour Friday evening traffic did little to improve my disposition. All I saw was an alien city, full of strange smells, load noises and incomprehensible traffic systems. I was tired and I was cranky, the magic and wonderment lost on me.
We eventually reached Holy Family Retreat House. It seemed to exist in a different realm to the reality of bustling Cebu City; quiet, peaceful, an oasis above the madness and yet only minutes away from the heart of it. The first night was a struggle; I had to keep my energy levels up and make small talk with my fellow volunteers, little more than strangers at the time. We played cards, questionable Mayo-esque rules applied at times. I made a comedic attempt at erecting my Mosquito net, only for it to fall down as soon as I slammed the door shut behind me. I eventually fell into bed, the sheet quickly thrown back as the heat became too much (We thought the fan was broken, it was a few days before we realised it wasn’t plugged in!).
That first night was a struggle, but it was a struggle that I soon realised was very worthwhile. I awoke with a new energy, curious, excited and yet incredibly nervous for what was to come. Today we were to meet the Badjao tribe and the Nano Nagle team for the first time.
I’ll never forget our first journey to Alaska, Mambaling, home of the Badjao settlement. First we walked up from Holy Family towards the main road, acutely aware of our whiteness and unfamiliarity. My nerves began to multiply, compounded further when we reached the road to wait for our transport.
Jeepneys are the main method of public transport in many Filipino cities. Originally former US army jeeps, they have developed to become an integral part of the Cebu city landscape. Drivers often go to great lengths decorating the long jeeps, with bright colours and slogans. The only similarity between one jeepney and the next are the ubiquitous rosary beads, dangling from the rear-view mirror. Three or four went past before an empty vehicle came to a halt, the driver’s assistant (generally seen hanging onto the back of the Jeepney, rounding up passengers) encouraging us to embark. Our group of 15 piled on, ruining the peace of the solitary passenger on-board. It soon filled up however as we implausibly made space for more passengers, boarding at random intervals.
That was only the beginning of our introductory experience on public transport. We made our way through the centre of Cebu City, disembarking (to stop a jeepney you tap the overhead bar with a coin and hope the driver can hear you) to board a second Jeepney that would bring us to Mambaling. The final leg of our journey was by tricey-cad, essentially a sidecar attached to a push bike with enough space for two people. The tricey-cad offers a transport option for unpaved and frequently flooded narrow roads, the cyclists skilfully navigating their way around potholes, rubbish heaps and people with ease. We were rocked back and forth but eventually made it to the Badjao settlement.
That was the moment everything changed. As the Nano Nagle School appeared before me and masses of children emerged with a mix of excitement and trepidation, I began to realise that I would not be a detached visitor for long, that here was a community ready to welcome us, embrace us, accept us. We were not yet worthy of such love and yet it was unconditionally offered.
The subtle welcome soon became more blatant. A ceremony organised by the Nano Nagle team, still strangers to us at this point, made it clear that my feelings were not wishful thinking. One by one our names were called out (Fiachra was always a challenging one to pronounce!) and the crowded room applauded and cheered for us. The most powerful moment came when the high school children came together to sing a beautiful rendition of ‘Welcome to the Family’. Two of our leaders, past volunteers, were clearly very affected by the powerful words. It would be weeks before the song started to echo within me in such a way, but once it did I knew what it represented could never leave me. A bond across continents, nationalities, people. Everlasting.
We first met as strangers, we left as family.
By Fiachra Brennan
Action at home
1. Activity Details:
An Chéad Chéim Eile. A debrief weekend for teenagers from two Irish language medium secondary schools (One from Dublin, One from Belfast) who participated in immersion projects with SERVE’s Southern Africa partners. I worked as a volunteer facilitator for workshops on volunteer experiences, development education and next step ideas.
2. Target Group:
Past Volunteers aged 16 – 18.
The Cavan Centre, Kilnacrott, Co. Cavan.