At the recent Tokyo Olympics, Hidilyn Diaz, an air force pilot, won the first ever gold medal for the Philippines. The sport was weight-lifting. This was a spectacular achievement, although not altogether surprising; during my mission work in the rural Philippines, I often saw teenagers carrying anything up to 70 kgs in carriers on their backs (Hidilyn lifted 125 kilos!). Stooped, with the basket strapped with a belt around their foreheads, they would walk for miles to deliver their cargo of fresh fruits and vegetables: banana, mango, cabbage, onions, cassava, etc. From the delivery point, the produce would be taken in trucks to Cebu city, sold to customers eager for fresh rural foodstuffs, then taken to their up-market condominiums in the wealthier suburbs.
An even more astounding story is that of another Filipino swimmer, Ernie Gawilan. He was born without legs being the victim of an attempted abortion. When he was still an infant his mother died of cholera and his father left him, so he was raised by his grandfather. Later he was cared for by the Maryknoll sisters (a missionary order from the USA). Later still his talent for swimming was spotted. He won the first ever gold for the Philippines at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta (Indonesia) in 2018, and has won other medals at other competitions. He has spoken of the power of God in his life, and what for others may have seemed a hopeless start in life, he turned into something spectacularly fruitful.
These stories tell of the indomitable human spirit, which can survive many onslaughts.
You know you’ve arrived in the Philippines the minute you leave the airplane in Manila – the heat and the humidity strike you as sauna-like. But, like most things, you get used to the high temperature and the constant perspiration. My time here since 1986 has been a series of adjustments to a culture, in some ways, very unlike Ireland. So many differences: language (many, many dialects), food (rice, not potatoes), drink (fermented coconut juice, not whiskey), climate (two seasons, rainy and dry, not four), latitude (there, being so near the Equator, the sun rises and sets about the same time each day, 5.30am & 5.30pm, so no long winter nights, no gloriously long summer evenings).
Yet after almost twenty years spent mostly in rural areas consisting of small towns, and villages scattered around the hills and along the coastline, I met with another cultural challenge when I moved to the city, specifically the poorer, downmarket areas. The rural Philippines is still largely unspoilt: the streams flow with clear water, the air is pure, the silence is bliss. Houses, grouped together in hamlets or spread out over the hills, generally have a garden with some root crops (e.g., cassava, peanuts); water is drawn from the communal well.
I moved into city missions in 2005, and began in a large, slum-like area. After the bucolic tranquillity of the previous years, this was a culture shock as intense as the initial arrival in Manila in ’86. It was a large area of mostly poor families, though with a few well-to-do, living amicably among them (their prosperity largely having come from the drug trade, a persistent problem in the Philippines; this was Mambaling, featured in an earlier Gript article). The contrast with the countryside was stark: houses piled higgledy-piggledy on one another, the “water” in the creeks darker than black polish, due to garbage, coming from other parts of the city; the incessant noise coming from the sing-alongs, and so forth. And yet the amazing thing was that, when I began my daily visits among the people, together with my two lay companions, the people of this vast slum turned out to be the salt of the earth, trying with the sweat of their brows and often against tough odds, to make ends meet and live a life of dignity. I would certainly locate them in the very lower bracket of society, yet they had tremendous resilience and creativity, as they sought to go from day to day.
Grace is not evenly or equally distributed. Our various experiences of life differ pretty drastically, and are often due to factors entirely out of our control. We are born into circumstances of varying qualities; some are dealt a good hand, others a poorer one. It could be that we are born into poverty or economic stability; that we enjoy good health or suffer debilitating ill-health; that we are blessed or bereft of other qualities: intelligence, appearance, personality, and the like. The question is: how do we respond to our circumstances in life? Do we look at the cards dealt to us and simply fold, in despair or abject surrender, or do we seek to play the game, even if the odds are stacked against us? Wondering if, by perseverance or luck or unexpected blessing, we may come out, if not exactly victorious, at least with our heads held high? The following vignettes feature doughty, indomitable people who exemplify the latter qualities of endurance and creativity.
When we had our mission in the poor area which is called Mambaling, the president of the local chapel was José. Being president of a chapel is not an onerous task, it doesn’t overburden. It simply entails organizing the annual fiesta celebrations, which consists of a novena of nightly devotions led by a lay minister and then the fiesta Mass on the patron’s feast day, celebrated by the parish priest. José and his wife Esther have six children, but it would be inaccurate to describe where they live as a “house”, more like a shack really. But the parents strove to send all the children to school, the eldest even doing a vocational course after secondary school (he is now the breadwinner of the family). José made a meagre living from designing cowrie shells. Together with his neighbours, they would gather the shells on nearby islands and carve onto them typical Filipino scenes and seasonal greetings. These would then be sold in local markets, or if the quality was good enough, would be bought for export. But his livelihood was undercut by cheaper wages in China, and essentially José is now out of work. Esther actually graduated as a teacher but because of sickness never held a steady teaching job. She gives grinds to local pupils and is a most dedicated school catechist. José is indefatigably hopeful about life in general, and their efforts, not only to rear their family as best they can, but also to lend a helping hand in the community whenever possible. Whenever I’m in Cebu I visit them, and it’s like a tonic being in their company.
If I need a haircut I go to Charlie’s place. “Place” is about the best description because a salon it most certainly is not. His barber shop is the essence of simplicity: a roughly three-metre square covered space attached to his aunt’s house. It contains one plastic chair, one mirror and Charlie’s tools (scissors, razor, comb) necessary to produce, if not exactly a Parisian-style coiffure, at least a reasonable short back and sides. Charlie is in his early 20s. He set up his own place having worked with another barber for a few years, gaining experience. He doesn’t have much money, but he has determination. He’s quite serene in his shop as he awaits his next hirsute customer.
Food, of course, is a great source of creative artistry in the Philippines, providing a livelihood for many. If you have the money, you can dine as grandly as a duke, but I and many Filipinos prefer to satisfy our hunger in more downmarket ways. The most basic sellers are the street vendors, the women (mostly women) walking through urban areas with a large tray on their heads. The tray holds the goodies: anything from sweet rice cakes, various corn-based delicacies, bread made from floor produced from the cassava plant – and the price is right: outrageously good value by Irish standards, affordable for the likes of José and Esther.
Next is the carinderia: a very basic eatery where the day’s menu is displayed on a long counter; the customer looks into each saucepan and chooses what will go with the staple which is rice or milled corn (depending on different regions of the country): fish, pork, chicken, soup, and the like. The meal can be eaten there in very basic surroundings or taken home in a plastic bag. Again, exceptionally good value.
The washerwoman (labandera) fulfils an important role. Most middle-class homes employ one on a weekly basis. In the urban settings the washerwoman uses both a washing-machine for heavier materials (they’re not Luddites after all!), and still handwashes the delicate items of clothing. It is not slave labour, it’s using skilled women to give the family clothes a thorough washing, bleaching and ironing. Such is the quality of the ironing that the shirts and trousers have an edge so sharp that you could shave by it. Sometimes, in rural areas, an iron filled with hot charcoal is used, but in urban settings it’s mostly electric.
In the suburban home the washerwoman often works alone, serenely performing her simple but vital task – alone, but not in silence. Generally, Filipinos find silence difficult and so, before ever a soiled item of clothing is put into water, the radio is switched on. But at the village well or along the bank of the river, the women gather and, as they work through mighty bundles of dirty linen, they chat incessantly, infectiously, hilariously. It’s a great venue at which to catch up on the latest news (even fake news!), village tales, buzz, and interesting arrivals in the village (for example, my presence in the village: for many of them in remote areas, I’m like a Martian landing on planet Earth). Interestingly, it was a riverbank that was the venue for one of St. Paul’s most significant converts; Lydia and her companions were not washing clothes however; it was the Sabbath and they were at prayer (Acts 16:13).
José and Esther, Charlie, the vendors, the washerwomen: they are not destitute, but neither are they comfortably well-off. Each day presents a challenge to get going and if they don’t get moving, they will have no income that day.
An ice-cream vendor at a port.
A typical carenderia displaying various food dishes