Knowing Why You Are

We were sitting around a beautifully decorated table on the afternoon of my brother’s wedding having just finished dessert. After we finished our conversations about how perfect the day was, how lovely the service and how beautiful my new sister-in-law was, we soon started to discuss where everyone was going on their summer holidays.

I revealed that we were about to travel to Malta, the country of crystal-clear waters and 365 churches (one for every day of the year). “How exciting!”, my Auntie Ann remarked, “You must come over to our house so I can tell you about a relative of yours…”

I was intrigued and so my auntie went onto explain that I had a distant relative who had been a priest in Malta during the 1970s. I had known that the island had been a favourite place of my great grandparents, but this connection was entirely new to me. A week later, I found myself in the front room of her house with an old obituary and a black-and-white photograph in my hand.

Fr. Bernard Gaffney, S.D.B. (right)

Fr. Bernard Gaffney was born on September 5th, 1901 in my home city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He was my great great grandmother’s cousin which makes him my first cousin, four times removed. He trained and worked as an engineer before deciding that he wanted to become a priest. My Auntie remembers times he visited the house growing up, a gentle and polite man, he would visit the family home and they would often share meals together.

It was a nice story, although I suppose a priest in the family was a lot more common in early 20th Century Britain than it would be today. It wasn’t until I looked closer at the obituary that I was stunned into silence. There were three letters following my distant relative’s name. Three letters that have followed me around since I left Sixth Form almost a decade ago.

Fr. Bernard Gaffney, S.D.B.

My first cousin, four times removed was actually in fact a Salesian of Don Bosco. A priest belonging to the religious order that I have grown so fond of since I first encountered them at Matadi Youth Centre in Liberia back in 2010. A priest belonging to the religious order that so lovingly shared their lives with me in the Philippines in 2014. A priest belonging to the religious order whose founder continues to inspire and motivate me fully in the work I do now as a School Chaplain.

When we stepped off the plane at Malta International Airport last month, I knew that I had to spend some time following in his footsteps.

A copy of the obituary given to me by my auntie. (Click to enlarge)

Fr. Bernard moved to Malta in 1970 towards the very end of his life where he spent his final four years as chaplain to the English-speaking parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church in Sliema – the church at the top of a steep street which we were now breathlessly approaching on a boiling Sunday morning in time for the 10:15am Mass.

I wasn’t sure what to expect.  There had already been two Sunday morning Masses that day, and two more were planned for the evening. I thought that perhaps the church would be half-full and I would be able to have a quiet word with the priest afterwards.

Upon arriving (in good enough time) I was shocked to find that there was standing room only – except for the seats which could only be described as “Restricted View” or at the least not within the domain of the electric wall fans. There was a definite buzz about the church, something was happening, and after a few moments a Deacon ventured to the lectern and began to explain the plan for this very special celebration of Mass.

It was to be the last Mass of Fr. Joe Cimi, S.D.B. who was due to move on to pastures new after 21 years of being Chaplain at St. Patrick’s. He was handing over to a Fr. Alfred Sacco, S.D.B. who was also in attendance. The Mass was utterly joyous; the music was uplifting and Fr. Joe spoke passionately about his work through his homily landing on an anecdote summing up the ‘togetherness’ of the Salesian community in Sliema. Afterwards there was to be cake and refreshments in the entrance hall so folks could say their goodbyes and celebrate the ministry of Fr. Joe. No chance of a quiet word with the parish priest then.

One of the many beautiful and colourful images of Don Bosco featured on the walls of St. Patrick’s Church, Sliema.

We hovered awkwardly on the staircase as people left the Chapel and dived for the cold drinks, an antidote to the sticky July heat. I bit-the-bullet and approached a member of the clergy who I had noticed concelebrating the Mass (Fr. Joe was too busy to talk to and I was super conscious of not interrupting what was a hugely important occasion for the community).

I enquired a little about Fr. Bernard. The kind priest I spoke to was surprised to see us standing there and remarked on how great it was that I was trying to find information about a relative that was so well remembered in the community. He mentioned briefly that Fr. Bernard was not buried in Sliema and that there were some in the community who knew him at the time. Unfortunately, there was no time to chat further as someone shouted “Let’s cut the cake!”, and so we quickly and awkwardly moved to one side whilst the cameras clicked and the knife plunged into the white icing of the farewell sponge.

We hung around for about 20 minutes whilst we waited for the Sunday crowd to disperse before we were finally able to greet Fr. Joe. He shook our hands and pulled us into his office. As soon as I mentioned Fr. Bernard’s name, his eyes lit up, and he was quick to tell me that one of the priests has been at St. Patrick’s since the early 1970s and remembers him well. Unfortunately, we were unable to speak with him on this occasion.

Fr. Joe had been ordained a priest at the same time that Fr. Anthony Sutherland – who had written Fr. Bernard’s obituary – had been the Rector of St. Patrick’s and he was thrilled to see the words of his former confrere. Even more so, he was happy we had brought a photograph with us and he asked if he could borrow them both to scan for their archives.

After a few moments passed, Fr. Joe was keen to get back to those who were wishing him a fond farewell – I still felt awful about the awkward timing – but before he left us, we asked further about where the Salesian grave was. It turned out that it wasn’t at St. Patrick’s but in Addolorata Cemetery in the town of Paola about three miles outside of Valletta.

Before we knew it, we were on a bus out to Paola to pay our respects to his grave.

My Great Granny Kath and her sister Lucy at the site of Fr. Bernard’s grave in June 1987.

Amongst some of the other photographs my Auntie Ann had showed me on that Tuesday evening after work were pictures of my great grandparents visiting the grave of Fr. Bernard. They, too, had made the pilgrimage themselves back in 1987 with the help of Fr. Tony Sultana, S.D.B. who was resident in Malta at the time.

When we arrived, we realised just how big the cemetery was. It is the largest in Malta and hosts around 300,000 graves. We stood at the front entrance, baking in blazing sunshine with only a small bottle of water with us overwhelmed by what seemed a mammoth task. The two Salesians we had spoken to that morning hadn’t given us any directions as to where the grave might be.

The friendly man at the front gate (who told us he was a former student of St. Patrick’s himself!) wasn’t sure exactly where the grave was either although he tried his best to point us in the right direction according to the one solitary photograph I had of my great grandparents visiting in the 1980s.

After walking, unshaded, for half an hour, we noticed in the distance a domed mausoleum that matched the one in the background of the photograph. We climbed numerous steps (the cemetery was on many different levels) to reach it and eventually we were stood in front of a grand, yet understated, plot marked SALESJANI. 24 Salesians have been buried in this plot, my relative Fr. Bernard being the ninth.

Standing in the same place as my great grandparents over 30 years later.

I was struck by the fact that my great grandparents, who passed away almost 15 years ago, had walked these exact stairs themselves over 30 years ago. Fr. Bernard himself may have. In this moment I felt so connected to my ancestry in such a visceral way that my immediate reaction was to pray.

I prayed for all of the Salesians who have shaped me over the last ten years – particularly Fr. Julius Sanchez, Fr Al Añano and Br Alex Abelgas who I learned so much from in the Philippines and for all of the British Salesian Co-Operators and Youth Ministers I have met along the way; I prayed for the family who are no longer with us, especially those who I knew and loved; I prayed for the circumstances that had led me here to this graveside; and I prayed for my ancestors that have played a part in my journey so far – whether I have known it or not.

After all of this time, after ten years of encounters and adventures with the Salesians of Don Bosco, I was stood in front of their Maltese grave encountering Fr. Bernard Gaffney for the first time… a relative I did not know existed until only recently. It made me wonder about what else had been set up in my life without me knowing it. Which other hidden treasures of my past lie ahead of me waiting to be discovered?

We are who we are (and sometimes we do what we do) for reasons we often don’t know or understand. My experiences of working with the Salesians did not happen directly because I have a relative who committed his life to the teachings of Jesus Christ and Don Bosco. I made those choices myself. Yet, if I am to believe that I am being guided along a path, then it is comforting to be gently reminded by the experience whispering softly into my ear: ‘you are doing the right thing’.

As we walked down the very steep bank back towards the friendly man at the gate and towards the bus back to Sliema, I reflected on how much of a part of Fr. Bernard’s story I had felt on that day. Even now, 45 years after his death, I felt united to his story. The story of a man with “dry Geordie humour” who had lived his life as a scientist before encountering the Salesians. The man who was a chaplain to many and a man who “derived great joy from the piano in his leisure moments”.

Here he was buried in the place I stood, on an ancient island with a history of over 7,000 years, in a place that couldn’t be any more different to the streets of North East England that would be so familiar to us both. I pondered how important his story was to my visit to Malta – to a culture steeped in the faith that I profess as a young Catholic – and I wondered, perhaps, whether any future cousins (four times removed) may ever consider becoming a Salesian volunteer one day themselves.

Here in your midst I feel completely at home; for me, living means being here with you.”
– Don Bosco

Our spirit of power

Nine months after leaving Whitley Bay, I am readying myself to return to a land that is so familiar to me: the salty sea air, the changing seasons and the organised bus schedules. If you’d excuse the cliché, it’s been quite the journey since I first stepped on the tarmac at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila last August. I’ve worked with some incredibly inspiring young people, had the pleasure of seeing lots of interesting, historical, beautiful, and breathtaking parts of the Philippines, and eaten some tasty as well as wacky foods.

There's more to the story of a paradise island beach shot than just the photo!

There’s more to the story of a paradise island beach shot than just the photo!

It’s incredibly difficult to put into words exactly how I’m feeling now, after all of these months. And even if I meet you face-to-face, it wouldn’t be much easier. I’m not looking forward to having to be concise with my response to the question, “So, how was it?” when I return home, and I will try my hardest not to be offended when people get bored of my thousands of photos. What I can express, however, is that I have sincerely been changed by the process. Changed in ways I’m not sure I know yet, and changed in ways that will only be recognisable as I move forward with the next stage in my life.

I’m just sorry I can’t be more specific.

Quite often when we read travel blogs, or Facebook statuses, we see only a distorted view of a person’s experience. We see the beautiful mountains, and the stunning landscapes, the laughter with friends, and of course, the aftermath of triumph. It’s rare to read about how terrifying it is to be in the middle of a bustling market unsure where to go, or trying to catch public transport alone with no idea how it works. For me, it wasn’t even the typhoon that was the most difficult experience: it was the everyday things, the cultural changes. So many times I adopted that “cool as a cucumber” look so that the locals wouldn’t pick up on the fact that I was screaming inside.

Travelling by jeepney was fun - once I got the hang of it! All you need are two expressions:

Travelling by jeepney was fun – once I got the hang of it! All you need are two expressions: “Biyat po” (My money’s coming your way…) and “Para po” (Stop here please!)

My experience in the Philippines has been all about dealing with adversity. Throwing myself into the deep end, or up the creek without the paddle, seems to be my plat du année. And whilst my triumphs have been sweet, I have learned a lot more from the events that preceded them. There have been times in this last year that I have been at the lowest of my low, and thought that travelling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Everybody else seems to be travel alone fine, but that just can’t be true. Other people must feel the same way that I have, I am not the first person in the world to have left his home country. But now, after emerging on the other side, I can honestly say that it was all worth it. I have conquered fears, I feel victorious and I owe it all to Typhoon Ruby.

Without her blustering her way into my life, I would never have been able to live the different experiences that I have. She forced me to put myself out there, to travel alone, to meet new people, and to recognise that we are not built with a spirit of timidity but in fact, an overwhelming ‘spirit of power‘. I feel strong, and happy. I did it!

Once I cracked how to travel alone (and believe me, it was one of my biggest fears), I felt confident enough to travel around. I visited Borongan again, and said goodbye to all my wonderful friends there. After getting a bit lost (but that’s okay now!), I also spent a morning in Tacloban City seeing the historical sites where I met the friendliest tricycle driver in the whole of the Philippines! I have travelled to and from Tagaytay to say goodbye to my friends there, and navigated my way around Manila in spite of the raging heats and exhausting traffic.

Tacloban's finest tricycle driver! Thanks for showing me around!

Tacloban’s finest tricycle driver! Thanks for showing me around!

And so I say to whoever is reading this… take a moment to reflect on your own fears. Think about the times when you have felt paralysed and what it was that helped you overcome it. You don’t need to force yourself out of your comfort zone by going abroad to conquer fear, that just happened to be what I needed. Maybe all you need is a gentle reminder that you can conquer your fears too, anyone can! We all have a spirit of power. We are all capable of being a warrior. We can all do great things.

Thank you to every single person who has helped me along this long process which started more than nine months ago. To everybody who has supported me through words, prayer, food, accommodation, Skype calls, everything, thank you. I absolutely couldn’t have done it without you. To my dear friends in Borongan, Cebu, Olongapo and Manila, I will never forget the times we have shared and the memories we have created. I will be back to visit one day, so please have the orange mangos and the pork tocino ready and waiting.

My wonderful community in Borongan City, Eastern Samar when I visited them one final time, last week.

My wonderful community in Borongan City, Eastern Samar when I visited them one final time, last week.

A City on a Hill That Can’t Be Hidden


Overlooking the shimmering waters of Subic Bay stands an ordinary building with an extraordinary history. Sitting atop one of the many hills here in the mountainous region of Zambales, the Preda centre is the headquarters for the organisation I have been lucky enough to volunteer with for the last four weeks. It actively works with 58 professional Filipinos and volunteers to protect and defend the rights and dignity of women and children who have been victims of forced prostitution, sexual abuse or inhumane jail conditions.

The PREDA team are working tirelessly to rescue children and teenagers from the sex trade and defending them by offering legal assistance to convict their perpetrators. Staff also offer education seminars for local elementary and high schools where they teach students, staff and parents about issues of sexual abuse and the urgent need to protect children and take action against abuse and exploitation.

Aside from the inspiring work they do with the victims of sex crimes, PREDA also take in boys who have been in conflict with the law or have been abandoned by their families. More often than not, these boys are put into government care (which is usually oversubscribed) and forced to live in the squalid conditions of detention centres. If they are over 15 years old, they may be forced to stay there as they await their trial or if they are under 15, until they are transferred into the hands of other child care organisations.

The children in conflict with the law (CICL) are victims themselves of broken homes, parental abandonment and will often turn to petty stealing to survive. Some of the children in the home are caught up in overlong legal trials where they have been involved in petty theft. On Wednesday, I was able to join the Home for Boys team with PREDA social worker Joan on a visit to Manila to attend the trial of one of the boys, visit the homes of some others and pick up new children due to move to the Boys’ Home here in Zambales.

We started our day at 4 am and headed towards the big, bustling city of Manila. If you’ve ever referred to London as ‘The Smoke’ you’d never use the term again after spending just a few hours in Manila. The air is thick with smog and pollution as a result of thousands of diesel powered cars, jeepneys, buses and tricycles which spend most of their driving time waiting in traffic. The sweet smell of garbage, fumes and the ‘biologically dead’ Pasig river lingers in the air and the sticky heat causes a layer of sweat to stay with you the whole day.

We arrived to the government buildings at 8:30 am and made our way to the corridor where the courts are located. People were coming and going in all directions: social workers, lawyers, prisoners and their guards, families of the accused headed with purpose to all corners of the building.  We entered the courtroom and I was reminded of all the trials I had seen in TV soaps over the years, although the judge wore a simple black robe rather than the pretentious wigs I’m so used to seeing at home.

Looking out over Mandaluyong City, towards Makati City where we spent our day in Manila

Looking out over Mandaluyong City, towards Makati City where we spent our day in Manila

The boy we were with was charged with being caught up in a petty theft. The incident happened almost two years ago and has been delayed and delayed because the complainant and witnesses have never shown up to court. This boy’s life for the last two years has consisted of him waiting and waiting and he has not been able to move on, re-integrate himself into his community (which has all but shunned him) and get back into education to finish his studies. Thankfully, the PREDA Foundation was able to transfer him from the government facilities (where waiting for two years would be a genuine nightmare) and provide legal support, a positive and friendly environment to live, and counselling to help him when he moves on once the seemingly never ending trial is over. He has shown impeccable behaviour since moving to the Boys’ Home.

In the afternoon, we visited the homes of four of the boys currently staying at the Boys’ Home; or at least that was the plan! One of the parents was supposed to be at the local basketball court, but he didn’t show up. A mother of one of the other children was at work, so we had to go to her street food cart and talk to her there. In the third boy’s home, we were greeted by two barking shih tzus but no parents. After some questions, it turned out he lived there with is brother, auntie and three cousins; I was left unsure as to what happened to his parents.

Finally, we visited the home of the fourth boy. When we arrived, his mother was sat on a deckchair with his seven-month-old brother down a side alley of a house. His grandfather, who the three also lived with, went to fetch a bench for us to sit on. When he returned, we asked him where the home was, to which he simply replied, “it’s here” pointing towards the narrow area that we were all standing in. Their home consisted of an area no larger than a metre wide and 3 metres long, opposite bags of garbage and cardboard. The grandfather had to fold up the deckchair in order for us to sit on the bench in the 3 square metres that this family called their home.

They had previously rented an apartment, but they couldn’t afford to pay the rent so they moved onto the streets. Each day they are forced to pay for some food elsewhere, as there is no space to cook for themselves. The area was hardly a shelter either, as it started to rain very heavily and the tarpaulin covering the alley leaked water onto our shoulders as we sat below and talked to each other. Many of the local children enjoyed stripping off their clothes and dancing in the rain; some even had soap with them and took the opportunity to shower. A joyful moment for the children living in such offensively cramped conditions.

After chatting to this family, who welcomed us so warmly, we visited a government home for boys to collect four new children who had been abandoned by their families and are accused of petty theft to survive on the streets; an all too common case in the stories of these young people who are jaded with life because of their family circumstances. A vicious cycle of behavioural problems because of a lack of love in life, which causes further behavioural problems causing the attitude and outlook of the young people to sink further and further into chasms of darkness. It is this cycle that PREDA social workers are trying to break by taking in the young people who can hopefully turn their lives around after experiencing the holistic approach of the Boys’ Home which is appropriately nicknamed, “Childhood for Children”.


We arrived back in Olongapo after 11 pm. A long, 20-hour day which helped me to understand in more detail some of the problems that are facing the people of the Philippines as well as the issues facing PREDA. I returned to my room here at the Preda centre, and couldn’t help but think about how many lives the operations from within these walls have helped save. It could be said that PREDA is fighting a losing battle in a country that is gripped by corruption, nepotism and poverty. There will always be street children as long as there’s poverty and there will always be sex tourism as long as foreigners are coming and spending money in bars. However, in spite of this, if it weren’t for the activity here at PREDA, hundreds  maybe thousands  of children wouldn’t have the lives they are living now: empowered, motivated and loved.

The centre is not just a building, and not just the headquarters for the work of this organisation, but is a sheer beacon of light looking out over a city and country that is filled with so much darkness and depravity. We are all called to be salt for the earth, to cleanse and purify, to restore justice and dignity to people who are deprived of theirs. It would be pointless to sit quietly  like flavourless salt  and do nothing.

The PREDA Foundation has an important mission, and it burns brightly aloft this hill. The exposing light is here for everybody to see; anybody who is involved in crime and corruption can see this crucial place from all over the city. It is not hidden, it is in plain sight. All the staff (some of whom were rescued victims and successful PREDA boys and girls themselves) are committed and working tirelessly to ensure that the flame will never go out, ensuring that there will always be a place in this world for the vulnerable and marginalised who are given such a terrible start in life. The urgency never ends.

What’s Fair is Fair

Growing up as an opinionated teenager in the 2000s, I always felt passionate about engaging with issues of social justice. Amidst the buzz of the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005 and dreaming of joining the marches in Edinburgh during the British-hosted G8 summit (only the sixth formers got away with skipping school to attend!) I knew that I wanted to do something to make a difference in a world that seemed crippled by poverty, famine and greedy corporations. I remember learning that around 20% of the world’s population lives on less than $1 a day (around 65p) which shocked me so much it pushed me towards wanting to get involved in the work of development organisations like CAFOD.

Attending a Fair Trade conference, aged 13, at Ushaw College in September 2004.

Attending a Fair Trade conference, aged 13, at Ushaw College in September 2004.

To add to this, in our high school geography lessons we had classes on how huge global corporations rip off farmers in the developing world, paying them a pittance for the cocoa, coffee and fruit that they may produce. I wanted to find out what organisations were doing to pay farmers a fair price for their goods and so I became obsessed with looking for the Fairtrade mark in supermarkets and ate more Fairtrade chocolate than I care to remember. That year I bought all my Christmas presents from the Traidcraft catalogue and I became actively involved in setting up a Fairtrade stall in school which sold chocolate and fruit juice to the student body every Friday break time.

And then the reality of leaving school happened and my bubble burst. I became a volunteer for a year before I headed to university and ever since then, the words “budgeting”, “sale” and “Tesco Everyday Value” have rested eternally on my lips. I no longer was conscious about where my clothes were made (I boycotted Gap no longer out of anger for the sweatshops but because I didn’t want to spend a fortune on a pair of jeans) and I only managed a small smile when I noticed one day that Cadbury Dairy Milk, arguably the biggest chocolate brand in the UK, had become a Fairtrade Certified product. The only economic development issue I was concerned about was the economic situation of my own wallet.

So, imagine my surprise when last week I found myself high in the mountains of the Zambales province, Philippines tagging mango trees to aid the work of the Fair Trade Project here at the PREDA Foundation.

PREDA (People’s Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance) have been working in Fairtrade now for over 40 years, originally by helping older youth gain skilled training and getting them into job placements. Many of these youth had been unjustly jailed and rescued by PREDA social workers because of their inhumane living conditions on the streets and in jails. Since then, PREDA Fair Trade has fully evolved into a fully certified Fair Trade Organisation which has helped set up livelihood projects in far-flung communities giving opportunities to indigenous Filipino people by providing a fair price for their mangos and other fruits.

Arriving at the Aeta community. The small orange objects everybody holds are the solar-panel lights which are saving the community a lot each year!

Sheltering under the mango tree: the small orange objects everybody holds are the solar-panel lights which are saving the community a lot each year due to the fact they don’t have to buy kerosene for their lamps (there’s no electricity!)

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit one of these indigenous villages and meet the Aeta people as it coincided with a visit PREDA were making to take some solar-powered lights for their community (which would save them almost 4,000 pesos a year – around £55; a huge saving!). The houses, which weren’t so big, were made exclusively of bamboo and had pointed thatched roofs. Plants adorned the areas surrounding the homes and there was a real warm feeling to the community which had houses dotted, almost randomly, around the area. And unlike the slum areas in Manila, there was a lot of space for the kids (and chickens) to run around. In what seemed to be the centre of the village, a large mango tree rose from the ground: a landmark and a perfect sanctuary out of the sun to discuss just how much the support of PREDA is helping in their lives.

They told us that the commercial buyers would charge as low as 5 pesos (around 7 pence) per kilogram of Pico mango, whereas PREDA pays between 10-12 pesos (15-18 pence) per kilogram of Pico and around 17 pesos (25 pence) per kilogram of Carabao mangos. Unlike the commercial buyers who would select the best looking fruit and reject half the crop, PREDA Fair Trade buy all the mangos produced (provided they aren’t unusable or damaged), giving love to all the weird shapes and sizes that might fall from the trees each harvesting season. Even the skins and stones have a useful purpose: the skin is eaten by the animals and the stones are replanted. Everything is used, and nothing is lost!

The foundation also pay all of the money immediately upon delivery of the mangos and a bonus or profit-share is given back to the farmers for every kilogram of mangos sold. All of these fair, ethical business practices completely help to empower the farmers, providing employment and the vital funds to help send their children to school and buy food; things which I know I sometimes take for granted.

With the PREDA Fair Trade Team and the members of the indigenous communities. The mango farmer stands on the far left.

With the PREDA Fair Trade Team and the members of the indigenous communities. The mango farmers stand on either side.

Following the visit to the community, I went with the Fair Trade team to tag some trees which is a requirement to receive ‘organic status’. This had me up in the mountains, jumping and diving over wild crops to get to the trees in order to put a small number plate on each one. There are 8,000 trees to be tagged, so every volunteer who comes through the doors of PREDA is recommended to spend some time getting involved! It was a highly enjoyable day of beautiful scenery and seeing the actual trees which bear the fruit that will be eventually exported to Europe and beyond was something I never thought I’d see. I couldn’t believe that I was right at the beginning of the chain and it made me see Fairtrade in a new and updated light.

Seeing how Fairtrade can affect people so directly has helped me to appreciate just how important it is. It is so easy to forget about the producers and farmers when purchasing goods at home; an invisible workforce who won’t know that the coffee I’m drinking wasn’t fairly paid for. Meeting real people who harvest real trees makes Fairtrade real. It’s real because I have seen it; it makes a difference because the farmers themselves told me it makes a difference, not because The Fairtrade Foundation or Cadbury tells me it makes a difference. It is completely, utterly and without a doubt restoring the dignity of these human beings, like you or I, who have been struggling for decades against companies ripping them off. It is empowering them and it is helping them live their lives to the full.

PrintFrom an overzealous teenager, to a penny-pinching student, I am happy to have had the flame lit once more inside of me. I am thankful to PREDA for letting me experience the wonderful work they are doing, and I can only hope that I can return home with a renewed consciousness of Fairtrade and slowly begin to phase out purchasing from the less-than-savoury companies seeking to make a quick buck from their “desperate” producers.

This next two weeks is known as Fairtrade Fortnight which is an annual, international campaign aiming to raise awareness of Fairtrade and encourage people to buy their goods. Perhaps over the coming days, look out for PREDA products (branded as Forest Feast) in stores. I am told they are stocked in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and in other shops nationwide. If you decide to purchase them, or indeed any Fair Trade product, simply take a moment to think about the man, woman or child living in a remote village thousands of miles away who would thank you over and over again for helping them to proudly support themselves in dignity and for making that one, simple but life-changing choice.

Typhoon Ruby: The morning after and the weeks ahead (Part 3)

This blog is the third and final part of the story I have to share about Typhoon Ruby, the storm which hit the Philippines at the end of 2014. Click to catch up with part one and part two.

As the winds subsided and the rains began to calm, it was now possible to leave the safe haven of the dark, cramped office. As the power had been out for 36 hours and there was no phone signal we found ourselves not knowing the effects of the typhoon. It’s a strange feeling knowing my family and friends would have found out about the damage caused and the path of the typhoon well before I did, and I was living it!

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

Trees criss-crossed across all the roads and had to be moved quickly to make way for the Borongan traffic.

That morning, at around 7 am, I ventured with the Salesian community to drive around the city and see what had happened. It was devastating. Parts of the city were unrecognisable — trees uprooted, buildings destroyed, crops flattened — and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As we drove along the coast, the beach-side barbecue huts that I had previously spent time eating pork kebabs and grilled chicken intestine (really!) had been flipped upside down and we had to swerve to avoid huge puddles and piles of debris that blocked the road. The whole of the visible Pacific Ocean, from shore to horizon, was chocolate brown following landslides washing into rivers and mud coming from the mountains. I felt like I was in a twisted version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Electricity posts were lying flat on the roads and the road which we had previously walked a torch-lit procession was blocked off by rubble and trees.

I had spent over 3 months falling in love with the rural, faraway city of Borongan and I was cut deep seeing what had happened to it. But, what got to me the most, was that if I felt that upset by what I was seeing, I have no idea how people who called Borongan City their home were feeling. I could only imagine the pain I would feel if I saw my home town ravaged quite like the one I was seeing that morning.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

The driveway to Don Bosco after it had been cleared. After the storm, there were 2 trees and a blown over wall blocking entry.

Yet, people were resilient. People didn’t seem to show the same dramatic, over-emotionality that I was showing. The Filipino people just stood up, brushed the sand from their flip-flops and got back to life. I’m not sure whether those I encountered in Borongan were just good at saving face, borrowing the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’, or if their attitude was as a result of resignation but it seemed to me like whatever it was they were feeling, they were showing they were capable of bouncing back. Only a few hours after the storm left Samar, people were laughing and joking, thankful for their lives and one more day to live.

As a foreigner from a different culture, I found this attitude of laughing in the face of adversity very difficult to comprehend. How can you make jokes at a time like this? How can you eat breakfast at a time like this? How can you stop yourself from just breaking down and crying? After chatting to people who lost their homes, had their homes partially destroyed, lost their crops, their livelihoods: I witnessed not one tear roll down a single cheek. As I write this, Pope Francis’s recent words reverberate in my mind —  “please don’t be frightened of crying”. For me, I’m a sensitive soul whose friends are used to seeing me get emotional, perhaps for me it would be more courageous to try and control my emotions sometimes. But, for the people of Eastern Samar, it is a sign of courageousness and bravery, I think, to not be seen as so sensitive or emotional and it’s this that is driving people forward for the sake of each other.

The destroyed "kubo" (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

The destroyed “kubo” (small cottage) where we said the rosary each night at 6 pm.

As for our place: living on the riverbank left our house vulnerable to flooding and unluckily the typhoon hit when the river was at high tide. As a result, the house was submerged under over 5 feet of water. Luckily, most of our items were moved up to the first floor of the building, but it meant that all of the big furniture was either destroyed or severely water damaged. At one time, even the refrigerator was floating in the water! The furniture in my bedroom had overturned and blocked entry to my room, and the clothes I had left there were sodden. As the water subsided, it left a thick mulch of mud and rubbish across the whole of the ground floor of the house which took days to clean. We lacked electricity and the only food we had to eat was a pig that had floated into our compound, which we slaughtered and lived off for three days — fine when we ate pork adobo and crackling on the first day, not so fine when by day three we were eating pig skin (which still had surviving hairs) and as for the other parts we ate? I’m not sure I want to remember. Not so tasty.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

The remnants of the mud after much cleaning had taken place. The fridge was back on its feet.

It was decided, after consultation with the Salesians, my organisation back home and my own feelings, that I would leave Borongan. Of course, I was feeling tired, uncomfortable, irritable, helpless, vulnerable, sensitive and a whole concoction of other feelings and I was happy to leave the situation initially, but there was a part of me that was deeply sad about leaving. I felt like I had somehow played the “I’m A Foreigner! Get Me Out Of Here” card as everybody else had had no choice but to continue the clear-up and live without power, food, water and whatever else it was that we lacked in that time. I also felt like I wasn’t “seeing it through” — like I couldn’t tell my story without having a conclusion. Everything that I was working towards with my volunteering was only 3 months in out of 12, and I unexpectedly had to stop. One minute I was teaching a lesson on the area of a trapezium, the next I was in a car with all my luggage leaving for good. It was a challenge.

But having reflected on it over the last 2 months, the right decision was really made for me. Of course, my work at the training centre would have been on hold, and after my bedroom was pretty much destroyed, it wouldn’t be the first on the list of priorities to fix. With nowhere to stay, and no work to do, it is obvious that it was untenable for me to stay there. And that’s okay. I just hope my friends there aren’t too disappointed that I wasn’t able to stay longer; I know that I am.

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she's about to give birth to puppies!

Saying goodbye to our pet Rora was one of the most difficult goodbyes. I heard recently that she’s about to give birth to puppies!

And so with a heavy, heavy heart my time in Borongan, and in fact my time with the Salesians, has come to an end. It has come to an end in a way that I could never have possibly imagined. I first thought about volunteering with the Salesians in the Philippines way back in 2011, so for a long time I had in my head the picture of how my time would go. And it was different. But I have learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be brave in the face of danger, how to be hopeful in the darkest of situations, how to find joy in the simplest of things, how to communicate without talking, how to cheer and clap a group of children doing the same dance routine for a fifteenth time like it was the first time I saw it and I learnt how to speak a language that very few people in the world could understand.

I can not thank the community of Salesians, all my friends and Filipino families there enough for welcoming me into their homes, inviting me to their parties and going out of their way to be super friendly to the foreigner who quite often sat quietly in the corner eating his Pinoy spaghetti or buko pandan. I will cherish every memory, and I will forever be sharing stories of my wonderful time in Borongan. It has changed me in unimaginable ways.

My final moments in Borongan - leaving behind many friends. Sad times!

My final moments in Borongan – leaving behind many friends. I hope we can see each other again one day!

After a Christmas spent with good friends in Manila, I have spent my last weeks in Cebu at the Provincial House whilst I arranged for alternative opportunities. On Wednesday, I will be moving to Olongapo in the north of country where I will be working with the Preda Foundation, a social and humanitarian organisation which works closely with abused women and children. I will stay there for two months, before I will arrive back to the UK a little earlier than planned at the end of May.