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.

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A City on a Hill That Can’t Be Hidden

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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”.

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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.