"We hope that 1996 - the U.N. International Year aimed at the elimination of poverty, will be a bumper year for our Good Shepherd Trading Circle and for the hundreds of women who produce the high quality goods which we market."
A twenty-two day visit of necessity gives one a very limited understanding of a country and its people. Eleven of those days were spent in Baguio City at a Social Justice meeting, which left eleven days in which to visit various projects in Manila, San Felipe, Cebu and Davao: quite a breathless schedule!
The poverty of the Philippines confronts one everywhere, except within the heart of Metro Manila's business districts or in the megamalls. There perhaps it is possible to believe in the 'progress' which is said to result from free markets and openness to international trade! In the squatter areas of Manila being evacuated in preparation for next year's APEC meeting; in many rural areas where farmers' tenure of their rice fields is often insecure; in the crowded slums; in the factories where long working hours for low wages prevail; in the huge resettlement camps for victims of the lahar, the rivers of mud which pour down every year from the slopes of Mount Pinatubo since the 1991 volcanic eruption, obliterating towns and fields - in such places the reality of life for a majority of the people of the Philippines is experienced.
For all that, the people that we saw and spoke to showed a spirit and courage that was inspiring. There was little sign of people feeling sorry for themselves or waiting for handouts to rescue them from their poverty. Everywhere there were people at work - in the rice fields; in tiny sari sari stores selling household items; collecting bottles to sell for a pittance; baking, cooking and selling food; fixing cars and bicycles; risking their lives in the heavy traffic to sell a variety of goods to motorists and their passengers.
The Good Shepherd-initiated or supported projects which we visited were all small scale enterprises. There were the card makers in Manila: young women and men who had been 'street children' painstakingly creating Christmas and other greeting cards as part of their search for a new life.
In a slum area of Metro Manila there were about 50 women who have formed cooperatives making soaps, sweets, and crocheted items like tissue box covers, placemats and coasters. Although markets are a problem for them, they have nevertheless experienced improvements in their quality of life as these enterprises have developed.
Also in Manila, a small group of young women wanting to move out of prostitution, are making a variety of candles and looking for markets for their creations. This is a fairly new enterprise and we hope to import some of these candles to see how they sell here.
In Cebu City a small group of women sew shirts from flourbags which they buy at the local Carbon Market. A number of Australians have already discovered that these shirts are remarkably cool and comfortable in the heat of our summer! The women live and work in tiny slum homes and hope that they will be able to sell enough shirts to enable themselves and their families to one day escape the poverty which is currently their lot.
This question is often asked by a browser during one of our Trading Circle sales. Prior to my visit to the Philippines, my answer always flowed easily, "Our Sisters in Asia, Africa and Latin America work with groups of women who are striving to become economically self-sufficient..." Now I find myself speechless, though I have so much to say. I have too much to say.
If our potential customer is holding up a set of handmade stationery I am immediately in the small concrete floored room in Cebu where a woman and a number of teenagers pound banana and pineapple leaves to a pulp, bleach and dye it and, using simple frames, form sheets of paper for drying. These young people do not attend school for various reasons and are being taught work skills as they earn enough money to survive. The quality of the finished product is excellent.
How can this person studying the paper with a critical eye have any idea of the never ending work of people in the Philippines, work that can never lead to anything remotely like wealth or even comfort, but must lead to just enough rice for that day. And then the next day... and then the next... and then...
Maybe he or she is pointing towards one of the attractively packaged fridge towels. As I think of this group of about fifteen women of Balingcaguing, driven from their rice fields by the Mt Pinatubo eruption, I remember one of them weeping as she thanked us for our support. As I looked around the group I saw tears standing in the eyes of a number of others. Certainly the money they receive for each towel they crochet makes a difference in their day to day economic struggle. But again and again we saw and heard gratitude and excitement that people in another country (Australia and New Zealand must seem as remote and unimaginable as Mars!) actually care about them and find their products attractive.
So, how can I answer this question about the people who make these beautiful things! If I say too much, if I try to describe their lives in too much detail, I am more likely to discourage than encourage a sale. But I have to take that risk....