KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 1 / January-February-March 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
My Philippines GIG Experience
By Brayden Argent
On 3 January this year I began an experience that would change my perspective on the world around me and in particular the effects of globalisation on the most vulnerable members of our human family.
On that day I flew out to begin my GIG (Getting Involved Globally) immersion experience in the Philippines. I remembered the brochure cautioned me: "WARNING! This experience may change your life!" "Yeah - right!" I thought. But once the journey began I realised that this was going to be something special - something that would not be equalled by any experience I had ever had before.
Arriving in Manila was a culture shock of immense proportions. The traffic, the driving habits, the sounds, the smells - all jolted me from my complacency, awaking me from my comfort zone. Manila is a city choked by cars and people on the move. The people risk life and limb to eke out a living negotiating grid-locked traffic to sell things like individual cigarettes, cleaning cloths, newspapers, lollies and chips - virtually anything, in a desperate attempt to provide for themselves and their families.
Our first day was to expose our group to the lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful members of Manila society living in the exclusive enclave of Forbes Park with its walled estates of huge mansions and armed guards on the gates. We also visited the Church of St Anthony where huge chandeliers, marble and gold leaf abounded in the church.
If you were to go on what we experienced that day, you could be mistaken for assuming that the Philippines is a relatively affluent society. The Ayala shopping district was like any retail complex here in Australia, offering all the latest fashion, home wares, electrical appliances etc. The people were all well dressed and appeared to be middle class.
The next day shattered that illusion completely when we experienced the urban slum of Tondo. We saw the lifestyle of the impoverished and oppressed majority of the Filipino people; the squatter shacks crammed together with children running along playfully, seemingly without a care, but obviously undernourished and underdeveloped for their ages. I asked one child how old he was thinking he's the same age as my three year old daughter - he was in fact 7 years of age!
The conditions and the smells are beyond imagination. The constant thought going through my mind was, "If a fire broke out, how many people would die trying to get out of the maze of pathways between each of the humble dwellings." Yet the inside of many of these homes was immaculately presented in comparison to the dirt that was encountered outside.
One image there that really hit me as a stark contrast to the visit to Forbes Park was of the community's Chapel in comparison to the lavish Church of St Anthony. This chapel had no roof, the pews were scavenged pieces of timber, and there was a battered old crucifix at the front wall, together with some religious statues and pieces of rusted corrugated iron leaning against the walls. To these people though it was a place of peaceful prayer, where they could be with the God who loves us all.
Throughout my time in the Philippines, the people were nothing short of inspiring. Despite the adversity, the suffering and the poverty, they were always hospitable, sharing what little they had. I thought of how we in Australia take so much for granted and how mean spirited many parts of our society had become, ruthlessly protecting the privileges we have accumulated. Constantly, the people who hosted us on each of our visits apologised for not being able to offer me more because, they would always add, they are so poor.
During my visit I had the privilege of staying with two families, one in an urban slum the other in a rural community on Mindanao.
In Novotas, the urban stay, a fishing community called Little Samar was to be our home overnight. The people there had been advised that the government is preparing to demolish their homes and reclaim the bay where they fish for their livelihood, in order that an industrial complex for American and
Japanese companies can go ahead. They have been told they will be relocated into the mountains, despite their loss of livelihood, not to mention the environmental impact of reclaiming some of the vital fish breeding areas that will form the reclaimed land for the industrial complex.
It was a sad story of how these people have been betrayed by their own government for the sake of foreign businesses who have little or no concern for the people. The people of Little Samar are not just resigned to their fate however, they are protesting and struggling to protect their livelihood and their future. They have a close knit group of organisers who keep their community informed and involved by disseminating information and maintaining their unity.
Many people in Australia would recognise the name Mindanao, as it supposedly harbours the Abu Sayaf terrorists linked with Osama Bin Laden's networks. It is also the place where a number of western tourists have been kidnapped from tourist resorts. The people I lived with there were copra (coconut) and rice farmers, who rent the land they farm from wealthy landowners who take more than half of the returns from the crops. The farmers are struggling to provide even the basics for their families, most having to choose between whether their children get an education or whether the need is greater for them to work with their parents harvesting and planting crops.
Others in my group spent time with the indigenous Lumad peoples of Mindanao who are under siege by foreign mining companies from countries, including Australia, taking their lands, often with assistance of military forces and the support of the Philippines Government. Some of these people had been bombed by their own government to drive them off their lands!
Like Australian Aborigines, they have a strong connection to the land and its careful stewardship. To drive them off land they have occupied for centuries is striking at the very core of their being.
Because of my work, I had a great interest in the role the Catholic Church plays in the struggle of the poor majority of the Philippines for justice. The Philippines is an overtly religious country, with religious images and quotes everywhere, even in the jeepneys! Throughout all that I saw and learnt, there was a presence of the Church, sometimes in solidarity and action with the poor and the oppressed. Sometimes, sadly, the hierarchy of the Church has been, and continues to be, slow to act or speak out on gross injustices being perpetrated by government or business, and sometimes they were even benefactors of some forms of exploitation.
But overwhelmingly I will remember people like Sister Nancy, the Canossian who runs the Canossian Health and Social Centre in Tondo. The Centre runs tuberculosis treatment programs, provides facilities for childbirth, xrays, dental treatment, skills training for volunteer health workers and produces herbal medicines for income generation to sustain their many projects.
Sister Nancy took us through a part of Tondo known as "Happy Town" which was gutted by a fire in September last year. Where possible the Sisters are providing funds and resources to rebuild key community facilities to get the community on its feet again. The conditions under which these people live is horrendous by anyone's standards; none more so than those living in "Paradise", a huge mountain of rubbish similar to the infamous Smokey Mountain. The people make their living by salvaging what they can from the refuse to sell to scrap dealers, on a good day making 70 pesos which is less than $3 Australian.
I will remember the seminarians on the picket line with workers who had been laid off because they dared to ask for a pay rise. They were not earning enough to meet even the most basic needs of their families, estimated at the equivalent of $20 Australian per day. The seminarians are given first-hand exposure by living amongst these people to understand what it means to embrace the Church's option for the poor.
On my return, the question I was most often asked was, "Did you enjoy your trip?" My answer is a resounding YES! Not in the way one enjoys a trip to the beach, or a holiday to some glamorous destination - it wasn't a trip designed to make me comfortable and relaxed. I enjoyed it because I was shaken from my complacency by some of the most beautifully faith-filled people, living out their calling as followers of Christ everyday. I experienced a powerful sense of solidarity with them in their struggles through their sharing so openly the stories and struggles of their lives.
"Would I go again?" Once again, the answer is YES! This journey has only begun for me - what I do with what I have learnt and seen is the next stage of this experience. I only hope that I can do justice to the great wealth of experience and knowledge that GIG provided me with. I am conscious that if I do not share the stories of the people I encountered accurately and widely enough, then I am failing in raising awareness of the effects of continued injustice, oppression and greed in our world today, largely epitomised by aggressive and relentless capitalism, economic rationalism and globalisation.
Thelma Lauron, or Bing as she is known, was the coordinator from the Philippines for our GIG experience. She often referred to this quote from an Australian Indigenous person: "If you come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together".
That is the challenge to which this experience has alerted me, hopefully I can use my experience to alert many others through my work and my life.
About the author: Brayden Argent is the Archdiocesan Director of Catholic Mission in Brisbane.
To get involved phone Brayden on (07)
3221 2055 or send an email to
or phone Peter Gates - FREECALL (Australia-wide) 1800 257 296
or Email: email@example.com
The GIG website URL is http://www.catholicmission.org.au/prof-ar.htm