Natural Disaster

Manila_PhilippinesToday, as I listen to news reports of devastation in the Philippines following the onslaught of typhoon Haiyan, my thoughts are with the beautiful people I met there on a holiday in 2011 – below is a piece I wrote on my return to Ireland:
There’s a rather politically incorrect joke doing the rounds (by the locals) in the Philippines. It goes like this: When God finally got around to making humans, He started with white people, but they came out a bit underdone. He moved on to black people, but they were a bit overdone. Finally He had a go at creating Filipinos, and this time He got it just right.
You’ll hear a lot of laughter in the Philippines. They’re a happy bunch. It bewildered me, this happiness, given that most of the people I met on a recent trip there are subsisting in the direst poverty imaginable. How can you be happy when your whole family lives in a single room only marginally bigger than the average Irish garden shed, and when the toilet you use is shared with umpteen other families, all crammed into the same higgledy-piggledy shanty town?
And yet, as my mother and I negotiated the narrow alley that led to Mambaling, one of the many slum areas in Cebu, the Philippines’ second city, as we skirted the mounds of rubbish and breathed through our mouths in an effort to avoid the stench of the open drains, the overriding sounds from the dilapidated buildings we passed were bursts of laughter.
Wherever we went we were welcomed with genuine warmth. We were offered hot food in rooms without ovens, however they managed it. Potatoes were produced which would have been specially bought with precious pesos for the Irish visitors. Cables were run into houses with no electricity, just so a fan could be plugged in for our comfort. Handmade jewellery – much of it made with freshwater pearls – was pressed on us before we left. And everywhere we met smiles – particularly when a camera was produced. And we never sensed an ounce of self-pity.
My brother Colm is a Redemptorist priest. He’s been based in the Philippines since he was ordained, twenty-four years ago. Typically he spends weeks, sometimes months, in a mission area, giving what practical and spiritual help he can.
The locals put him up, squeezing him in wherever they can find a space and sharing everything they have with him. He’s fed rice and fish and diced pork belly. He sleeps on floors when there isn’t a bed. He’s welcomed in every single house he visits.
One day we accompanied an extended family group from one of Colm’s mission areas to the beach, to celebrate a birthday party. I travelled in a battered jeep with a few who included three sisters in their sixties, grandmothers many times over. The trip took about an hour, and the laughter never once let up. Those ladies were having the time of their lives. I wished I spoke Cebuano – the gossip was obviously juicy.
We bypassed the luxury beaches patronised by tourists and rich Filipinos and made for a no-frills one. Same white sand, same warm sea, same blue sky above. Sometime during the jolly afternoon that included barbecued food and karaoke – and having my toenails painted green by Norma, one of the sisters – I learnt that the seventeen-year-old birthday boy had been born with a hole in his heart and wasn’t expected to live beyond a handful more years. Operations cost money. I sensed no bitterness.
Another time, Colm brought us to meet a trio of Oblate nuns who run a residential centre for young girls who had suffered abuse in some form, often from within their own families, or by adults holding positions of trust in their communities. The nuns keep the girls for up to three years, doing their best with minimal funding to heal wounds as they organise counselling and education, and administer loving kindness by the bucketful.
We met the girls, twenty or so of them, ranging in age from thirteen to seventeen. They put on a show for us, roughly half an hour of songs and dances and sketches. We watched and clapped, and tried not to imagine the circumstances that had led to their living in the centre. They were beautiful, and full of life, and clearly delighted to have visitors to entertain. Once again, we were taken aback by happiness.
I asked Emilly, one of the nuns, how people who had so little could appear so content. She smiled – maybe at the naiveté of my question – and said ‘When you don’t want much, it’s easy to be happy with very little.’
Is it simply a question then of shifting our expectations, of learning not to need so much? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was all it took to be happy?
One of Colm’s more pleasant tasks, when he gets a donation of money, is to organise the distribution of ‘bundles of joy’ among the neediest. A bundle of joy is a name given to a pack of basic foodstuffs – rice, pork, fish, chicken. The irony is, joy is one of the few things they have in abundance in the Philippine slums.
It’s a funny old world.

Posted on November 10, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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