By Brónagh Hogan
As a first time international volunteer, it is very difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the task at hand before travelling overseas. SERVE’s pre-departure training most certainly outlines the programme very well, and prepares you with regards to planning and packing – but the real learning happens while in the midst of the partners, and you definitely learn as you go. In my case, this meant learning about my own role as a volunteer while working with the Badjao tribe in Cebu City, The Philippines.
The Badjao tribe were traditionally a group of sea nomads with a philosophy of peace and nonconfrontation, found in coastal settlements in Bohol, Manila and Cebu, among others. They lived in houseboats, or wooden homes on stilts above the water. The sea is of vital importance to the Badjao tribe, as many of the men are pearl fishermen and most exploit the sea in any way they can, especially to garner goods which can then be sold at market. Sadly, this peaceful community are not recognised as Filipino citizens by the government. This is largely due to economic and political conditions and has resulted in severe prejudice and discrimination against the Badjao. This is no different in Cebu. The Badjao community here experience bullying at school, on the streets and even in jeepneys (public transport). Around 1990, the Presentation Sisters, along with the Redemptorists began to work with the Badjao community in integration and education. The word ‘with’ is very important for the Presentation Sisters, and SERVE of course. The aim of the programme is to discover what areas the Badjao need help in, and working with them to formulate solutions. This is known as sustainable development and it is this which has helped the Badjao to develop and maintain their dignity and traditions during the last 28 years.
SERVE engages with the whole community as part of their work in the Badjao. While I have been in Cebu, no two days have been the same and I believe that that alone is important as a volunteer. One must be willing to apply oneself in whatever area the community needs, and working alongside members of the Badjao really opened my mind to a completely different culture and opened my heart to the most loving, talented and inspirational people I have ever met. We provide assistance in Montessori classes, adult literacy, development classes, drama, art, music and dance workshops for high school students, painting work and computer lessons with members of the community. Although it seems to consume the community and the Nano Nagle Childcare and Learning Center during the time of the SERVE visit, I couldn’t help but wonder what the volunteer’s role really is in the grander scheme of things. I also contemplated how the short stay of four weeks could possibly have any positive impact on the partnership between SERVE and the Badjao community. I spoke to Sister Evelyn Flanagan from Galway, who has been instrumental in the development of the Badjao community as part of the Presentation Sisters. I asked her how four short weeks could possibly make a difference in the lives of the tribe. Her response came without hesitation as she told me how the effect of SERVE’s presence reaches far beyond the month’s volunteering stint. The main impact on the community is the confidence our workshops and involvement with the youth instil in the high school students and development classes. As the Badjao are frequently bullied and completely ostracised from society in many cases, it means the world to the youth of the Badjao to have support and to bond with people they would never otherwise meet. Badjao students even encounter bullying and discrimination from teachers, Sister Evelyn explained, and the fact that the teachers are aware that ‘the students not only have support – but international support’ means a great deal.
This really prompted me to think about the relationships we as volunteers build with individual students and members of the community and I decided to speak to two of my fellow volunteers – Ellen Condon and Étáin Collins. Ellen is a first time overseas volunteer, like myself, while Étáin worked with the Badjao tribe last summer also. I asked them how they think our work fits into the bigger picture. Ellen admitted that while at the beginning, it was difficult to see how our work might have a lasting impact on the community, in the final days of our trip she has begun to realise that the sustainable development SERVE promote reaches far beyond painting and workshops. The relationships which she herself has cultivated through working with the tribe are unlike anything she has ever experienced before. Through working with a stall owner, Thelma, to choose paint colours for her stall, clean it, prime it and paint it together, she says the two have learned much from each other and has noticed Thelma’s confidence grow. Étáin’s response to this question was very interesting. She believes that while not just one volunteer has the lasting impact, it is instead the whole idea of SERVE and the atmosphere which we bring to the community over years of working in solidarity with them. She explains that after two volunteering stints here in the Philippines, she has realised how special SERVE makes the students and children feel. We come to them, and only them, a group who are so often excluded from society. They look forward to the fun and friendship which is brought to them for a whole month every year, regardless of what else is happening in their lives. This sentiment was echoed by Edwina, one of the teachers in the school when I explored the concept with her. The SERVE volunteers come at the beginning of the semester for students in Cebu. Having people like us here, who are studying or qualified from college, inspires the students in the workshops to continue with their studies and they are an excellent facilitator to build relationships with these teenagers. The teachers in the school run excellent programmes for the high school students, but having the high spirits and fun associated with SERVE to look forward to keeps them going throughout the year, which is a real benefit.
Lastly, I spoke to the mother of five children in the Badjao community, one of which is a grade 8 high school student. Prescila Sabrani explained how much fun her children have with the SERVE volunteers and how sad she will be to see us leave, but how much the community as a whole looks forward to the return of SERVE. She said her son in particular really enjoys expressing himself through art, and the workshops give him this opportunity. Prescila also mentioned the confidence which the SERVE volunteers always give her, as she gets a chance to practise her English with people she considers friends.
During the process of trying to discover the true role of the volunteer here in the Philippines, what I learned was truly heart warming. The teenagers always tell us that they will miss us and they love to have us here, but I always wondered would this soon be forgotten when their school lives and busy schedules take over. However, speaking to partners here in the Badjao community, fellow volunteers and members of the community, I have learned that it’s not the physical impacts of volunteer work that really matter – it’s the confidence that’s nurtured in the students, the relationships built, each smile shared and the support the Badjao community know they have, and always will have, from a small country on the other side of the world. Love and family are important values to the Badjao and after volunteering with these simply amazing people, I’ve realised that we are all one big family and we will always be connected through the love we’ve shared over the past month.