Building Bridges, Building Relationships

Three weeks volunteering in Cebu City, working in a foreign environment completely different to any prior life experience, my mental and physical endurance is being severely tested. We set out from Dublin to work in solidarity and partnership with the Badjao, to gain a greater cultural appreciation and to make a positive contribution as global citizens.

Hammered by increasing exhaustion, sweltering heat and challenging dietary options it is easy to lose sight of our objectives.

Volunteering is often derided by detractors as an altruistic holiday; hold a couple of kids, lay a few bricks and enhance ones Instagram catalogue, whilst also seizing the opportunity to see a far-flung part of the world, often at another’s expense. Sometimes it happens; volunteers are driven to their air-conditioned hotel, eat familiar Western food and are transported in comfort to their volunteering project. The experience comes to an end and the volunteer moves on, another box ticked.

SERVE do not adhere to this farcical interpretation of ‘volunteering’, instead emphasising the importance of solidarity and cultural immersion. We eat local food, often prepared by ourselves. We travel in Jeepneys and Tricey-cads, the transport of the poor. We walk in flip-flops, the footwear of the most impoverished people on earth. We receive development education, our experience not empty and hollow but driven by lively debate and extremely valuable training. Time and again the importance of continuity is emphasised, the volunteering experience only an introduction to our lives as engaged global citizens.

SERVE’s volunteer program is immensely important to the Badjao and the Nano Nagle Education Centre, for reasons we often fail to appreciate. Volunteers bring with them a plethora of skills, knowledge and expertise. Furthermore their fundraising and experiences with the organisation enhance SERVE’s profile and reputation, maximising support from large institutional funders, namely Misean Cara. And perhaps most pivotally volunteering in solidarity fosters mutual respect, cross cultural understanding and tolerance. Returning volunteers are given a perspective on society that challenges many of their preconceived ideas and assumptions.

It is for these above reasons it is so pivotal we remain true to our objectives — solidarity and partnership, cultural immersion and making a positive contribution as a global citizen.

Solidarity is a challenging ideal to adhere to; we are only with the Badjao for 4 weeks and there is so much we want to achieve. Obstacles impede our progress; visits are repeatedly delayed, projects scrapped, workmen operating at a seemingly leisurely pace. These are not criticisms, I fully appreciate that we are volunteers, working with the Badjao for a month, whilst others are with them all year around. We are only a small part of a larger, continuously evolving project. We are here to make a significant contribution, not to dictate proceedings for our own satisfaction. In a week we leave and return to Ireland, the Badjao and the teachers in Nano Nagle Education Centre remain, always working towards their larger goals of education and community development

I am frustrated at times, infuriated, saddened that my impact cannot be greater. Sometimes I want to scream ‘I am leaving in a week. We must do more’, but I do not. I go for a walk, I listen to some music, relax for a moment and remember why we travelled to the Philippines — To support our hosts in whatever capacity they require and certainly not to implement a strategy that might be at odds with the needs of the community.

Cultural Immersion is a massively important aspect of SERVE’s volunteering program, helping to build bridges between very diverse communities. We spend two weeks living with Filipino host families, an experience kindly facilitated by the Redemptorist parish of Cebu. It has been far more difficult than I ever could have imagined. We return to our hosts after a long day with the Badjao, our bodies pleading for sleep. Instead we must summon whatever strength remains and interact with the community, navigating a language barrier and the ever prevalent tiredness. It is challenging, it is exhausting and yet it is an experience I am beyond grateful for. We were invited into the incredible community of Waramda, treated upon arrival as a member of the family, akin to three prodigal sons returning. We were given an introduction to authentic Cebuano cuisine — a mix of the staple rice, grilled chicken and wholesome soup. On our last night I had the opportunity to sample chicken intestine and chicken blood, cooked on a skewer.

There are aspects on the host community experience I would change, and those changes would be in the direction of greater cultural immersion. We were housed in a new apartment building, our accommodation kindly donated by the owner of the complex. It granted us more individuality than some of the other volunteers but also deprived us of the chance to experience authentic Filipino living. The opportunity to live in solidarity with a Cebuano family is one I would seize with no trepidation whatsoever.

There are a great many expectations thrust upon volunteers — by friends and family, by donors and by the volunteer themselves. I travelled to the Philippines hoping to make a positive contribution as Global Citizen and I have.

Volunteering is often assessed in terms of quantifiable results — the construction of a school, the painting of a toilet block and so on. Due to the nature of the Badjao project progress is not immediately visible, often leaving me frustrated. The Philippines development program is transitioning. Over a decade was spent working to secure an education centre and suitable accommodation from Badjao families. It has now entered a more challenging stage where the focus is on community development schemes such as the creation of a community garden, the introduction of livelihood programs and launching art, drama and music education.

Our time with the Badjao has helped us appreciate the importance of training and community development work. Through art, drama and music the Badjao youth are given opportunities to express themselves, explore their culture and gain pride in their history, traditions and tribal identity. For decades the Badjao have been treated as second and third class citizens in Filipino society. Discrimination, poverty and government inaction has impeded access to education and helped perpetuate myths about the tribe, typecasting an entire group as uneducated beggars and illiterate fishermen. Promoting community development and pride of identity is a major aid in the battle to dispel myths, stereotypes and ingrained prejudices.

As the teachers at Nano Nagle have told us, our impact upon the Badjao community, the youth in particular, is huge. Through the workshops we have helped the youths grow in confidence, improve their English and experience a sense of acceptance rarely granted to them by other Filipinos. We have contributed a physical representation of Badjao culture, a mural depicting fish in small families, emphasising the importance of family, belonging and identity within the tribe. And we have acted in solidarity, gaining an acute understanding of the major issues facing the Badjao and an appreciation for the strength of character and community that is required to continue the battle for acceptance, education and a decent standard of living.

We are not building houses in Cebu but instead making a more sustainable and extremely valuable contribution — Building Relationships.

Like what you read? Give Fiachra Brennan a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.