Sunday, 1 November 2009

Philippines diary: Learning the hard way

Children wave at a morning assembly on their first day back after the floods
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
If my first week in the Philippines could be described as relatively uneventful, the same certainly can’t be said for the second. I saw a school reopening for the first time since the floods, I met street children in Chinatown, watched the government being held to account over child rights and ended the week barricaded in my flat in the path of an oncoming typhoon.

My week started at 5:30am on Monday. I was up, not necessarily bright but certainly early, to go to Pinagbuhatan Elementary School, which was opening for the first time following the devastation caused by Typhoon Ketsana. For children who had been through the stress of losing their homes and in some cases loved ones to the floodwaters, it was to be a welcome return to normality.

It took us a while to find the school and by the time we arrived the assembly had already started. Hundreds of children in clean and pressed uniforms thronged a large courtyard in the middle of the school. I was summoned to the stage and made my way through a press of small bodies to the front.


Again, perhaps by virtue of my status as a celebrity foreigner, I was asked to address the school. Feeling a bit of a fraud, I complied. I haven’t had to speak in front of so many children since I ran as the Labour candidate in my own school’s mock election back in 1990. This time, my speech was far shorter and much less political.

Towards the end of the assembly, the children were presented with school kits in UNICEF backpacks. Finally, my colleague Arnaldo from the education department, universally known as Ar-ar, led a puppet show for the children, with four puppets in the style of Sesame Street. It was great fun but there was also a serious point to the exercise, as Ar-ar explained to me later.

“Children love puppetry and are very receptive to it,” he said. “So this morning, before the assembly, we talked to the children about their experiences and how they felt. We put all of that into the story of today’s puppet show. We also talked to the teachers about using the puppets later on to tackle health, nutrition, water and sanitation issues.”

After the assembly, I interviewed the Principal, Iluminado Leno. “All our classrooms were damaged in the flood, along with the canteen and the clinic, and all the equipment was swept away,” she said. “We sent teachers to the evacuation centres to continue lessons wherever possible. We are happy and surprised by how many pupils came back today and hope even more will come tomorrow. This will help them forget their distressing experiences.”

Finally, I tried to talk to some of the children but they were too shy to say much. I think I need to work on my interviewing technique. Ar-ar recommends using puppets! One thing that strikes me is the contrast between the UK, where a lot of children take school for granted and can’t wait for a chance to skip it. Here the opposite is true. Filipino children really value education and will overcome great barriers to get it, as I was to see even more starkly the next day.

“After a disaster, children are sent to evacuation centres and often they’re just sitting there all day with nothing to do,” Ar-ar said. “When we asked them how they feel, the children would say ‘I miss my teachers; I miss my classmates; I lost my school bag; I want to go back to school.’.”

Under pressure

Butch with Mary. He hopes to get her back into school soon
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
On Tuesday, I hooked up with Jes from UNICEF’s child protection department and went to see an amazing project that’s bringing education and life skills counselling to Manila’s most vulnerable people: the street children.

The project is run by a local charity called Childhope Asia Philippines, which operates out of an old Spanish colonial villa. The Spanish ran the Philippines for over 300 years, from 1571 to 1898, and are not remembered fondly for it. Much of their architectural legacy was destroyed in the battle for Manila between the US and Japan at the end of the Second World War but a few building like this survived.

At the villa, we met one of the charity’s outreach workers. Butch, 47, is a real character. In combat shorts and t-shirt, he still retains some of the style and attitude of the street child he used to be. Butch never knew his parents and ran away from home after his grandmother died. He ended up on the streets, where he led a gang, sold drugs and acted as a pimp for other boys. By the time he was 17, he realised his life had to change.

“We were a group of eight kids and I was the leader,” Butch said. “I was street smart and didn’t trust anyone. But these people, the social workers, they were persistent and really got to know the group. So I said ‘I’m going to try this. Why not? I have nothing to lose’.”

While other street workers educate the children with regular classes, where they learn things like basic maths and literacy, Butch concentrates on counselling, helping individual children work through their problems.

“There is a lot of abuse on the streets,” he says. “In my area there are a lot of market vendors who think that street children are the dregs of society. So they don’t think these kids have rights. Every day, the kids get sick from pneumonia, skin disease and tuberculosis. They are hungry and have to look for food all the time. They don’t have good friends and there are lots of vices around them.”

Butch is strongly motivated to do this kind of work. “It’s more than payback,” he says. “I feel an obligation and responsibility to take care of other people. Certain kids have the inner strength but they need some support from the outside.”

As the light started to fade, we headed into town to the square outside Binondo Church in Chinatown where the street children congregate. We got out of the car into a busy square, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Manila street life. We’re immediately surrounded by a crowd of excited children who clearly know Butch. They make us press our hands to their foreheads, which is a form of blessing.

Despite their blackened bare feet and ragged clothes, the children seem happy and outgoing. There’s none of the shyness I saw at the school. Several of the kids want me to take their photos and strike up tough street poses. This attitude is belied, however, by their child-like enthusiasm to see the pictures.

Street children play an educational game at a street learning session
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown

One of the other street educators starts a class right there in the street and the children’s attention is diverted. If anything, they’re even keener to learn than the children at Pinagbuhatan Elementary School. As the class starts, other children race across the square to join in.

Afterwards, I talk to Mary (not her real name), 12, who lives and works with her family on the streets of Manila. She helps her mother sell cigarettes outside Starbucks in Binondo (Chinatown) and looks after her younger brothers and sisters. She has been out of school for two years and is under pressure from her peers to sniff solvents. “I don’t want to sleep on the streets anymore,” she says.

After counselling from Butch, Mary is attending the alternative learning sessions, where she is showing academic promise. She’s now decided that she wants to go back to school. “I like learning maths, Filipino and how to take care of my body,” she says. “I want to be a nurse and help people who are sick, like the people who got ill after the last typhoon.”

We’re just round the corner from Starbucks, so afterwards we go and meet Mary’s family. I tell her mother how smart Mary is and show her some of the photos. Later on, I get prints made which I’ll give to Butch to pass on to the children.

This is without a doubt the highlight of my visit so far. I feel overwhelmed by a jumble of conflicting emotions. I’m upset for the children and what they have to go through but inspired by their resilience and by the work that Butch and the other street educators do. Also in the mix is the slightly selfish thrill of getting a really strong story. This is what I love most about my job: finding and telling the stories of these kids, hopefully to inspire others to take action, whether by donating, campaigning or fundraising for UNICEF.

Could do better

On Wednesday morning, I went to a forum to see the Philippines Government and a coalition of non-governmental organisations present their reports on how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been implemented in the Philippines. The consensus seems to be that although the Government has made progress on passing laws to protect children’s rights, it has failed to implement many of them effectively. One particularly shocking practice that is still going on is executing children in some parts of the country for being ‘communists’.

The forum was held in Club Filipino, another colonial era building. Our event is somewhat overshadowed, and at one point literally drowned out, by an event held by Senator Francis ‘Chiz’ Escudero, who plans to run for President next May. He gave a statement to journalists that he was leaving the Nationalist People's Coalition. In the Philippines, politicians are only loosely aligned to political parties and it’s not unusual for them to jump ship ahead of an election.

On a personal level, my major triumph this week is mastering the jeepneys. I needed a bit of local help to start with but I now know the main routes around Makati and roughly where to get on and off (it’s an inexact science). I also discovered that if you sit towards the front, you’re expected to pass money back and forth between the driver and other passengers. In the Philippines, everyone’s a bus conductor.

I’m already over my word length so I will tell you about the typhoon next week. Suffice to say that I went home on Friday night with the tops of the tower blocks disappearing beneath a shroud of rain and cloud, the wind starting to whip up and a distinct sense of trepidation as Typhoon Santi stormed directly towards Manila.

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