Alex, a past-pupil of Salesian College Farnborough, was a volunteer in the Philippines.
It seems a century ago now that I sat in the same gym hall as I do now, writing this recollection. Yet in fact it was little over two months ago. I was new to both Mambucal and the Philippines but was lucky enough to come at a time when every person of voting age in the country was involved in choosing their new Barangay representatives.
The easiest way to describe Barangay is to liken them to a village or suburb council. A Barangay is a Philippine term used to separate populace from one another, for example, along a 3-mile stretch of road you may pass through 4 or 5 Barangay. In a city, within a mile-square there may be 2 or 3 different Barangays and each one has a democratically elected council that serve as both a local police and legislative body. Elections take place nationally every 3 years over 1 or 2 days (depending on how smoothly they run) in October and 2010 happened to be an election year. Once I’d got my head around the concept of Barangays, I was invited to a number of election debate nights. Similar to what we’ve just experienced for the first time in the UK, potential leaders were invited to a gathering of the local community (normally held in Parish halls or gymnasiums) and first of all give an account of what they would bring to the community as Barangay Captain or Secretary etc before the floor was opened up to questions from the audience.
At the first meeting I went to, about half a mile down the road from the Don Bosco Parish, I sat rather inconspicuously in the audience. However the colour of my skin and the buzz around about there being a new volunteer soon gave me away. To my astonishment and slight embarrassment I was actually personally mentioned in some of the addresses; ‘Ladies and gentleman, current Barangay Captain, Fr Andy and New Volunteer from England…’ Quite fun!
The elections themselves took place the following week and went off rather smoothly. A few recounts were needed due to close results but, there were no problems with forgeries or corruption as had been feared.
I admired the grassroots democratic approach that was taken here. There was a genuine personal approach to politics here – you knew the people you were voting for – one that is only feigned in the UK by untouchable national politicians. There are also national congressional and presidential elections in May whose terms also last for three years but I got the impression, these Barangay elections are more important to day-to-day community life.
I also admired the parallel election for a youth Barangay council. It both taught younger people the mechanics of politics as well as giving them representation in the running and operations of the Barangay. The Chairman of the Youth Council also had a seat on its senior counterpart. In some ways, it offered a political version of the Salesian Preventative System, giving them responsibility and power to grow without seeming too gimmicky.
This was one of my first experiences of Philippine culture from a non-tourist perspective and I fully enjoyed the privilege of watching it unfold.
The Visitation of the Relic of St. John Bosco
December 5th saw the arrival of St. John Bosco’s relic to the South Philippines. The 3-week event was part of a 4-year pilgrimage around the world where a replica of Don Bosco at the time of his death is placed in a glass container, as if he was held in state. The replica itself securely houses the right hand of the saint and thousands flocked to see, touch and just be in the presence of their saint.
To understand the magnitude that the relic’s visitation has had on the people of the Philippines, you really have to know how much of an impact Don Bosco has had here. The word Salesian is engrained in their vocabulary. Just saying ‘Don Bosco’ will gain you an element of respect other tourists will not be granted. This is because so many are touched by the work of the Salesians. In the South Province alone, there are so many different Salesian houses, serving thousands of young and vulnerable people.
Entire families have grown up in the presence Don Bosco’s teachings and his pictures is far easier to find on walls than that of the Pope. In the town of Victorias, Negros Occidental, nearly every influential position in society is held by a Salesian. This is because Don Bosco Technical Institute (DBTI) was the first institution of the Salesians in the whole Philippines and is this year celebrating its 60th anniversary. Therefore, with most of the boys of the town gaining a good education from DBTI and the girls respectively being taught by the FMA Sisters, Victorias is possibly the closest thing you could get to a ‘Salesian Town’.
Short of a visit by Jesus Christ himself, I don’t think the people here would react in the way they have to this visitation.
I was lucky enough to witness the spectacle over a period of about three days, as it arrived in the island’s capital of Bacolod where the official handing-over ceremony took place between the Bishop of Negros, Fr Provincial and the Bishop of Thailand/Cambodia where the relic had come from. After the morning in Bacolod, it travelled via motorcade to Mambucal where I am staying. Being a budding amateur photographer, I was stupid enough to jump on top of one of vehicles in the procession. From here, I had a fantastic view of the entire forty-car, thirty motorcycle spectacle. And which car was I on? Why the one right in front of the relic of course!
An all-night vigil was held in the church once we arrived at Mambucal and it honestly surpassed all my expectations of it.