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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Big House and the Missing Grandma




I'm sure you are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of my emergency trip to Olongapo earlier in the week (or maybe not as I only have 4 followers at the moment.)

Having set off so ridiculously early and been given VERY detailed directions by my friend Zee's father by text message I arrived a few paces short of Zee's house at exactly 0830am. I walked the few paces required to reach the house to find Zee's father frantically waving from the back of his shop towards the road behind me. I turned to see my bus departing the scene and realised he must have thought I was still on the bus and was trying to alert me to get off it.

Our first task now was to locate and then try to persuade Paul's grandma to return back to the house again to live with Paul (16) and Joel (15). I still had no real idea what the problem was or why she had left in the first place having only been there for a week but I did have an idea where she might be found.

We made our way by jeepney (metal bus) to the Triangle area near the local market. Apparently my legs are too long for the local public transportation as an old lady got very frustrated as she tried to manoevre around them as she was getting off the jeep and then turned around and slapped me hard in anger whilst muttering something unintelligible to anyone who was listening. I just carried on talking as if nothing had happened but everyone else seemed as if they were frozen in time as they waited for my reaction. What was I to do? call the police and tell them an 80+ year old woman just assaulted me because my legs were in her way OR....nothing....right!

We walked around the Triangle area followed by curious stares until finally we located Grandma and several other relatives sleeping on some cardboard having been there all night. She didn't seem angry or upset which was the first possible hurdle out of the way. We invited her for coffee to discuss the situation, hoping to lure her away from the various relatives who might also want to relocate to more pleasant accommodation.

This may sound harsh but the reality is that in helping one family or as in this case two former rugby/solvent boys (Paul and Joel) it would be very easy to end up with 20 other people trailing round after us. The tough thing is that most of them do really need help. But its really important to focus on one person/family at a time and not to become overwhelmed by the need. Most of the time we try to help them provide for themselves through livelihood projects but these often fail and are hard to set up. With juveniles longer term support is often required as they complete their education.

During this trip various members of Paul's family asked me what we were going to do for various other members of the family. I found myself asking them how these other people were supporting themselves before we came along, then on obtaining the answer advising them to continue doing that! Obvious really but I did feel like I was a bit umsympathetic at times.

Grandma agreed to accompany us for "coffee" but after we had managed to free her from the loiterers, she changed the destination to "Jollibee" en route. This was quite amusing for me as its like an old lady in England asking to go to Mcdonalds or Burger King instead of a posh coffee shop. Once inside I realised the reason for her request as on giving her 100 pesos (about £1.50) she proceeded to use her Senior Citizens discount to buy several burgers and other items to take out. I was hoping we weren't going to have to grab hold of her as she raced out of the door to distribute the items that clearly were not for her consumption. I wondered if she even remembered the purpose of our suggestion to get "coffee."

Apparently I had underestimated her as she collected her change and passed it straight to me before calmly agreeing to accompany us upstairs to somewhere that I thought would be more peaceful but in reality wasn't due to the unecessarily loud background music.

A week prior when I had originally set them up in the house I ended up inviting 10 of them to lunch at Jollibee thinking it was ok as a one off. Various items from our order were missing and when we queried this with the staff I saw them bickering with each other as to who was going to deal with the discrepancy before handing the problem to a further member of staff who had no idea what the problem was and came to ask us what it was we wanted. After explaining again that items from our original order were missing this member of staff asked for our receipts and began checking everything off by thoroughly searching our tables and then looking at us suspiciously and checking all around the area as if we might have hidden the items. In the end he also gave the matter to someone else who was about to come and check again when I stood up and loudly said "Look we are missing a spaghetti dish and one coke, please can someone just get it for us." Then there was the customary "Ok Ma'am" before he disappeared to get the items. To be honest, it has been known after an exchange like this for further questions to be asked and checks to be done but fortunately on this occasion although I didn't feel good about it, my raised tone was sufficient....in the Philippines the customer isn't always right.

We chatted with Grandma for over an hour and established some ground rules for the new living situation. Honestly, this should've been completed when they first moved in a week ago but it was all such a mad rush and we lost track of where various people were so it was overlooked which was really a big mistake.

It appears the argument had been about money for food as they had run out. We had made a rather drastic miscalculation in relation to this as I had asked one local family how much they spent on food a week and used this to calculate a budget only to be informed by another family that they spent double the amount per day that the first family spent per week! We talked about some of the other issues and arranged some compromise on both sides including a nightly curfew for the boys to stop Grandma worrying about them but an agreement that the boys didn't have to trail round after her all day which is what she had been expecting to "keep them out of trouble."

Now to go and find the boys. We went to the house and surprisingly found them both at home (as we had thought they would be at school and had given them money to get there!)They were actually on vacation for the week. We chatted to them also for over an hour noting that several relatives of Paul's that weren't meant to be living there were hanging around as if waiting for us to leave.

Both myself and Zee detected moments when the boys were being less than truthful about some smaller aspects of how they had spent the household budget. I was expecting to have to deal with this sort of thing as they have come from the street and it will take them time to learn basic things. It was really quite funny as Zee explained to them by doing impressions how they were coming across to us as they blatantly contradicted each other, couldn't remember things they had alledgedly done just hours before and gave extremely vague answers. I wasn't prepared to let this go and knew we had to get to the bottom of it even though it was relatively small amounts of money (100 pesos or £1.50.) Knowing the 2 boys well I played them off against each other until Paul finally admitted that he had gambled some money on a machine and won and he had then used the additional money to buy a cell phone! This explained the nice new phone with camera I had seen lurking in the kitchen area although no one wanted to claim it after we arrived. I pointed out that my cell phone doesn't even have a camera at which point Paul offered to swap!

There were still elements of the story that didn't add up but Paul was beginning to get upset and in the end I asked him "Did you lie because you didn't want me to know you had gambled?" Immediately he answered "yes" and we left it at that and told the boys to get ready as we were going out.

Sometimes you have to give these boys a way out not back them into a corner and I felt we had got as close as we were going to get to the truth. On the street they learn never to tell tales on each other which is one of the things that stays with them if they leave the street as its so deeply ingrained. For this reason outsiders may never really get to the bottom of this type of situation as the boys may be covering for someone who appears to have no connection to the events. We learnt to take what we could get and move on and in comparison to how the boys were when we first met them two years earlier, to be having a conversation like this and getting any type of straight forward answer was really amazing progress.

I also spoke to them about their habit of contacting me in Manila 3 hours away, usually via social networking sites whenever they had problems or issues. I reminded them that they were not 8 years old and needed to learn how to resolve conflict themselves. That if they got upset with each other which inevitably would happen they should go for a walk to calm down then come back, sit down and talk about it. Under no circumstances should they storm out threatening not to come back, at which point the boys pointed at that it was grandma who had done this and I advised them much to their delight that I had informed her that she was not to do this again. This wouldn't normally be appropriate in this culture as they do respect their elders but as a foreigner if I am careful I can sometimes say things that a local person wouldn't be able to. Of course being a foreigner has negative aspects too but this is one of the advantages.

We took the boys to the Christian bookshop and encouraged them to spend some time browsing before buying them the items they selected. Paul wanted a wrist band with a Bible verse on it which was fine but the price had been heavily inflated as the band was also meant to repel mosquitoes to prevent dengue fever...I told him to try and find one without the additional novelty which he agreed to do. (Paul recently spent several weeks in the hospital with dengue fever which is a pretty serious illness.)

Later we accompanied the boys back to see Paul's Grandma to ensure the problem was resolved and that they could all live happily ever after (well at least for 1 year until the house contract expires.) At this point my Britishness came into its own as I loudly said to them all, with friends present of course, "Ok, are we all friends again, no more problems? No need for me to come rushing back to Olongapo any time soon?" There was an embarrassed silence as I pushed Paul's shoulder to get him to admit that actually he did love his Grandma, resulting in a big toothy grin. Then Joel without prompting said that he also loved her so we were all good to go! Phew!

In all seriousness, this family need your prayer as it will be a rocky road and we are not there yet..but the slow progress and enthusiasm for Christian things is a definite encouragement. If you want to see where the boys have come from you can either buy my book or take a look at our charity website "Olongapo Christian Help and Hope"

They're Rugby Boys, Don't You Know? by Natalie Vellacott