Archive for March, 2012

Downhill Cycling


A wonderful cover on the Times of India newspaper today / yesterday (depending when you read this) – if you can’t make out the words then I have typed them below………………………..

Watching the sunrise from the top of a hill

Cycling down and enjoying the thrill

Stealing Mangoes from the tree

Taking a road-trip simply to break free

On a hot Sunday afternoon chasing a kite

Diving into a pool in the middle of the night

Dancing at a friends wedding

Proposing at sunset without a ring

Without a map driving off to explore

Life is all this and so much more



First Generation Students


Many Dalit children are left to a life of illiteracy and looking after sheep or goats

Education is the key to unlocking poverty so it is fascinating to observe first hand the struggles and resistance in creating a culture of education in an area where until now there has been very little.  We take education for granted but here in Raichur District the literacy rates are the lowest in Karnataka State.  The impressive Indian Censusof 2011 (perhaps unique in the modern age for technological expertise in such a diverse country indicates that rural literacy rates in Karnataka have increased from 59% in 2001 to 68% in 2011  (with girls only 59% boys 78%).   Here in Raichur District – the literacy rate is still hovering around the 50% mark, which makes the Xavier High School and the Loyola College here so important.  But it is also a challenge educating so many students from families who have always been illiterate, as it is involves changing minds and hearts or parents and grandparents too.

The Jesuit High School - almost entirely for Dalits offers a way out and hope for the future

Today I have been preparing presentations to the students on basic hygiene.  This is very important particularly for our boarding students (400+).  They are all from very poor villages – and as such are used to a different way of life. This can create problems when we have so many living in a small space – the boarding hostel.  They need to live here so that we can ensure they attend classes every day and do not spend time in the fields grazing goats as their parents would ask.  They are all the first ones in their families to go to secondary school.  Many families still  live a subsistence life so it takes a while for them to understand and value the importance of education.  Most of the children are sponsored through excellent charities such as Supporting Dalit Children, but still every family must pay something towards the education  and living costs.  Yesterday morning it was very sad to see a group of children in tears outside the gates, because their parents had not paid their annual fees – after weeks and weeks of promising.  Each pays what they can – for some it is as low as 500 rupees a year (£7 or $10).  I was told that their parents are relying on the Jesuits to be  kind, but they are standing firm.  This is important as all must value their education.  Today most have come and paid what they promised.

Part of my preparations is to teach the children how to use a latrine toilet.  Many of them used to living in the small villages have always gone and squatted in the fields. With 4oo living together in the hostel this proves to be a health hazard but they are frightened of using the commode – so part of my presentation is to show them why this is important. Fr Rohan (the head of the school) suggested I show them the video below by Wilbur Sargunaraj who has been called the first Indian ‘You Tube’ sensation.  From Madurai, Tamil Nadu, he is famous for his music and instructional videos.  Through his songs and his videos he aims to promote cultural intelligence.  I showed the video to the college teachers I am training and they were laughing and cringing! It is true that is not a sophisticated image of India – but I find him very likeable and this video is interesting (as well as funny) because it shows the basic level of education that is needed – which those of us who are urban and literate take for granted.  It is worth noting that the video is meant for us foreigners on how to use an Eastern Latrine.


The murdered Mexican Journalist María Elisabeth Macías Castro

As the Pope visits Mexico it will be interesting to see if he mentions a brave and inspiring woman – Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro who was tortured and beheaded by a drug cartel last September. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (click), she was the first journalist in the world killed for use of social media. It is known that Benedict will speak out about the growing violence and corruption of Mexico’s drug cartels, significantly one of the big cartels has called a ceasefire as an acknowledgement of his presence.  Castro (39), a committed Catholic,  blogged under the name “Laredo Girl,” was found butchered by a roadside monument to Christopher Columbus with two computer keyboards, cables, disks in a seeming macabre montage of here cyber-activity. A large placard stood propped nearby, with a scrawled note that read in part, “I’m here because of my reports…Thank you for your attention, respectfully, Laredo Girl.”  She was reported  by Zenit as one of five Catholics who were killed last year in Mexico for their faith.

According to John Allen of NCR, Maria was a  leader in the Scalabrian Lay Movement,  as well as being a reporter for the regional newspaper “Primera Hora” based in the town of Nuevo Laredo located in northern Mexico close to the U.S./Texas border. She was in favour of using social media to post helpful information for society related to organized crime.  In January last year Pope Benedict called for Catholics to embrace social media, with caution, he said: “To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christians are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them.”

It would seem that Maria could be seen as a powerful example of this – who was brave enough to speak out  and effective enough that she was silenced in a particularly evil way.  There are two paths to sainthood, one a life of outstanding virtue and holiness –  where miracles are required as a sign of the deceased ‘intercessory’ efficacy.  However a second path, which bypasses the need for miracles is available ,  the path of martyrdom – if it can be demonstrated that someone was killed ‘in odium fidei’ i.e. hatred of the faith. I know nothing more about Maria’s life but… could a cause be opened for her? Maybe one day we will see her as the patron saint for bloggers. In a time that seems to be marked by scandals, leaks and cover-ups – the Church needs to be on the front foot more in offering inspiring examples that we can connect with and emulate. And what better day to start the momentum than on the feast of the Anunciation!


No Ambulance, No Doctor but a photographer on hand…….. “He was taken aside and given a key to hold as we felt he had an attack of fits. There was no ambulance around but we gave him some basic first aid.’’ Mahesh (Physio) From Deccan Herald

The news this morning from Bangalore was a sharp contrast from the weekend’s news in England. A young footballer yesterday died on the pitch of a cardiac arrest (click here). In England everybody has been relieved to see Fabrice Muamba begin his recovery, with the incongruous sight of Premiership footballers calling people to prayer. Here in India the family of Venkatesh Dhanraj are mourning and stunned that he died so suddenly and with no medical facilities to resuscitate him. His father said “After he collapsed on the ground, I knew something was wrong. The referee noticed it and called for medical attention. But, I saw no one. Forget an ambulance, it’s a luxury for football players in Bangalore, there was no stretcher and no doctor.” The league has been suspended with the Karnataka State Football Association accusing Bangalore District of breaking rules on medical provision. Shockingly it is the second death at the stadium in 8 years, after the Brazilian striker Cristiano Junior. Perspective is so often lost with sport…. but these tragedies out it right back into perspective. I was reading Alex Ferguson praising the rapid reaction of the medical staff at the Tottenham / Bolton game where Muamba collapsed. Money is clearly the difference.

the call to prayer……

Unfortunately not all medically trained understand their work as vocation but more as a career. Fr Eric the Jesuit director here in Manvi trapped a nerve in his leg two days ago. In great pain he rushed to the nearest hospital in Raichur (80kms away) and the doctor after a cursory inspection suggested an operation which would cost 50,000Rupees ($700). This seemed ridiculous so Eric went to Mangalore (200kms away) to the Catholic Hospital where his sister works – he had an MRI scan for 2000 rupees and was discharged after the nerve had slipped back in to place. As long as unscrupulous doctors are just working to get as much money as quickly as possible then the idea of public service takes a backseat. This is why an education system that inculcates the values of service, especially for the least is so important and the only way to transform a country. Two of the Dalit children here told me that their dream is to become doctors…. I hope they make it and remember the love and care they have experienced here at the Xavier High School in Manvi.

India Shining


A wonderful welcome... I wonder if I get to keep the poster?Sorry for the radio silence…. I arrived in India about 5 days ago and expected a few days to get my feet in Bangalore before heading off to the remote and rural district of Raichur. However nothing every goes as planned!  Fr Eric SJ  the director of the school for Dalits where I am staying very kindly met me at the airport and I was whisked off on overnight sleeper bus to Manci, Raichur.  Raichur is the most underdeveloped district in the Western Indian State of Karnataka – a literacy rate of 57%. Here electricity is intermittent and web speeds slow, so no videos for a while! But I have eventually got set up and settled in … so apologies to those waiting for a message!.

Wow what a welcome!  It is a dream come true to return here 6 years after my last visit with a group from Madrid and 9 years after my first visit.  Things have changed…. Manvi (population of 30,000) now has a bank!!  When we arrived 9 years ago – I remember walking around with 2 Australian Teachers who were with me and it felt like we were astronauts the way the local looked at us!  I even remember turning around at one point and seeing 50 children follow us, pied-piper like, copying our every move.  I was on regency as a Jesuit (before ordination) working at Wimbledon College.  It was very inspiring to see the passion and the commitment the Jesuits had for educating the children who were grazing goats and cows in the fields.  As Untouchables they were despised, illiterate and condemned to a life of grinding poverty.

From goatherding to public speaking. Fr Eric, Fr Rohan (HM), me and Fr Maxim in the background.

Back then I remember Fr Eric driving me to some fields which he had purchased and telling me about his dreams. Well what a difference – now there is a kindergarten, primary school and high school with 1400 students.  As well as  the Jesuit House, two hostels accommodating 400 students and a lake full of fish (inspired by a visit to a Trout Farm in North Wales!  It is wonderful to be here and a testament to so many generous donations from Wimbledon, Hertfordshire (click here), Madrid,  Slovakia, Germany and even my own family!

What is truly wonderful is how happy these ‘untouchable’ children are. They love being here! Especially the ‘boarders’.  On Sat we inauguarated the Manvi Film Club, 500 sitting under the stars, nice dark skies here!, as we projected the Pixar Classic ‘UP’ onto one of the school walls.  The wonderful reaction from the children, cheering, booing, laughing is a precious memory.  To help improve their English I announced a prize for the best film review – no longer than 200 words. Obviously misunderstood some of the students have written a review plus a list of 200 words taken from the film!

The next part of the adventure is the building of the First University for Dalits…. Again progess is impressive. Saturday was a historic day …. as well as Sachin Tendulkar scorings his hundredth century in International Cricket…. nice to watch it with the Jesuits here and kind of the Little Master to wait until I had arrived.  As well as the cricket, the Loyola College name was painted on the new building.  As you can see below this is no small affair.  It is amazing  to see some of the poorest despise children getting the chance to get a university degree….. the first Dalit University in the country! When all is finished there I have been told there will be over 4000 students on site, mainly Hindus, with a large minority of Christians, and the vast majority so called untouchables…


So I have to leave the Philippines after a wonderful rich six months.  I would have liked to stay longer… but it is always good to leave  somewhere wanting more!!  I think it might be a joy of the Jesuit vocation – in the last 10 months I have lived in London, Tanzania, The Outer Hebrides and the Philippines and have been sad to leave all these places. Anyway I am on my way to India for three months and am excited about the prospect of visiting Fr Eric in Manvi and seeing how the school for ‘untouchables’ has developed over that last 6 years (since I lasted visited).  All the experiences give a sense of how magnificent the universal church is …. and how privileged we are to be able to live and be inserted into the local communities.  In Manila I had a strong sense of what an ex-pat bubble most of the foreigners lived in. They couldn’t believe it when I told them of living in the shanty towns, mountain villages, and leper colony islands!! And in each place receiving a beautiful welcome, eating and sleeping in the peoples homes, sharing a little of their joys and worries.

So to summarize a few thoughts on my time here.

Fr Rentax and the Sisters in Cebu… Joy!

1) Philippines is the friendliest country I have visited.  Everywhere smiles, wether it be children playing in th estreets, or pedicab drivers, or even soldiers and police. Big grins, obvious delight when you share greetings, unparalleled glee when you share a karaoke song, or pull a ‘Mr Bean’ face.  And this isn’t just me getting carried away. A recent survey by HSBC of expats living in 31 countries listed Philippines as top in feeling welcome at work and second in social life, work-life balance, and making friends. It is no coincidence that the Philippines is the text capital of the world.

2) A ‘Catholic’ Country more sacramentalised than evangelized. This is an intriguing comment I read in a report written by the Philippine Bishops conference.  Signs of devotion are everywhere – masses in the shopping walls, the black nazarene, the santa nino, longest Christmas season in the world…. but there is still a question about how much the ‘Gospel Values’ have penetrated day to day life.  For me the biggest sign of these would be corruption and graft, a disappointing political class (many educated by the Jesuits),  a certain turbo-consumerism manifested in an incredible array of shopping malls and the popularity of what I would refer to as ‘feudal’ day time TV shows (where a big-time host dishes out cash prizes whilst humiliating many guests).  What is the solution?  Maybe a reform of the clergy could be a good starting point – someone told me that some priest are being leftbehind by a better-educated laity, and there persists the stereotype of the lazy priest – mahjong before mass instead of preparing a good homily and cockfighting after mass…..

3) Craziest Names …  There is an interesting culture of names.  With large familes – kids are often given nicknames at a young age which stick. So the president is Ninoy, the Jesuit in charge of the Ateneo is Jet.  It is not unusual to be invited for dinner and find out that the Guy called ‘Bong’ is actually the CEO of a large company. Or to be in a meeting with a guy, obviously rich and powerful, dressed in suit who introduces himself as ‘Baby’ with a big grin on his face…..

4) Social strength – Power of the Family and Barkada.  The way people look after each other and families care for each other is impressive … including the ‘barkada’ …. the friendship group. There is a balancing act here – as too much social pressure can be stifling and have its dark side. At first it was puzzling to see how young people were prepared to sacrifice personal dreams for the sake of the family – particular in terms of educational goals. it is not ideal – but what is impressive is the desire to look  after each other. It was’t unusual to be sitting with a family and have one or two children from the local area wander in, join the table and be fed no questions asked!  The phenomenon of OFW (Overseas foreign workers) is honoured at a level I have not seen elsewhere.  They even have their own dedicated lanes and lounges at the airport. It is easy to see why they are valued – the huge amount of remittances they send back keeps the country afloat!   From a western perspective I have a growing feeling that the social isolation and fragmentation that  is not worth our promotion of  a culture of hyper-individualism. The Philippines is now the only country in the world where divorce is illegal (although unfortunately annulments are too expensive and out of reach for many).

5)Disaster Prone but not yet Disaster Resiliant.  Recently reported as the most disaster prone in South East Asia - whilst I have been here there have been two major typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, flooding…. The response from ‘civil society’ is very impressive – a generous and rich diaspora, dedicated volunteers, often coordinated by the church. But the real question has to be why are the structures not in place on a local and national political level….another lamentable example of corrupt politicians at a local and national level.  Of course a mitigating factor is that we live at a time where the urban populations is out stripping the rural population for the first time all over the world. I think this urban migration is deadly – for quality of life but also it is those in the shanty towns hit the hardest when the typhoon sweeps in.

All in all I will miss this wonderful country!

There is a Filipino tradition of showing respect by raising the back of anothers hand and placing it on your forehead is called ‘Mano Po’ here. And it is very charming – once you get used to it.  When people find out you are a priest (the Jesuits very rarely wear clerical dress here) – they usually come and do mano po!  I was in a restaurant a month back and halfway through the meal the waitress asked if I was a priest having overheard my friends call me father – when I replied yes, ‘Mano po’ went on – quickly followed by the other waiters and even the chef came out!
Another surprising ‘mano-po’ moment was when I had knee surgery six weeks ago. As I was lying on the (undersized) trolley read to be wheeled into to the theater both surgeons came up to ask me for Mano Po.  Lying awkwardly on the trolley in my surgical gown, with a drip hanging out of my arm, I flapped my arms about giving ‘Mano po’.  Then the lead surgeon also asked me for a  blessing at which stage the machine started beeoing alarmingly – indicating my blood pressure had shot up to 200!!  I think behind my smiles I was quite unsettled that I was being asked to give him a blessing – surely the hospitals chaplain should have been their blessing me!
I think it is a beautiful tradition – and you often see the youngest in the family when they arrive acknowledging their grandparents and parents in such a fashion.  I think they maybe horrified if they saw how so many old people are treated in the West.  When staying with families I have often praised how strong the family is here in the Philippines but quite often although they agree – they also are quick to point that there can be a dark side too.  Too much pressure at times? Too much respect for certain authority? Perhaps…..
It is fascinating to see how high up the Power Distance Index the Philippines lies.  Developed by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede this basically measures how much a country respects authority and values hirearchies. The Philippines has the 4th highest power distance index in the world at 94. Thats suprisingly higher than China (88) and many Arab countries (80)…. the UK (35) is well down.  Now to be fair there are many countries without a score so it is not yet a universal measure, but still quite revealing. (Top of the List = Malaysia, Bottom = Austria)
So how does that translate into behaviour? according to in a high power distance cultures the following may be observed:

. Those in authority openly demonstrate their rank.
. Subordinates are not given important work and expect clear guidance from above.
. Subordinates are expected to take the blame for things going wrong.
. The relationship between boss and subordinate is rarely close/personal.
. Politics is prone to totalitarianism.
. Class divisions within society are accepted.

So you can see how this could become dangerous in a strongly Catholic country like the Philippines.  It is precisely when the Church allows a clerical culture to thrive that people are attracted to church for the wrong reasons, for status rather than service.  To be fair among the Jesuits I have seen very little of this. Before I arrived I heard that some of the Bishops have a reputation of being prince-bishops but I have to say that each of the Bishops I have met have been very impressive. Archbishop Tagle – the new Archbishop of Manila, who works closely with the Jesuits here, especially in media work (click link) is talked of by some as a possible candidate to be the first Asian Pope.  I will certainly miss ‘Mano Po’ when I leave but I won’t miss being called ‘Father’ all the time…..


Is God Silent?


Wow – I have just finished reading Shusaku Endo‘s historical novel Silence.  I know that the story will stay with me for a long time. Powerful and haunting. I strongly recommend it as a good Lenten read.

Its main theme is the silence of God in the face of the terrible suffering of Japanese Christians in the face of a brutal persecution by their own government. However perhaps this is misleading. Without wishing to spoil the book,  if you read it carefully it seems that God is not silent – the main character having a few mystical experiences in which God’s presence, encouragement and love have a deep effect on him. So silent or not – maybe the question should be : Do we have the ears to be able to listen and recognise the divine – or are we’ God-deaf?’   In this way it reminds me of another excellent book I read a long time ago – Touching the Void by Joe Simpson.

Cover of "Touching the Void"

Cover of Touching the Void

Like Silence this is also a true story, about a famous British Mountain Climber. Climbing with a friend in a remote part of the Andes – Simpson broke his leg – a almost fatal development in such a remote and harsh place. Needing to descend quickly with bad weather closing in and daylight fading  Simpson’s friend inadvertently lowered him off a cliff.  He could not see or hear Simpson; he could only feel that Simpson had all his weight on the rope. Simpson could not climb up the rope, and his friend could not pull him back up. It looked like they would both die so his friend had an excruciating ethical dilemma –  in the end he has to cut the rope in order to save his own life whilst almost certainly sending his friend to his death.  Simpson plummeted down the cliff and into a deep crevasse but amazingly survived – and having been given up for dead – he crawled back to base camp to arrive just as his friend was burning his clothes and getting ready to depart.

What intrigued me most about this book was that first night that Simpson spent on the ledge in the crevasse.  Staring death in the face Simpson said he touched the void that night – God seemed silent or indifferent and this experience became the basis of his atheism. It might seem to be incredibly presumptuous to disagree with this interpretation. Of course – Only Simpson was there on that terrible night. But by writing a book about it I think he allows us to share his experience in an intense and intimate way.  In his absorbing account of the subsequent events, it is clear that there are two voices in his head.  One telling him to give up – lie down – and let exhaustion and sleep takeover. But there is another voice that keeps urging him on – telling him to get up. maybe that was the voice of God – whether acknowledged or not. Voices of consolation and desolation, voices of death and life.

Both books are rated as classics – Silence in Japanese literature, Touching the Void in Mountain Literature.  A word of caution for Martin Scorsese who is working on a film version of Silence.  I think the book Touching the Void  is much better that the subsequent film was.

…… Of course Scorsese reads this blog!!


Doing the Parish Rounds will never quite seem the same again...

One of my abiding memories of my time in Culion was staying overnight with a family in the remote village of TabukTabuk.  On the west of the island many of the villages are populated by subsistence fishermen, taking their sustenance from the West Philippine Sea – or is the South China Sea…….. and therein lies a tale.  As I was enjoying fresh coconut milk, and squinting at the waves breaking on a distant reef, it was difficult to imagine that this stretch of water is tipped by some to be the possible starting point of the next global war.  How could this tropical bliss become a hellish theater of war?   The nagging thought only got stronger later in the day when on the way back to the Jesuit Community the boatman kindly detoured at my request.  I spent an amazing 30 minutes snorkeling and feeding a beautiful array of fish on a reef that was rich was life. The nagging thought came because this was an artificial reef created by a Japanese War Ship.

There are many wrecks in the seas around Culion from the Second World War — and ‘wreck diving’ has become a popular tourist attraction.  I suppose the nagging thought was also partly due to my working my way through HBO’s ‘Pacific’ the last couple of weeks which brilliantly portrays the intensity & brutality of the Pacific War.  It seemed the best place to watch it with the added impetus that my grandfather was awarded the Burma Star for fighting in the campaign – something he would never talk about, obviously too painful an experience to tell his wide-eyed grandsons but it was clear that he had bitter memories of the Japanese. and would get angry when he saw Japanese cars on the streets of Liverpool.

The South China Sea

Image via Wikipedia

But surely that is all in the past – and these islands have returned to a tropical bliss…. right?  Well it would be foolish to be too complacent. This sea appears to be one of the more disputed ‘territories’ on the planet and it is the rise of China that is getting everyone jittery.  In January the Philippines announced that it wants to “maximise” its mutual defence treaty with the United States, with more joint exercises, and more American soldiers rotating through. Reinforcing Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Pacific – the reaction in the Chinese press was shrill calling for sanctions against the Philippines. In December Beijing had ignored Manila’s protest about the incursion of three Chinese vessels in what it calls the “West Philippine Sea”.  An old Jesuit told me that these spats were quite common.

But complacency is not in order here – according to the Economist the stakes are high, because of the enormous economic significance of this disputed sea. It accounts for as much as one-tenth of the fishing catch landed globally; around half the tonnage of intercontinental trade in commercial goods passes through; and a potential treasure chest of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) that China, anxious about the vulnerability of its own supplies, sees as its own (Banyan Feb 4th). With both the Philippines and Vietnam intending to start extracting oil things might more from diplomacy to harassment.  So the chances are that America, with its mighty navy and abiding interest in the freedom of navigation and commerce, and China which its rapidly developing its Navy - recently floating a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier and soon to finish building its first.

Will the waters of the South China (West Philippine Sea) lead to a maritime cold war? Or more aptly a clammy war? Or – God forbid – something worse.  Who knows? …. but it is certainly a sobering thought for Lent.  The potential for man to destroy his paradise.  I suppose that the wisdom of Lent is to remember our fragility and our mortality – if only more people took Lenten renewal more seriously.

Maybe I’ll be less gloomy by the time we get to Easter  :)


P.S.  This news came on line 12hrs after I finished the blog entry :

China hits out at ‘troublemaker’ Manila in maritime row  :  BBC News Click Here 





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