How can I fit in?

A woman sleeping in Manila’s Miranda Plaza neatly places her shoes outside the imagined entrance to the territory she has designated as her temporary home. Photo: Naanise Mo'unga CLM

A woman sleeping in Manila’s Miranda Plaza neatly places her shoes outside the imagined entrance to the territory she has designated as her temporary home. Photo: Fr Jim Mulroney SSC

"Many of the children sleep during activities, because they have to work at night. Most of the families use drugs. The children talk about this during our chat time. They act as runners for the pushers and are active into the wee hours of the morning,” Naanise Mo’unga said in describing her work as a Columban lay missionary among street people in the parish of Malate in the sprawling city of Manila.

But who am I amidst this chaos?” she asks before faltering in to silence. A tear rolls from one eye. She fumbles for a handkerchief and dabs at her cheek as she chokes on emotion.

When I share about my life with the people on the street, I really see their faces right before my eyes,” she explains. “I see the face of the person I have in mind, feel their pain and frustration. I really want to help and understand - and when I talk, the vision of what is happening to them becomes so clear. I feel…

She is a long way from the life of the 28-year-old computer supervisor in the inventory department of a large general store on the island of ‘Eua in the Kingdom of Tonga where she grew up.

It had been a happy childhood. The fourth of ten children, Mo’unga did well at school and went on to study account keeping and management. She did well in her work and enjoyed her role as a youth leader in the local parish.

But something else intrigued her. Her home was adjacent to the site where the London Missionary Society made its first landing in Tonga around 1800. Three of them were killed. Some defected and others ran away. “Because we lived close to the site, my family had knowledge of the place,” she said, explaining that she and her brothers and sisters often showed visitors around.

While she did not really know much more about the history of the group, the idea of a layperson being a missionary held interest for her, so when a couple of Columbans turned up at her parish talking about the lay missionary vocation, she filled out an inquiry form.

Then surprise, surprise. Returning from work the next day, her mother told her there was a note for her. “I was to present myself at the bishop’s house for an interview. I thought because I had filled out the form, I had better go,” she reminisced.

The Columbans moved fast. A two-year accompaniment programme was organised with two Marist sisters. “My family thought I was going to be a Marist, but I finished my time and decided I would join, although I was still a bit vague about what this Columban stuff was,” she recalled.

“It was my first time to go in an aeroplane. My first time to leave my home in Tonga and, looking back, my first culture shock,” she said. “I was with four Fijian women in the orientation programme. They drank yaqona! Good Tongan girls don’t do that. We only serve the men. They drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes too. Things only men do!

What strange things to get landed with so soon after the excitement of her first plane trip. “But I thought I had to fit in. So I tried the yaqona and even bought two packets of Winfield. I never really took to the yaqona, and discovered that try though I might, I really could not take to the cigarettes. But I still have a drink sometimes!

However, when she arrived on her first assignment in the Philippines she was glad of her experience of trying to fit in. “I knew where the country was on the map, but had nothing to prepare me for the masses of people and the way they lived, and had to live.

Tagalog was a challenge and then to Olongapo. “I had my bit of language, but because of the long American influence in the area, the young people seemed to mostly speak English. Eventually I set up some swap groups. I know my English is broken, but I would teach a bit of English in exchange for Tagalog.

All those experiences of some 14 years ago helped to prepare her for her long years of dedication to the street people of Malate parish. “They already had lots of organisation in the parish,” she explained, “so once again my challenge was how to fit in.

Malate runs an extensive network of social services, ranging from pre-school to adult support groups. There are feeding programmes, prison apostolates and livelihood programmes, including aromatherapy, reflexology, hairdressing, hotel and restaurant management, cooking and food preservation.

Volunteer doctors and dentists run health clinics and lawyers offer legal advice. It is a lot for a new arrival to get their heads around, but Mo’unga says getting to know the people was her first priority. Her days began with the three to five-year-olds, then eight to nine, and finally prep school-age children.

She believes the children are important and her challenge is to encourage them to involve themselves in parish programmes to reap the benefits that are being offered.

Some street people are there by choice,” she explained. “They have homes, but rent them out for some reason. Their children have to learn how to fit into street life, but we can offer them more opportunities.

Malate parish offers study scholarships to those who can demonstrate the ability and desire. It helps with their medical through free pharmaceutical and basic dental and medical services. It has a scout group and other activities to encourage children to involve themselves. It is one way of empowering them to help themselves.

However, street children face a big challenge. If they want to get off the streets, they must go to school, but it is not a simple transition, and Mo’unga believes that those who make the choice have to answer the same question for themselves that she has been struggling with ever since joining the Columban Lay Mission Programme, “How to fit in?”

Columban Fr Jim Mulroney is the former Editor of the ‘Sunday Examiner’ in Hong Kong and now resides at the Columban house in Essendon.

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