66 Some estranged family members want to reconnect when they hear their relative’s child is attracting the interest of foreigners and bringing in money. Francine’s siblings wonder why she gets to go to the good school and not them. The answer, of course, is that her father is Australian, and so we feel some connected sense of responsibility. But abandonment by foreign fathers is such a routine story here as to be barely remarked upon. Today is party time. The mothers are dancing with the children and the Jollibee. They are, of course, very good dancers. We watch the mothers put lipstick on their daughters – some as young as eight – and wonder whether this should be understood as preparing them or just as fun. We wish we could relax. Food is served. Nothing is wasted. What the children don’t eat, the mothers carefully pack up and take home. When we first came here, it was the poverty that struck us most. Now, on this return, I wonder if I am no longer capable of being shocked, because I notice not only the things that don’t work but also the things that do. These include the routine help that comes from family members, and the way an unsupported child will be adopted, and loved, by a family that can barely afford to feed its own. It seems strange to say that things might have improved a little, given the generally awful political situation in President Duterte’s Philippines, but we did see some small improvements. One of the main roads through Hadrian’s Extension, which used to be a dirt track, has been concreted. This means houses that used to flood regularly during the monsoon are now dry, at least. The local government has supplied training scholarships in dressmaking, and this has resulted in some women being able to get jobs in factories making clothes – one of the few kinds of employment that does not rely on the sex industry and does not require high-level English-language skills. These incremental improvements have been achieved thanks to a recent captain of the local barangay. A barangay is the base unit of Filipino local politics (the closest word in English would be “ward”). Each barangay typically has a population of about 50,000 to 60,000, and is run by an elected captain who has great power and influence. In some of the places we have visited, the captain has been feared by families on the wrong end of the “war on drugs”. Corruption is present at every level of Filipino politics. But last time around, the barangay in which our families live, Balibago, got a good one. A former local police captain, Rodelio “Tony” Mamac organised the improvements and has also somehow managed to keep the murderous “war on drugs” at bay. With all the other hardships they face, our families are relatively safe when it comes to being shot at by police. In the Philippines, barangay captains can only serve for three terms. Mamac’s final term ended last year. His wife ran – this is a country of political dynasties – but didn’t win. We have yet to see whether his successor, Carmelo F. Lazatin, continues the good work. We are coming back. We hope to cover the midterm elections next year, which will be one of the first tests of whether Duterte remains popular with his people. And we will be back again the next year, and the next. One day, we want to sit down with an adult Kevin, and a reflective and mature Francine, and ask them what they think about the difference we made, and whether we did the right thing. At the party, little Maxine – previously malnourished and always ill, now living in a small apartment and doing well at school – sings us a song of gratitude, and we wish she didn’t feel she had to perform. We are Australians – all understated and laid-back. The Filipinos are nothing if not sentimental. When Maxine sings, the Jollibee brushes away an imaginary tear from his plastic face. M For information about donating, email email@example.com the monthly — vox
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