Columbans Ireland

Nov 24th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home Views Viewpoints Unlikely encounters show connectedness

Unlikely encounters show connectedness

Email Print PDF
bobbygilmoresscMystery is at the heart of creativity. That and surprise. (Julia Cameron)

It was a hot tropical morning as I set out for a distant hill barrio of Illigan City in Mindanao. Every few miles the jeep conked out. After checking various plugs, connections and a dose of coaxing it started again went another few miles and spluttered to a halt. Again, after another dose of persuasion it started only to break down again. Frustrated, I abandoned it and took to shanks mare. Eventually, I arrived at my destination two hours late. The local people waiting to celebrate the feast of their patron understood as they frequently experience similar travails with transport.

The barrio was settled after the logging company cleared the area of virgin forest that eventually ended up as furniture in Japanese sitting rooms. The owner of the land moved in after the departure of the logging company, registered the property in his name and invited his relatives to move in as his tenants from Cebu to settle the area. Life had been tough for the early settlers. They constructed temporary shacks, cleared the debris left by the loggers and planted survival crops. As their conditions improved they constructed a makeshift chapel, a small school and chose a patron saint. Gradually, others came to join the pioneers. The landlord registered their presence with the local government. He proposed one of his relatives as barrio leader and requested that a teacher be appointed to the school.

Since settlement many basic improvements had taken place. Wells were sunk, the land had become productive, housing had become permanent, a small vacant area a basketball court also used as a meeting point where the people gathered each week to sell and barter their produce. The road into the barrio was just about passable for a weapons carrier that was used to haul needed goods in and produce out to the market in the city. Even now, living conditions were basic. The chance of reaching the city at a time of sudden illness was still slim. Tuberculosis was still prevalent. Health care was patchy if at all existent. Life was precarious and the little cemetery was a constant reminder of that.

After performing my pastoral duties and listening to their needs a breakfast of fried eggs, rice, plantain and vegetables was served. Coffee, grown in the barrio of which they were proud, rounded off the meal. However, in their humble surroundings they were welcoming, enthusiastic and spirited. The simple decoration of the little chapel was witness to their faith and community spirit.

The landlord was a loquacious type. He lorded over his domain. In his boastfulness he informed me that there were minerals in the ground, chromium, zinc and copper. All this I took with a grain of salt and privately dismissed as unfounded exuberance on his part. Little did I realise that future events in another continent would prove my dismissal of such enthusiasm embarrassing.

Accidently, twenty years after my visit to the barrio I happened in the presence of a former British Prime Minister. After evening meetings at Westminster Cathedral in London I frequented an Italian- family-run restaurant in Vauxhall Bridge Road adjacent to Victoria Railway Station. Nearby, there were three theatres. As theatre-goers waited for curtain times on their way from work they took the opportunity to get an evening meal in this restaurant. It was usually full at this time of the evening and one took whatever space assigned. On one particular evening I was given a single seat at a table. As I took my seat I recognised the person across the table as the former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. We greeted each other and shook hands. He was intrigued that this cleric ended up sharing the same table. I was equally taken aback to find myself sitting opposite a British Prime Minister. He recounted that he lived around the corner and when his wife was away he came for his evening meal as the food was good quality and cheap. With years of experience in politics he had little hesitation on checking me out. I told him who I was, where I came from, what I was doing in London and my work experience in the Philippines.

Mentioning the Philippines he talked about the former Prime Minister of nearby Malaysia who annoyed him when he was in conflict with Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, who was threatening to declare independence from Britain. Harold Wilson related that his government had little option other than sanctions if Smith went ahead with a United Declaration of Independence. He realised that sanctions would hurt Rhodesia as it was the largest exporter of chromium in the world among other commodities. Of course, Britain and other manufacturing countries would have to source materials elsewhere. He successfully saw off the Prime Minister of Malaysia with a little unmentionable, strong-armed persuasion. Ian Smith went his way. Harold and Britain had to live with the consequences. It was one of many pleasant encounters with him at this restaurant. Needless to say these were instructive encounters.

Some years later I was sharing my experience of Illigan with another Columban colleague. I recounted the story of the journey to that particular barrio in the hills and the predictions of the owner regarding mineral deposits. We both knew the owner of the property. Well, my colleague informed that I was in for a surprise. According to him the area was exploited for its deposits of chromium and zinc because one of the main sources of the mineral, Rhodesia, was off limits due to sanctions imposed by Harold Wilson's government. What a surprise?

Later on while working in Montego Bay, Jamaica, I received an invitation to a reception for the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who with his wife was visiting Jamaica. This was a man that at independence of Zimbabwe I admired. But since then I had lost my admiration for his autocratic, oppressive rule that bankrupted the country leaving its population destitute and scattered.
But, more was to come. Returning to Ireland in the early 2,000s a lady from what is now Zimbabwe came into the Migrant Rights Centre. Veronica Bough is a tall middle-aged woman who migrated to Ireland from Mugabe's regime. In telling her story, family history and her Irish/African heritage it turned out that she is the second cousin of the former Prime Minister, Ian Smith, who declared Universal Independence bringing Harold Wilson's sanctions on his head and making the barrio landlord a wealthy man. One never knows the extent of one's decisions.

The web of global connectedness has no boundaries. Across time, space and place people and events continually throw up unexpected encounters, connections and mysterious goings on that challenge the smallness of our self-assuredness.
Hannah Ardent wrote, "all people on earth have a common present...every country has become the almost immediate neighbour of every other country, and everyone feels the shock of events which take place at the other end of the globe."

Bobby Gilmore ssc
Missionaries -  we're just trying to match the generosity of those with whom we work and those who support us.

We use cookies to improve our website and your experience when using it. Cookies used for the essential operation of the site have already been set. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

I accept cookies from this site.

EU Cookie Directive Module Information