After 12 months of planning a unique international art project, which would involve me collaborating with Manila’s garbage-picking and charcoal-making communities, I finally returned to Manila in late February 2015. I had booked one month in which I’d have to find the communities, gain their trust, create the collaborations using charcoal made by the residents, and work out how to return the proceeds from the future exhibition of these collaborations back to the communities, for their benefit. The demolition of Ulingan (in Tondo) in mid-2014 meant that I had lost touch with the charcoal-makers, one of the main communities with which I wished to work.
Through a series of generous contacts, I was invited to visit Gawad Kalinga in the BASECO Compound, a large shantytown area which I’d hoped housed some charcoal-makers.  I was excited to finally visit the community, meet the GK folks, and chat about my project. 
The lovely Thess from GK gave me a lift into the Compound, introduced me to Jessie and some of the generous residents in the community centre, and we spent time chatting about the project and the community in BASECO. I was thrilled that the women sitting with us knew where charcoal was being made! I arranged to return in a few days with my Filipino artist colleague Geloy, to find the charcoal-makers and ask if they’d like to participate in the art project. We left BASECO, and Thess gave me a quick tour of GK Paradise Heights/Smokey Mountain before dropping me home. I had a fantastic, inspiring day full of laughter, ideas and genuine friendship. 
I returned with Geloy a few days later; we met more friendly GK faces at the community centre, this time buzzing with activity, as health/medical students conducted check-ups and treated residents for minor ailments. We set off to the Pasig river and walked along the wall, past the smiling, energetic community, to a single charcoal-pit (ulingan) at the edge of the compound! We met Tito Publito, the friendly owner of the pit, and his lovely wife. After chatting about his charcoal and our plans for the collaborations, Tito Publito smiled and laughed, and we arranged to come back in a few days to create the artworks! 
It was wonderful to see the community enjoying the benefits of the housing, infrastructure + amenities initiated/facilitated by GK in the Compound.  It was also great to have GK’s support for the project, and help in finding the charcoal-makers of BASECO.  In addition, I can trust that the money coming back to GK from this project will be used to really help the community.
I begin collaborating with Tito Publito and the residents near the Ulingan on Thursday 12 March, for a couple of days. Afterwards, I will take artworks we create back to Australia, to prepare them and exhibit them in mid-2015. I am excited by the creative possibilities, and can’t wait to show the wider world how resilient, generous, engaging and creative the charcoal-makers and BASECO residents are! 

Written by Kaff Eine