The other day, when I ventured out and really saw my surroundings, I glimpsed a “lot for sale” signage on a gate along the highway not far from the place I’ve been staying. The gate opened eastward to a long-ish bounded driveway lined on either side with mature mahogany trees. The incredibly beautiful sight stayed in my mind making me forget for a while troubles I’ve been preoccupied with lately. I suddenly remembered my dream of retiring to a place, far from the madding crowd, in the countryside. The lot, about 2,000 sq.m., opens up to farmland as far as the eyes can see. Beyond and toward it’s left are the provincial hills. To the right is the Cordillera mountain range and on one of it’s peak are the radars (and facing that on it’s other side would be, I know, Loakan airport- ha!). It’s an incredible piece of property. And I desire it. Have I already found my “retirement home’? If it is, it would truly be a return “home”, the place of my origins and happy childhood memories; funny as well because I had set my sight on far away out of reach places. If so, I’d say my dear grandparents have finally heard my prayer.
My friend, Hani Al- Moliya, a young refugee from Syria who fled clutching his high school diploma and who is now studying in Canada said: Home is a place where I can find myself.
There are hundreds of ways of approaching the idea of home. But a lot of our thinking about home comes back to the idea of belonging. That place might be a country, or it might be a specific town, or a particular street, or a building on that street — even a room in that building. It might be a person or people — family or parents. Or it might be the magic mixture of people and place.
So if, at last, I was to come to some sort of definition of “home”, I would offer you this: Home is a place of compassionate community. It is a place where the act of compassion benefits the receiver but also enriches the giver.
– The Search for Home in Times of War and Peace, Melissa Fleming, UNHCR
Today, a Sunday, I think I now understand why God had to become human. I think it’s also to impart credibility to the words “I, God, understand”. For, in the limited confines of the human mind, only those who’ve experienced, say, human pain and suffering, truly understand those undergoing the same and so are able to respond appropriately to others. God-made-man understands the human situation. Seeking Him, the image that comes to my mind is Him in the dark Garden of Gethsemane sweating blood in anticipation of what was to come. Still, He prayed for strength, endurance, and faithfulness to tbat mysterious “home” as symbolized in the manger and it’s environs where this world first saw Him and the cross on which His earthly life ended. I earnestly pray today for the same strength, endurance, and faithfulness.
Dahil sa ‘yo ako’y matapang
Dahil sa ‘yo ako’y lalaban
That morning I got to see a big boat built, I also got floored by villagers’, now in their sixties, incredible accounts of survival during the tsunami in 1976.
A few minutes after midnight on 17 August 1976, a violent earthquake (magnitude 8.2) originating beneath Moro Gulf spawned a tsunami that affected 700 km of coastline bordering Moro Gulf. Residents in those areas experienced what seemed to be the longest thirty minutes of their lives.
…common observation was a loud roaring that preceded the arrival of the waves, a loud sound that kept getting closer… While it is clear that the sound was coming from the incoming waves, it was not clear what was specifically causing the sound.
“It seemed like the sea was moaning. It was frightening, but we didn’t know why until it was too late,” recalled one woman.
Estimates of wave heights had to be based on qualitative descriptions of the waves being as tall as a coconut tree, a two storey house, twice a man’s height, etc. or had to be deduced from photographs of damaged structures.
“Then we saw this wave…it came up way above our house,” one villager said.
The sequence of events then was as follows. A shock violent enough to awaken coastal residents and make standing or walking difficult. A strong, approaching sound different from familiar sea sounds, a frightening sound variedly described as cascading rain, rumbling of many trucks, etc. Arrival of waves within minutes, preceded by an unusually deep recession of the sea. Two or three waves following the first.
A description of the waves would be incomplete without the listing of their effects… A bore rushing up a river in Pagadian damaged a bridge… Inland fishponds were either flooded or emptied of water. Partially concrete houses, schools, public building, factories, etc. were reduced to a few concrete slabs, wooden stumps, and twisted steel… Against such fury what chance did frail makeshift homes have?
Deaths were caused by drowning. With the collapse of their homes around midnight, the victims found themselves in dark, turbulent waters. Those who survived managed to do so because their grip on something firm prevented their being swept out to the open seas… One father had clung to a tree and his children in turn clung to him. When the waved receded, he was all alone. This was a tale that was repeated many times over. While swimming may be as natural as breathing to sea dwellers, in Pagadian the tsunami had churned the waters and slum sediments into a batter of mud that choked victims.
“Just seconds before the wave slammed toward land, my mother realized it was a tidal wave and shouted at us to hold onto anything firm,” said another woman who was a teenager back then. She recalled holding to a tree. She and her family were among the lucky ones who went under the waters of the tsunami and survived with only cuts and bruises. Their house, like the others on the coast, which was a typical hut put up by artisanal fisherfolks was destroyed though and their belongings taken by the sea.
They remembered the first wave of the tsunami going inland as far as the present-day main road which if I were to walk to it from the beach on my normal pace would take me around forty-five minutes. “That far. Wow,” said the head of my host organization. They too didn’t know about this story. After the meeting, we stopped by the intersection to the main road to see the marker. The 1976 event, according to reports, left 80,000 dead or missing, 10,000 injured, and 90,000 homeless. The first ever recorded earthquake in the area was in 1897, and thereafter with roughly 16 year interval up to 1976.
The hairs on my arms stood on ends. If I were to put on a special pair of looking glasses, like night vision goggles, how many dead people roaming would I see in our midst? Or, are they like Mad Hatter and his friends, after playing a joke on Time, locked in a forever tea time? forever tsunami?
The next day in the adjoining village, a similar story was recounted, although said event happened much recently. Apparently typhoon Sendong/Washi in 2011 had also spawned a tsunami that threw native boats inland as far as onto the hills on the village border, destroyed the village water system, rice fields, and fishponds. It took a couple of days for sea water to recede. At the time, however, much thanks to broadcast media, the nation was riveted to Cagayan de Oro where it seemed the only place in Mindanao adversely affected by the storm. It was only after three days that aid, the first and last, came to the village.
“So what did you do in those three days?” I asked.
“Nagtulungan kami,” they said. “Kung anong meron ang bawat isa. Bigas, rootcrops, biscuits. Pinagamit sa tao ang may-ari ng tubig ang kanilang bombahan.”
UN Volunteers just recently launched it’s #VolunteersActFirstHereEverywhere campaign in time for the International Day of Volunteers on December 5. According to the campaign, in the time government and other agencies are getting their acts together, volunteers, within or outside the village or community, are often, if not always, the first ones to respond in times of crisis and emergencies. A neighbor sharing food as what happened in that isolated village falls within the UNV definition of volunteer. While there’s no exact Filipino native word for volunteer which is a relatively modern introduction in the country bayanihan would be it’s nearest equivalent.
Volunteers and volunteerism is the reason communities make it through the crucial period in times of crises until outside help gets through. Neighbors helping neighbors, with food, first aid in the form of indigenous knowledge, water ration from a privately-owned source, tools to clear away debris, etc. What’s amazing is that the instinct to preserve life doesn’t stop with oneself and kin but extends to members of the community.
Duty-bearers nonetheless are accountable and responsible in the continuing education of tsunami-prone communities. I couldn’t help comment during my visit on the placement of the tsunami warning board. It says a lot about the residents’ knowledge hence attitude toward the hazard relative to their villages: the concern is put on the back burner.
Late last month, DSWD reported on Big Waves due to ITCZ and LPA in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi that affected seven villages and displacement of hundreds. How big were the big waves wasn’t in the report, a crucial information needed by responders in order to act appropriately. Let’s tell things as they are especially with natural disasters.
Next, have a plan of risk reduction measures. Then, fund the plan. Localities usually have plans that mostly remain plans accumulating dust and molds on shelves simply because they’re not funded. In this age of crowd-funding and bitcoins, localities need to go beyond the IRA mindset into that of the successful salesman or woman and “sell” the plans to donors and investors out there. Tailor fit the sell. If the plan is for an early warning system ie. communication equipment, monitoring tools like drones, and such then sell the plan to people or companies who are into funding that sort of schemes. If the plan is to relocate families on protected coastlines then do some research about it and recommend policy changes to convince land managers and owners with. The bottomline is, that tsunami-warning sign board will not in itself reduce the risks. Community education will. A well-backed plan will. Community action will.
Quoted texts, source: Moro Gulf Tsunami of 17 August 1976, Badillo, Victor L., S.J. & Astilla, Zinnia C., 1978, Manila Observatory
I was on my last leg of community research, down to just two villages. We had begun the countdown earlier as a fun way to keep track of our increasingly blurred days as well as to keep our energy levels up. On this day after having set up a makeshift meeting place – at the beach – and while waiting for every one of the discussion participants to arrive I went off to the shore for a walk. It was one of those picturesque summer mornings by the sea with a bit of kindly wind.
I haven’t gone far when I heard construction sounds from a coven of trees and turning I made out a boat being built. A huge boat. The kind that’s taken far out to sea. I’ve seen small boats built, bancas, but not the big ones. I got very excited. I felt like a child who’d glimpsed a giant gingerbread house and coveted it and caused a fit if withheld. But, much as I wanted I couldn’t just go to it on my own. There was in these villages, still, the unwritten rule of Christians not “crossing the border” to the Muslims side and vice versa. There’s a protocol to follow if either side wants to talk or visit the other. I wasn’t sure whose side that coven of trees was on. But, fine. I’m too smart to risk a bullet flying in from nowhere to my precious leg. I immediately walked back and sought out the head of my host organization. I asked if he could accompany me to the construction site. He laughed and then obliged.
I think I flew rather than walked to the site and so reached it way ahead of my companion. “Hello,” I said by way of general greeting to the men. They were migrante (Visayas), meaning, they were, according to their weird system of identification, on this side. I projected my warmest of smiles. Peace! The man nearest me, who’d looked surprised at my sudden and albeit unexpected appearance – a midget next to the hull – paused from sanding the boat. “Hello,” he said back. Then his friendly eyes averted to my companion who was now at my side. The head of my host organization in his usual affable manner greeted the men in the Bisaya dialect. The usual pleasantries ensued. Then I whispered to him to ask things about the boat– the wood, size, how do they ever make it float, is boat building their trade, how long have they been building boats, etcetera.
By the time my companion and I walked back, my curiosity satiated, I looked like a Christmas tree brightly lit from within. It felt like I’d just gotten back from a time travel only that this was real or remnants of when these parts were known in the region for their maritime prowess. Like, did we know that there was the Kingdom of Uranen peopled by the Iranun, one of the Moro tribes, who were primarily seafarers?
The ‘Filipino nation’ is comprised of distinct ethnic and cultural groups each one having contributed toward the formation of the whole. But the Moro people hindi sila nabanggit o napagusapan nang husto in Philippine history books and as a result wala sila ngayon sa ating collective consciousness. These “lost” people are the missing link in the story of Filipino nationhood. Their story is what’s missing in the pages of Philippine history. Same for the many other “cultural minorities” in the country. Their stories, if there are, like those of the Igorots of the Cordilleras, are told only in passing (like Lapu Lapu’s) and belatedly outside of Philippine history books
Hence the misconceptions about these people. The Maranaos, for example, whose pride or maratabat is generally perceived by others as a negative trait. Where or how did that perception come about? Because is there ever a self-respecting person without pride? Also, think, what if it’s the British royal family that were made irrelevant by the British public how would the family members feel? What they’d feel is the same for the Moro royal houses or families who once upon a time in this Islands were independent rulers of kingdoms.
Maratabat then wells up from something much deeper and far back, to centuries of debasement, having been betrayed, ignored, effaced, forgotten. What sort of people are formed from such experiences? one wonders. Imagine the married couple who woke up one morning and fought over a tube of toothpaste that one of them has forgotten to cap the night before, with the fight ending in divorce. Was it about the toothpaste? Obviously not. The toothpaste was just the opening, the final crack from which years of unresolved issues and repression exploded in one violent burst.
We need to re-engineer the way we narrate about the Filipino nation; who make up the Filipino nation; whose voice gets heard; whose story is told.
On the twelfth day of Christmas
the Titans gave to me.
Twelve dead friends,
Eleven dead friends,
Ten dead friends,
Nine dead friends,
Eight dead friends,
Seven dead friends,
Six dead friends,
Four dead friends,
Three dead friends,
Two dead friends,
And a teammate smashed against
I think the reason why Halloween, at least it’s commercialized version, is not a somber affair (isn’t it, reminiscing your dead especially when they went out like Horacio Castillo III?) is because of what comes afterward the much anticipated Christmas time. Businesses would not want to spoil the momentum of the holiday spirit which in the Philippines starts as early as the first day of September and thanks to broadcast media’s synchronized Countdown to Christmas people are cheered on toward the finish line that is spending (and funny that while buyers spend, media people acquire). Children, why them, are dressed up in fancy costumes that get fancier and fancier by the year and sent trick-or-treat-ing at doors. Yes, why children? Why don’t the adults who like in the case of Atio Castillo are complicit and deserving of doors going slam! at their faces– no trick nor treat for you! Children because of their vulnerabilities and limitations are much more easily dismissed hence end up the most hurt. Or, dead. This institutionalized behavior, of not really understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing, is the real horror, much more horrific than what some of us relate the term with ie. ghosts and supernatural beings.
The New York Times recently ran a story on the institutionalized children of Tuam (pronounced Chewm) in Ireland who went missing and found though it was much later and only due to serendipitious events. While it looks like justice is finally served the children, their collective story of deprived and destroyed childhoods is so stunning that there simply is no word to describe what overzealous adults, believing they’re in the service of good, are capable of.
Given the misogyny, morality, and economics that informed the public debate of the time — when a pregnancy out of wedlock could threaten a family’s plans for land inheritance, and even confer dishonor upon a local pastor — imagine that naïve young woman from the country: impregnated by a man, sometimes a relative, who would assume little of the shame and none of the responsibility. She might flee to England, or pretend that the newborn was a married sister’s — or be shipped to the dreaded Tuam home, run by a religious order with French roots called the Congregation of Sisters of Bon Secours.
the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a massive building the color of storm clouds, a way station for 50 single mothers and 125 children born out of wedlock… The building opened in 1846 as a workhouse, but almost immediately it began receiving victims of the Great Hunger… The government repurposed the building to be among the institutions intended as ports of salvation where disgraced women might be redeemed. These state-financed homes were invariably managed by a Catholic order, in keeping with the hand-in-glove relationship between the dominant church and the fledgling state.
The years passed. Galway County moved forward with plans to demolish the home and build subsidized housing. And the memories of hobnailed pitter-patter faded, replaced by the faint sounds of children outracing the home baby ghosts that inhabited the property at night.
Catherine still wonders what led her to the story of the mother and baby home. Chance, perhaps, or distant memories of the little girl she once teased. Despite her bone-deep modesty, there are even times when she feels chosen.
One day she copied a modern map of Tuam on tracing paper and placed it over a town map from 1890.
And there it was, in the cartographic details from another time: A tank for the home’s old septic system sat precisely where the two boys had made their ghastly discovery. It was part of the Victorian-era system’s warren of tunnels and chambers, all of which had been disconnected in the late 1930s.
Did this mean, then, that the two lads had stumbled upon the bones of home babies? Buried in an old sewage area?
“I couldn’t understand it,” Catherine said. “The horror of the idea.”
She kept digging, eventually paying for another spreadsheet that listed the names, ages, and death dates of all the “illegitimate” children who had died in the home during its 36-year existence.
The sobering final tally: 796.
– The Lost Children of Tuam, Dan Barry, The New York Times
The blinding belief that gave way to such horror ie. you do not conform therefore you are evil and therefore will be reformed into my view of good has been carried over to present times and underpins much of human suffering today. Terrorism. Physical dislocation. Social, economic, and political displacement. And it goes both ways ie. majority on the minority, minority on the majority, as well as, within either the majority or minority.
This century saw the rise of minorities who like the restless ghosts of the children of Tuam have had enough of being talked down, labelled, ostracized, hidden, regulated, threatened, exterminated on the first opportunity. It’s not guns or regulations that would settle the situation, as we have repeatedly seen, but rather, basic human respect manifested for example by consistently delivering on promises and allowing the other to also work at the chance of a happy and satisfying life. The other choice is to remain living from horror to horror in a suspended bubble of forever Halloween.
One of the more frequently-pronounced words among development workers is the term ‘unpack’ as in “we need to unpack the human rights normative framework” or “we need to unpack the right to development for various groups”. The term came to mind as I spoke to more and more displaced persons of Marawi City. I had put my research work on hold for a few days in order to help my host organization, needing all the extra hands it can get, in emergency response work. My task was to document the whole humanitarian response activities. This entailed doing a sample of interviews with beneficiaries.
Listening to their stories, women and older children especially, I realized that the label ‘IDP’ or ‘evacuee’ bakwit is a very much generalized description much like saying ‘human’ which supposes that what is said of one human or what is true for one, whatever the gender and circumstance, is true for all (hence prompting for the one-size-fits-all solution). This is a hugely mistaken view.
What image do most people see on hearing ‘evacuee’ or ‘IDP’? I would guess fleeing persons. Yes, that. What about the image of family members getting separated as they are fleeing? That I don’t suppose is something readily-perceived by most people. Most people only see in their minds say a boat full of people on the run, after all that’s what most people see on telly, each person in the boat subsumed into only one face: refugee, IDP, evacuee, bakwit. Collective terms like ‘victims’, ‘survivors’, and ‘IDPs’ do not latch on to human imagination as instantly or deeply perhaps because since these are groups they’re perceived as relatively strong down to individual members. Only when effort is taken to get individual stories or experiences of victimhood or displacement that we see the gaping wounds of pain and loss that got squashed beneath the weight and mass of the collective.
I learned that many children that fled Marawi City in May got separated from their parents but managed to cling to one of their grandparents usually the grandmother who also left together with them. Many children who fled with their primary families ended up with only one of their parents, the mother in most cases. And many women escaped the City with very young children in tow, one of them usually an infant or newly-born.
Part of the documentation task was to get photos (with their consent after I’d informed them of the implications of course, and I got jittery every time I approached afraid I’d get acid on my face, but I was surprised and grateful every body said yes. I guess they knew how these things go), to be taken in a positive frame, of beneficiaries. The human story is also one of hope, after all. That is what we want to hold on to and for donors to contribute toward. In one village, the children who’d immediately become my friends helped me with this task. They went and called their mothers and grandmothers who had already gone inside the center after having lined up long in order to get the goods. “Come,” one boy called to me, “we’ve already gathered them. They’re waiting for you.” I’d not anticipated the gesture and was very happy about it. I immediately went after him. Half-way down, the other children came to meet us. I praised each of them. Then they walked with me and introduced me to the waiting women.
“Do I need my husband with me? Do I need to call him?” asked one of the women.
“No need. What do we need men for?” I joked, and then shit did I just say that? Did I offend? I waited for, maybe, boulders landing on my face. Then I recalled the Muslim community is in fact matriarchal.
The women burst out in laughter. I relaxed. Their expressions said damn right. Right there was their positive moment. So, click, click, click.
I was chatting with the women, my children-friends in a protective circle around us, when one of the village leaders found me. In my haste, earlier, I didn’t tell them where I’d be.
As we walked back to the main area, I realized then the limitations of humanitarian aid. Response has been standardized in the form of food, shelter, water, psychosocial activities of drawing, playing, etc. — essentially physical and visible things — but a lot of human needs in times of crises or disasters remain intangible, occuring within each heart and mind, personal reactions to personal pain and loss that could only be healed by allowing oneself and others to grieve. What is it that’s said about grief? It’s as individual as an individual’s fingerprints, and that it’s one of those walks that individuals need to take alone. I look at psychosocial activities done to children and women and I can’t help wonder if everybody’s just willingly playing a game of pretend.
Grief is like living two lives: one is where you pretend everything is alright; the other is where your heart silently screams in pain.
While it helps to talk about or deal with pain and loss together with others, responders need to be sensitive to the fact that not everybody is experiencing it in the same way at the same time. Grieving people especially require solitude or time alone to figure things out on their own and deal with powerful and often conflicting emotions. It’s the only way for individuals, and then, families, and ultimately communities to truly move on.
So, yes, unpack needs. There is so much more to displacement, conflict, emergency, or disaster than what’s captured on current needs assessment forms and reports.
Among the few indulgences – security blanket really – I brought with me to the field were my heavy-duty ankle boots (that doubled up for self-defense considering travelers including girls and women aren’t allowed even their Swiss camping knife set which is ridiculously funny given that the real enemy is running around free and fully armed) and liquid tattoo lip color in red. The lip color became a kind of statement in the time I was speaking with community groups.
On the morning that was my first into the communities, before heading to the first village in our planner, we made a side trip to the residence of a community leader. We needed to finalize the next day’s venue arrangements. The leader wasn’t home however, but the wife and kin were there to receive us. On meeting, I caught the reaction on their faces. It told me they had not expected a Jacintha Magsaysay (minus the ghoulishness) to appear on their horizon. Ha!
Red lips was more for personal convenience. I was to facilitate discussions at a rate of two groups a day everyday one each in villages that were miles apart. It wasn’t as if I travelled like a madam. We hied from one village to the other on trikes one of the two (the other is motorcycle) available local transportation. We were practically in the field our entire waking hours. And there was the challenge on my part to connect on limited time with people who I’d be meeting the first time and probably the last. I needed something to help me maintain my energy level and red is that something. I would’ve said coffee but seeing there was none prepared I didn’t have the face to ask. Above all, these are poor communities- our venue was more or less a shack, no toilet (I had to go to the nearest house to ask if I could use theirs which isn’t necessarily what you might call a standard toilet. Luckily for my hosts I’m capable of putting up with temporary inconveniences. There was this female foreigner-volunteer though, whom a local official told me about, who was shown the toilet when she asked to use one. Unfortunately for her the nearest available was the indigenous hole-in-the-ground type. She had looked ill after seeing it. She asked if there were others and was told there was one at the school but they’d have to hike up the hill. She said she didn’t mind and could still control her bladder until then. So a-hiking they went), no wash corner or room, no running water. In other words, there was no facility that a woman could do her touch up in private. I learned from my British teacher in kindergarten that it was not good manners to powder in public (hence the powder room). That stuck with me growing up although I also won’t be caught looking washed-out like a white lady and a distraction to people. Therefore, whatever I put on myself at home in the morning had to be long lasting. The lip color brand promised to last 24 hours and thankfully it delivered.
I also didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a type. Consultants, researchers and evaluators are typecast. Researchers especially are perceived as either nerd- or weird-types. I’m neither. So are I/NGO or development workers. Male or female workers always have a scarf around their necks which they use as head scarf or shoulder wrap when they’re in the field, why is that I don’t know but I loathe the sight. Most of the women also don’t put on make-up or do their hair or grow it long perhaps afraid they’d be perceived as “dumb blondes” if they did. But isn’t that hiding?
In one research village, men dominated the discussion group. A number of women showed up who I tried to get to talk in the open but I guess their role in the community has long been prescribed– as listening sages. Cool. I will not rock that boat. Anyway in the past days women were the dominant participants. I also wanted to get the side of the men. So there we were at the ungodly hour of just after noon talking about probably the most sleep-inducing topic at that time: community resilience. I tried to inject humor, also to help me manage my nervousness at being in a hall teeming with poker-faced manly men, but apparently the men whose faces are weighed down by…conflict? instability?…would not be humored. That is, until we came to the question to which they responded with a standard reply that confirmed their religious conviction. But I already knew that. It’s old news. I or should I say the research needed more than a standard reply.
My red lips probed. “Would you say that’s a good thing or a bad thing? Because something may be good for you but destructive for others. In what instances would you say that it’s a good thing? When is it bad? Remember, there’s always two sides to a coin.” The men stared at me and then each turned to speak to the other. The hall had turned into a marketplace. Then I heard somebody said “ah, she’s good, she’s good.” I wanted to laugh. Shit, did they mean that in a good way? More had come into the venue, men, some of them ulema, done with their midday prayers at the nearby mosque. They had caught my query and were consulting the others for what had prompted the questions. I gave them some time to discuss among themselves. I obviously had ventured into a no-questions-asked zone. If they insist on that I hoped they’d at least do it kindly. They did better. They enlightened me with an honest answer.
People will see through you. They might have doubts on initially seeing lips that are perhaps more appropriately seen on the runway or in glam events but eventually they will see past that to your more essential characteristics- personality, attitude, deeds, and words. If you’re true, kind, respectful, and sensible then people will think “oh, red lips don’t necessarily mean Cruella De Vil“. Women need to reverse stereotype-thinking in others.