Returning to Eastern Samar
My first column for the year talked about a team, Likhaan, an organization I work with, sent to Eastern Samar in December 2013. Composed of our best community organizers from working poor communities in Metro Manila, the initial mission distributed medical supplies and radios, set up communal gardens, established women-friendly spaces and initiated the formation of a woman's organization called Abante Kababayen-an (Forward, Women).
The teams returned to Eastern Samar and stayed from January 20 to Feb 11, 2014. This time, they not only revisited the municipalities of Guiuan, Mercedes, and Salcedo, they also went to Balangiga, Quinopondan, Lawaan and Giporlos. Their goal, which they met, was to match the number of barangays (villages) organized during the first visit.
Those who read the first column would be interested to hear of the progress in Guiuan, Mercedes, and Salcedo. I am happy to report that the members of the Abante Kababayen-an have remained organized, that they meet in their women-friendly spaces and tend to their communal vegetable gardens.
The vegetable gardens are of varied success. Another typhoon, Basyang, hit Eastern Samar at the start of February. Some of the vegetable gardens were affected. Still some of the vegetables survived and are to be harvested. The gardens which had been washed out have been replanted. On the upside, the education sessions that were held about facing disasters were, according to the women, put to use before, during, and after Basyang.
The team also brought with them promised items: a heavy-duty typewriter for one barangay, more seeds, t-shirts with Abante Kabaybayen-an logos, books, calendars. Yes, calendars.
Silly me, I asked, “Why calendars?” only to realize that if the radios distributed were valuable because they were the way by which women could tell the time, there was also the need for ways to determine the days and dates. Likhaan printed calendars with the Abante Kabaybayen-an logo.
The teams also brought bound copies of the reports they made to the mayors of the municipalities. At the end of the first visit, the teams, along with the towns people, gave feedback to the mayors and barangay captains. These reports, summarizing all activities and feedback, were now returned to the stakeholders in written form. These turned out to be quite precious to the community folk and were given special places in the municipal halls. According to several people, it was the first time they saw their names and pictures in anything formal and official.
But what was asked for most during the first trip and therefore delivered as promised, was more information and education. On this second trip, more people came to the education sessions. This required taking over the largest halls, including sometimes, the Church.
People would give up their cash-for-work opportunities or miss Mass – at least until our organizers would stop the lecture in order for people to attend services. This is an important point because some of the lectures on reproductive health and sexuality would not be acceptable to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Again, one cannot but be impressed that my less privileged and supposedly less educated colleagues should show far more civility than the priest. The lack of formal education and more privileged backgrounds do not necessarily result in the lack of enlightenment and sophistication.
I could not but laugh at one of our organizers recounting how, in the shadow of the church, she drew a sketch of a woman's genitalia to teach hygiene. She had to because many women had never looked “down there.” That they did not now that there were 3 openings in that area. It reminded me of the times our handbooks would be flashed by anti-RH forces to “prove” that we were promoting pornography or promiscuity.
At the end of one of these education sessions, an elderly woman ran after our organizer and surprised her with a tight embrace in a display of gratitude. The poor and unlettered, can be trusted with information, even sexual information. Perhaps we should not even stop to consider issues of trust.
This time around organizing was easier, and not just because the teams needed less time to familiarize themselves with the issues. Equally important, is that people were less focused on their immediate survival needs. Our teams reported even more development workers and agencies in the areas, bringing among others, cash-for-work programs.
Here again the importance of proper organizing came to the fore. Our organizers had to do a lot of work to ease the discord created by the cash-for-work programs. Because, despite guidelines about who was to be prioritized, too many people in need did not fit the guidelines (or in some cases the people who fit the guidelines could not all be hired) forcing local officials into hard choices. Those choices then caused accusations of favoritism and politicizing.
Our organizers worked hard to soothe differences. They explained the criteria. Explained the situation of the local officials and, when possible, relayed legitimate gripes.
Abante Kababayen-an (yes, they were organized enough to become partners with local government) sought to make the allocations more collective by splitting the workdays. This allowed more people to work even if that meant each person got less cash.
But such solutions did not succeed because they were then told that those who had availed of the cash-for-work programs, no matter how meager, could no longer qualify. Perhaps a rethinking needs to be done allowing for collective rather than individual participation. Certainly this follows principles of psychosocial assistance during disasters where the fostering of cooperation and solidarity is a primary goal.
Tricycles vs SUVs
In any case, the Likhaan teams were dumbfounded that some development efforts seemed to miss the obvious: technological solutions, even the most simple and basic ones, will fail if you do not organize people to manage these. Even a simple water faucet, they told me, can cause divisions and more misery.
One of our organizers was firm, saying, “Our only advantage is that we are just like the people there.” “Oh, yes!” chimed in the others. “Most of the development people there came in SUV's with drivers who would pull open doors and hold umbrellas for them.”
“They would pass us in their air-conditioned and dark tinted cars marked with official-looking logos. We, on the other hand, would hire several tricycles each day. Each one would be loaded. Our water jugs would be lashed to the side, our educational materials stashed everywhere, our solar panels for our night lights tied to the roof. We had our hand-made Likhaan signs hanging on the tricycles too.
"The tricycles would be filled, not just by ourselves, but often with people we were rescuing. Many times our tricycles would pull up among the SUVs at the local government offices. We took to calling these our 'Mercedes Benz.' Some of the aid workers would ask us how we had come in from the remote areas and we would point to our tricycles and say, 'via our Mercedes.'”
Neither are our health workers politically naïve. They did say of one of the aid workers they worked with, “at least she seemed troubled by the contrast we presented.” There is, in there, a gentle criticism that must be heeded.
But, our organizers are also not envious types. They are not blind to the class dynamics that imbue development work but they are not unforgiving of those who are more privileged. They have taken their stand. Their real advantage is that they are very much like everyone else.
In the course of my development work, I have met a lot of cynical people – people who insulate themselves from the poverty of communities by losing faith in the very people who suffer. Some go so far as to blame the poor for their misery.
We should not romanticize the poor, nor glamorize the rich. There are indeed poor people who exploit others and make the situation worse. There are also members of the rich who exploit others and who, because of greater influence, make things worse for more people.
But I have seen that things can be done properly by people who care to get things right. The grace, the strength and the wisdom of our organizers did not happen overnight. We have worked together for years, making our own errors and learning the right ways even now, as we go. This is why they are capable of the sharpest insights and the gentlest criticisms.
How I wish columns could be long enough to show readers the smallest details of this story. Then, there would be no space for romanticism even as there would be appreciation of that which is real, and yet, eternally hopeful. – Rappler.com