Not everything in the Philippines is about beautiful beaches, singing to karaoke, or breathtaking diving sites. About 3 years ago, this country faced the fury of two heavily damaging disasters: a 7.2 earthquake and Typhoon Hayan. I’ve been here for almost 3 months now, working with the Humanitarian Leadership Academy to help local communities better prepare for and respond to disasters. As part of my assignment, I went on a field trip to the paradisiac island of Bantayan, that was completely devastated by the typhoon.
During this trip, I visited five humanitarian projects around the island. I got to hear many, many stories – stories from people who lost everything after the typhoon, fisherfolk who couldn’t fish for weeks due to the strong and continuous rain, farmers who saw their crops and roofs go with the wind. Three years later, people are still recovering. Together, within their own communities, and through the aid of humanitarian organisations such as Lutheran World Relief, Caritas Switzerland, and Islamic Relief Worldwide, their lives are getting better.
One of the communities I visited was Sungko, a fishing village in Bantayan. When Hayan came, the fisherfolks could not go into the sea anymore, and therefore had no more source of income. They lost their houses and spent days without food, until relief arrived. A few months after the typhoon, the men went back to the sea, and the women in the community were granted with a typhoon-proof fish-drying facility, powered by solar energy instead of electricity, so that they can cut, dry and package fish without the risk of stopping their business during another disaster. Moreover, humanitarians and volunteers walked them through micro-financing and management techniques, enabling and empowering them to run their own shop.
Encarnation Umbao, or Encar (her nickname), the leader of the group of women who run the facility, used to be a shy lady who didn’t talk much and barely knew anything about numbers. Now, she feels super comfortable in front of the camera, takes care of the finances of the business, and mastered the art of negotiating prices with the markets and traders when selling her products. “I’m actually happier after Typhoon Hayan,” she told me, “When it hit us, we asked ourselves – ‘why did this happen it to us? We were already poor, and now we are even poorer.’ But now I see that the tragedy brought us together. It opened our eyes and minds to the importance of being a community and how, together, we can help each other.”
Encar told me her story with a big smile on her face, even when reliving the days after the tragedy. She showed me her house, a few steps away from the dried-fish facility, and the other products that they’re now producing to diversify the community’s business – selling dried sea cucumber, crab meat, and fried fish spine.
I will never forget the stories I heard in Bantayan, or the beautiful, crystalline sea that surrounds the island. It was great to see from up close the real value of humanitarian work; but most importantly, as cliché as it sounds, I realised how small my problems really are. The world is sinking into political despair, and yet people are still living, going from crisis to crisis, sometimes struggling, but, most of all, surviving. It’s not the end of the world. People like Encar are the proof that there is still hope. We can always rebuild from scratch, just like they did, and be happy again.
I made this short video with 2 of my work colleagues to share 5 FUN FACTS about the Philippines. Hope you enjoy learning more about this beautiful country and the amazing people who live in it. =)