I spent a week in post-Yolanda Panay to be a volunteer writer and researcher for a humanitarian agency. A few days before this, I had felt helpless yet on my toes, thankful yet questioning and sensitive; and like everybody else, I channeled those feelings into packing relief goods. I shed tears so many times then. I had tears for the affected, and tears, too, for the goodness of humanity. Moved by these, I brazenly posted a Facebook status message “advertising” my free services and time for work on rebuilding affected communities. Minutes after, my inbox had a number of invitations to volunteer in Leyte and Samar, but I did not have that kind of courage, so I chose to accept the post in nearby Roxas City.
Northern Iloilo and Capiz might not have caught the attention of the media, but the extent of damage to life and property was also grave. Passing by Estancia, Sara, Concepcion, to name a few coastal towns that were hardest hit, was for me a morose procession. It looked like a gang of giants had run around these towns to uproot everything that seemed permanent and standing, and crush them to the ground. When I arrived in Roxas, I needed to anesthetize and clear my head.
Well, at least, those were my feelings on the first day. Hopelessness, sadness, difficulty, shock. These are the same feelings one gets when watching or reading the news. While in their deployments in other countries, these foreign professionals observe that grief among the survivors was prolonged. But coming to the Philippines, they were astounded to see that rebuilding already started a week after Yolanda. No matter how crudely, the people were content on reassembling rusty G.I. sheets and bamboo and wood that Yolanda’s wrath whirled their way. Messages of hope, like “Bangon Banlasan (or name of town)!”, “Survive!” hang everywhere, from bald trees to clotheslines and government offices.
I was with a team of disaster management people who were used to be plucked out of their comfort zones when calamities of this magnitude happen. They had flown to Fukujima during the earthquake in Japan. They had camped amidst the rubble in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake and Hurrican Katrina. But like in all disasters, their trip to the Philippines came by surprise, in the same manner that Typhoon Yolanda took us all by surprise. But more than the surprise over this phenomenon, they say that this was easily becoming one of the most memorable in the span of their careers.
Part of my assignment was to conduct focus group discussions (FGDs) in barangays to find out what they need, and how they want life to be after the super typhoon. From the sharing of the survivors, I found gems of thought, and I echo Anderson Cooper’s sentiment: “Thank you for showing us how to live.”
The survivors, especially the ones who live in poorer communities, possess a wisdom that any of us can learn from. All their lives, they have battled with the elements, with meager incomes, with lack of resources. This has taught them not to have a sense of permanence, but instead become more accepting of what life gives, with their faith in God as the only thing they hold on to. The foreigners who are used to highly fortified lives can only let their jaws drop, speechless and struggling to understand what makes up the Filipino’s steely resilience.
The FGDs were liberating, cathartic experiences. The foreigners in our team may not have understood the crisp Ilonggo banter that went around, but for sure, the laughter that peppered the discussions made their hearts melt. One Canadian was brought to tears by a middle-aged mother who said,
“Sige lang ah, basta sanag lang ang bulan kag inupdanay kami tanan. (We’ll be fine, as long as the moon is bright and we are all together).”