Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Six People I Met in 2014

(published 05 January 2015, MST)

he year just past was, for me, a rich one. I experienced arriving early with my family at the airport, only to get left behind by our flight (and having to use my savings to pay for our seats on the next flight, because it was trip we could not miss), being carried to the shore by a boatman on high tide, and finally getting on a zipline.
Even better however were the opportunities of meeting new people in the line of my work, both for this newspaper and for other engagements. I count myself blessed for doing exactly what I love to do: talking to people on the ground and then telling their stories. And then I cross my fingers hoping, that the stories would somehow stir others into action - or at least thought.
For 2014, I was particularly struck by my interactions with six people (or groups of people):
Sarwell Meniano
Sarwell is a reporter from Leyte. He obtained a scholarship for a masters’ degree in journalism, an online program which allowed students to attend classes, participate in discussions and submit requirements over the Internet.
At the beginning of his final semester —the one when he was supposed to develop his masters’ project—typhoon Yolanda struck. Sarwell and his family went missing for days. Like many others, they lost their home.
During the weeks and months that followed, however, Sarwell defied everything and continued to work on his thesis despite his lack of access to electricity, the Internet and even a reliable computer. He graduated in March 2014—four months after the super typhoon.
Noel de Castro
Mang Noel is 45 years old and a father of six young children. I met him in Estancia, Iloilo in March. He used to live in a barangay where an oil barge slammed onto land from Yolanda’s storm surge. Aside from the water, oil spilled and rendered the village uninhabitable because of the toxic chemicals.
Mang Noel lost his wife on that fateful day.
When I met him, he and his kids were living in a tent city. Their tent was powered by a solar lamp donated by an international NGO. Mang Noel said that he was trying to be brave; he did not yet have a job and all—not some, but all— of his children suffered open wounds on the head, arms and legs as a result of the spill. He said that during Christmas and New Year (2013), they were huddled in their tent, crying.
I wonder how he and the children are doing now.
Barangay captains of Guiuan, Easterm Samar
At the southern tip of Eastern Samar lies the second-class municipality of Guiuan. In April, during a focus group discussion, some of the barangay leaders of the town’s 60 villages participated and shared what was going through their minds as Yolanda pounded their town and the rest of the central Philippines.
“What were the lessons that you learned from Yolanda?” was the meat of our research. We asked them to write their answers on metacards. There was one recurring theme—at the top of their list of lessons learned was to “trust in God.” In their minds, they did everything they could to prepare for the storm but it was just too overwhelming.
When all else fails, trust in God. Some would say this is faith. Others, fatalism. Whatever it is, this trait seems to be shared by million of Filipinos all over the country.
Erlinda Go
Mrs. Go is a 77-year-old civil engineer ad graduate school professor from Puerto Princesa City. At her age, she should be relaxing and enjoying the fruits of her long career. But no—she said she would get bored doing nothing. I thus met her at a gathering of civil society representatives teaming up with the Commission on Audit to conduct what is called Citizen Participatory Audit on farm-to-market roads there.
We know Palawan to be an island famous for its pristine beaches. But it is also a large agricultural island where farmers cannot bring their produce to proper markets because of the sorry state of roads. Hence the contrast: abject poverty exists alongside the paradise for tourists.
What a senior citizen.
The Cortes family
The Corteses used to be squatters, living at the North Triangle area in Quezon City. Now they have availed themselves of a program where they could obtain housing loans at low rates.
In the new home, prominently displayed are the medals, certificates and graduation photos of the daughters—- the older one is an applied mathematics scholar at Ateneo de Manila while the younger is an accounting freshman at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. According to the mother, Marcelina, they used to witness violent confrontations during demolitions. She said she was thankful for their chance at a better life. Education is indeed a game-changer.
Finally, the marching farmers
Seventy-one farmers walked all the way from Davao and arrived in Manila in late November to seek audience with the President and to tell the rest of us of their long-standing plea: that millions of pesos levied on coconut farmers between 1973 and 1982 be finally made available to improve their lot.
With the 71 marchers are 71 individual stories of poverty and desperation, but also determination, hope and persistence. Let’s hope they get what they deserve, and soon.
I am humbled to have known and spoken with these people. They are either an inspiration to us or a testament that much more needs to be done. We should never tell ourselves we have done enough—there is always so much more to do.
I look forward to telling more stories this year.

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