Dancing after disaster
Help comes in many ways, in many forms. But often the best sort comes when personal presence is combined with programs and planning, when compassion and companionship accompany measurable goals and rational plans of action. When the personal meets the political.
So it was among the women of Eastern Samar, the area first hit by the wind, rain and storm surge of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” Amid the initial outpouring of first aid and relief for the survivors in Samar and Leyte, leaders of the women’s health NGO Likhaan and the international aid organization Oxfam met in November to talk about “the possibility of sending in a disaster response team that would assist women specifically, not in the traditional way of relief [doles], but in a way that would boost women’s resilience, solidarity and collective leadership.”
From the get-go, both Likhaan and Oxfam agreed that the objectives of the “outreach organizing” shouldn’t be short-term, one-time doles (though these were also necessary), but rather a long-term project to “rebuild” the shattered (both physically and emotionally) communities by helping women organize themselves and build a core of volunteers/leaders.
Three towns, among the most devastated in Eastern Samar—Guiuan (where Yolanda made landfall), Mercedes and Salcedo—were chosen as the sites of the program, with a goal of developing “at least 15 women committed to and able to initiate and run Women-Friendly Spaces (WFS).”
The plan adopted, notes Likhaan executive director Junice Demetrio Melgar, was “simple and conservative,” but involved identifying local women leaders, mapping out the community’s health resources, and sending volunteers from Manila to listen, counsel, and plan solutions with the survivors, all done in partnership with local and national government agencies and NGOs.
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In all, Likhaan selected 12 volunteers to take part in the organizing effort: three documentors, and nine community organizers from Manila and Malabon who originally hailed from Samar (one of the criteria was proficiency in Waray or Cebuano), including their organizer in Eastern Samar and a documentor from Guiuan.
“Our best organizers went,” relates Junice. Lina Bacalando (who also sits on the Likhaan board of trustees) and Eric Balleno who organize in Manila, Iday Simbajon and Nene Armayan from Malabon were among those selected. Iday is herself from Guiuan. “Her siblings and a son were in Guiuan [when Yolanda struck] and they were all left homeless.” The organizer in Eastern Samar, Ernie Gariando, is from Alang-alang near Tacloban, and, relates Junice, “he almost died in the storm after getting his parents to an evacuation center. They also lost their homes.”
Aside from speaking the local languages, what distinguished the Likhaan volunteers was their experience in community organizing in poor communities where disasters are commonplace, with their neighborhoods submerged by “Ondoy” and and the habagat (monsoon), and also subjected periodically to fires. “They are familiar with relief and rehab organizing, but not to the degree of Yolanda,” notes Junice.
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“Tough, flexible and creative” were the criteria Likhaan set for choosing among the many Likhaan volunteers and clients in the urban poor communities the organization serves, all of whom were eager to get involved in any way they could to help in the post-Yolanda situation.
Three organizers and one documentor were fielded to each town, deployed for two weeks, with the volunteers challenged at every turn by “lack of electric power, very limited communication, lack of accommodations, and limited and difficult transport.” To add to the pressure the volunteers faced, their deployment coincided with the Christmas season, arriving in Eastern Samar on Dec. 8 and, at the end of deployment, arriving in Manila almost midnight of Dec. 23.
From the start, their assignment challenged every ounce of creativity, toughness and flexibility in the volunteers. The work plan focused on the creation of “women’s spaces for safety, wellbeing and empowerment,” which involved simply listening to and talking with the women who had yet to fully unload their stories of survival and grief, counseling them on physical and psychological wellness, and planting a “women’s garden.” Junice extols the women volunteers’ “warm personalities and inventiveness … improvising stress reduction exercises through group processing, games, action songs, kuracha.”
In time, while working on their community gardens, the women would spontaneously burst into song, or dance to the tunes aired by the first local radio station to rebroadcast following the disaster, certainly a sight (and sounds) that seemed so unfamiliar if not unthinkable in the days following Yolanda’s wrath.
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Here, in numbers, are the Likhaan team’s accomplishments:
As many as 138 women involved in creating and maintaining “women’s spaces”; 486 women involved in creating and maintaining the “women’s garden” (children and men also got involved in the garden, we are told, with the garden “becoming a site where people would sing and dance” together); 784 women organized into Abante Kababayen-an, a self-created NGO to continue the programs that were started; 64 leaders and 74 “second-liners” identified and trained.
In addition, the community organizers focused on the health needs, particularly the reproductive health needs, of the women in the three towns, and worked closely with local government executives in planning how to meet the survivors’ many health challenges.
But it’s the immeasurable—the improvement in the community morale, particularly—that to me represents the best and most worthy accomplishment of this project. More on this on Tuesday.
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