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Commentary

The lionesses of Barangay 48

12:42 AM July 02, 2015

The lionesses of Africa’s grasslands sleep most of the day. They sprawl lazily with their cubs, so close to one another that the tail of a lioness will reach over the back of another lioness and into the mouth of a cub of a third lioness. They are all sisters, aunts and nieces of one pride.

When we came across the women in Barangay 48 in Tacloban, I remembered the lionesses. The seven women were crowded close together out of the sun in the shade of a lean-to. They had the same easy acceptance of one another as the lionesses showed. The small children were mixed among the women, so it was hard to know who were the children’s mothers. They were not related to one another, but were long-time neighbors who have helped each other in times of need for many years, as their parents had before them.

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The African lionesses sleep most of the day, but at night they are vicious hunters. We can only pity the water buffalo they isolate from the herd. But the women in Barangay 48 pose no danger to anyone. They are between 17 and 53 years of age. All have children or are pregnant, including the 17-year-old, who had the one sad face in the group. They are all fishermen’s wives. They have all the problems of poor women, but they look to God for solutions. They are the “poor” praised by Jesus in the Beatitudes. They are happy with one another and were celebrating the birthday of one of their group. We were interrupting the party, but they were courteous and answered our questions.

The mayor has designated some 900 families in the women’s barangay and four others adjoining it for resettlement in the far north of the city, where unfortunately there are no jobs. The mayor says he is doing this to save their lives because the coastal barangays where they live are vulnerable to storms like “Yolanda.” The women say they don’t want to move for economic reasons and to ensure a good education for their children. Let him build evacuation centers if he is worried about us, they said.

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“Fish won’t climb the mountains where we will be living to get to us,” a woman said. They fear they won’t be able to afford the cost of their children in high school and college commuting from the resettlement area to the schools in the city. Tacloban is following the resettlement pattern followed so tragically in Metro Manila for at least five decades.

We asked the women what they were doing to convince the mayor to let them stay. We learned they have no organization of their own; they don’t even have a leader. Marianita, the oldest of the women, said: “We would have a leader if someone told us to have one.” She said they prayed that God would allow them to stay. I thought to myself that both the State and the Church have let these women down. Isn’t the State supposed to equip poor people to participate in a modern democracy? Isn’t the Church supposed to help people understand it is not enough to wait for God to act, but that they themselves must take nonviolent actions in solidarity with other people to persuade government to do what the great mass of the poor want it to do?

Despite these difficulties, 300 people from Barangay 48 and the four other barangays marched to City Hall with Fr. Robert Reyes and the Urban Poor Associates on June 11 for a dialogue with Mayor Alfred Romualdez. I didn’t see the lioness women among them. Maybe next time. The lionesses of Africa hunt in clusters and use sophisticated tactics. We hope our barangay lionesses will one day organize and learn to use democratic, nonviolent and effective tactics.

The dialogue lasted for about two hours. The mayor heard the people out and shared his thinking. His central concern, he said, was the people’s safety should there be another Yolanda. He agreaed to review a people’s plan for their coastal barangays when it was prepared. He also said he would work with NGOs and private groups who buy land for in-city relocation. His housing office said the city government could share the price of the land with the NGOs and private groups.

The people’s tasks now are two: to make a people’s plan for their barangays that provides protection from storm surges and high winds, and to find affordable, buildable land in the city for their relocation.

Witnessing this dialogue and with no disrespect to Mayor Romualdez and others, we must ask: Do the powers government exercises in resettlement issues exceed the powers government should have in a democracy? Shouldn’t the desire of the great majority of the 900 people decide whether they move from their homes or not move, or should the decision be left solely to government? Even if government seeks to safeguard people’s lives, shouldn’t the people have the final say?

An amendment to the Urban Development and Housing Act (1992) says people’s plans should be honored if the plans are “feasible.” Government should do what the people want provided it is feasible—that is, as long as the people’s proposal makes good sense from every angle.

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As they marched the people sang in Waray an old Negro spiritual that was also used in the US civil rights movement: “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Let’s hope they are happy with the results of their actions.

In Waray:

Dire, di gud mabalhin/Dire, di gud mabalhin/Daw han puno nga natindog ha dagat/Di gud mabalhin.

Si Hesus upod namon/Di gud mabalhin/Si Hesus upod namon/Di gud mabalhin/Daw han puno nga natindog ha dagat/

Di gud mabalhin.

In English:

We shall not, we shall not be moved/We shall not, we shall not be moved/Just like a tree that’s planted by the water/We shall not be moved.

Jesus is with us, we shall not be moved/Jesus is with us, we shall not be moved/Just like a tree planted by the water/We shall not be moved.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).

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TAGS: Alfred romualdez, Leyte, Robert Reyes, supertyphoon ‘yolanda’, Tacloban, Urban Poor Associates
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