Cast a cold eye
Few earn the minimum wage in Tacloban, which is P260 a day. The Eastern Visayas Region is now the poorest in the country. And yet the NGOs working among the poor there have found an abundance of wonderful examples of community unity and progress. These are the “signs of the times” of a better future for the city.
These new developments among the poor are not due to the work of government or NGOs, but to history and to the poor themselves who have looked death in its most cruel, twisted face and they have resolved to pass it by and go on with their lives. They remind us of the words the Irish poet WB Yeats put on his gravestone: “Cast a cold eye on death, Horseman, pass by.” The people of Tacloban, especially the poor who suffered most of the deaths, have cast a cold, rejecting eye on death and chosen life—and this, I believe, has propelled them into the modern world from centuries of penury and passivity.
These community groups appear to be rural—the small counterparts of those planning Metro Manila communities now prominent in housing circles. They are very democratic and self-reliant, too. They won’t change the system, at least right away, but they will make it work for them.
And many have noticed that the most promising work among the poor is headed by women. Maybe this is what spells the difference and gives new results.
I would like to tell the story of one young woman who is the president of the people’s organization in her community. Her name is Maryann Ginoo-han, 27. She has the frame of a young teenager, though she has two children: a three-month-old girl, and a boy who was only one-month-old when Supertypoon “Yolanda” struck, but who probably saved her life.
Maryann was born in the Costa Brava section of Barangay 88 in Tacloban, which is facing Samar. Her father was a fish vendor. Her mother, who still lives with Maryann, takes care of the house and children.
When Maryann was 12 the family moved to Payapay Beach in Barangay 89. She dropped out of school after second year high school. She married a fisherman who looks for construction work when not fishing. Her life story could be the biography as well of most young women her age.
The night of Yolanda her relatives gave the one-month-old boy to Maryann’s cousins to take care of. They thought she was still too weak from childbirth to care for the boy properly. Maryann went with her mother and relatives to the school. What she remembers of that night comes in flashes: She was in a classroom when the water was rising, then the water reached the second floor and she was swimming and gasping for air, though she says she cannot swim. Then she was tossed about by the water. She says she felt ready to die, and maybe would have given up but for the thought of her boy. She knew she couldn’t leave him all alone in this world. Moved by the thought of her son, she looked death in the face and never looked back.
The people had nothing left after the storm. Their homes were gone. The land where they lived had been turned into a swamp.
From then on she came to every meeting in the community with the little boy and joined in all the activities. Little by little the people came to depend on her. She has some grit in her so she was able to talk to officials. She was always pleasant, always available. Eventually she and 35 other women signed a lease with a private owner. The lease allowed them to build transitional houses and stay there for two years.
Urban Poor Associates built houses for them. Another landowner let them use his land for agriculture. Maryann was able to persuade the water company to give them water.
We feel great pleasure just to sit near Maryann’s house and observe the heartwarming life the people there share. Almost all the women carry a baby or are pregnant. They are naughty and blame us for the pregnancies: “You gave us those houses and privacy, so what do you expect?”
These are not the same women who have lived in this poverty-stricken, downtrodden part of the country for centuries. They are modern women. They reason with their husbands over problems. They are not afraid to talk back to officials. They are not even totally acquiescent to the Catholic Church. They are nearly all Catholic. They go to the Church if they want a prayer against bad spirits, or for baptism, they tell us, but on Sundays they attend the “Born Again” services, because they like to listen to the Scripture readings and to discuss the readings. The men are also changing.
Many such communities are arising. They need government help for land tenure security once the two-year lease is up. Above all they need steady, decent-paying jobs. Government should make sure the children have enough good food and good schools.
What happened to the little boy? He is now about two years old. When I was interviewing Maryann the boy came and said it was time to go. He wanted his mother back.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (email@example.com).