Philippines: New year, new hope

Friday, January 10, 2014 - 12:50

As we embark on a new year, I continue to reflect on a week I spent in the Philippines just before Christmas. Most of the week was spent at a workshop near the city of Cebu. The workshop brought together ActionAid's new partners in the Philippines and was designed to collectivise our understanding of how we will deliver the typhoon response over the coming weeks, months and years.

I was so impressed by our new partners. Despite the tragedy that has befallen this country (and the many disasters before this one) they have a sharp sense of humour, impressive strength and resilience and a genuinely human rights based approach to the great work they are doing with us on the ground. We were able to agree on an approach that brings together the immediate needs of so many people for food, clean water and shelter with long-term and sustainable development approaches to human rights, women's rights, accountability and campaigning. Working with these partners felt like a family coming together and I am very much looking forward to seeing everything we can achieve together.

On my final day in the Philippines, I had the privilege of travelling to Bantayan Island for a brief visit to our work in the field. It was a moving and humbling experience: an experience that has stayed very much in my thoughts over the Christmas period. We were first able to meet and talk with Perla Molina, the village captain of Talangnam. Perla had left her family elsewhere in the country in order to return to Talangnam to serve her people. Passionate about the need to secure food, shelter and longer term livelihoods for everyone, she returned again and again to the phrase:

We can do it!

She then took us to an area of the village badly affected by the typhoon to meet members of the local community. Many told us their stories; women and men, from the very young to the very old. Common to all these stories was a description of the terror they felt on the day the typhoon hit; the sudden daytime darkness, deadly projectiles flying through the air, the desperate search for loved ones. Also common to many of the stories was fear. Fear that another typhoon would come and fear that it will be impossible to rebuild houses and livelihoods.

We heard from Nowilyn, a 22 year old woman whose little girl Ramilyn was born just three days before the typhoon hit. Like so many of those we spoke to, she described how her house had been totally destroyed and that she now lives under a plastic tarpaulin. When it rains, all her baby's clothes get soaked.

One after another, these brave men, women and children stepped forward to tell their stories. There was a strong sense that people needed to offload their grief and to unburden themselves. Colleagues tell me that people in these kind of conversations in the immediate aftermath were resolute, strong and unemotional - an inevitable and necessary response to the need to survive. Now, in contrast, the tears flowed freely as people from 11 to 75 told us about their own personal Typhoon Yolanda.

But as you will see from the photograph, those tears very often mixed with laughter during our discussions. And I left with the words of Perla in my mind, convinced that this strong, resilient and welcoming community "can do it" as they work with ActionAid partners and others to rebuild their shattered lives.

It is these words that we should carry with us as we go forward into a new year that promises to bring with it many opportunities to work with people like Perla and her community, and to support them in the work that they undertake with such determination.