The Visayas region, the middle of the Philippines’ three regions, took the brunt of the damage when mega-typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines last November. Center for Community Transformation (CCT) responded by meeting with local officials in some of the hardest hit towns to discuss both immediate relief and long-term recovery. All of these towns had similar needs in the wake of Yolanda: livelihoods needed to be restored, infrastructure needed to be re-built, and skilled workers needed to be trained. What ensued is now called the Nehemiah Project, and to me it’s one of the most exciting projects I’ll be working on at CCT. Let me backtrack a minute. CCT has, for several years now, had a technical-vocational school for the sons of, and for the micro finance partners themselves in some of their poorest regions. The young men can’t afford to attend college and have no hope of employment. The fathers who enroll are often in the same situation. The tech-voc school is paid for by CCT, and these men are given the chance to take courses in carpentry, plumbing, electrical maintenance and installation, and masonry. After completion of each segment they take the TESDA exam to become internationally certified, and then are given an internship with a company in their field (which often turns into a job offer.) Without this training, these men often become another one of the thousands of poor and street dwellers that Manila is notorious for. The graduates of this program are often so thankful for this training that they become teachers at the school! (and now for the Nehemiah Project, which I’ll now get back to.) So starting last week and for the next few weeks, I’m traveling to the different areas in the Visayas region where CCT has Project Nehemiah outposts. Last week I went to the regions of Eastern Samar, one of the bottom three poorest regions in the Philippines, and then to Leyte. I flew out Thursday afternoon for Tacloban, and I knew before-hand that once I landed it was a 6 hour drive to Eastern Samar, but I was told that Ate Pet would be meeting me at the airport (and I assumed driving me to Eastern Samar.) The Tacloban airport is a bare-bones building with a tin roof, open sides, and one conveyor belt for baggage. The bathroom had a large water bucket fed by a hose that before and after each flush, I had to scoop out some water and dump it into the toilet (which was a low bowl, no seat.) This meant that the whole bathroom floor was flooded because people often miss the bowl when dumping in the water! What they lacked in amenities, they made up for in charisma though…as we de-planed, all the airport personnel sang us a welcome song with a corresponding dance! I texted Ate Pet that I had arrived, and thought it a bit strange when she replied in Tagalog. She told me Ate Regie would be picking me up, and I found her soon after. We got into a Jeepney together, and Ate Regie informed me that they were expecting the Filipino Ashee from the CCT office! They must have been surprised when a white-skinned, English-speaking, blonde walked off the plane! Ate Regie’s English was not great, (and my Tagalog has grown by about 5 words), and I though she was telling me that we were going to take the Jeepney all the way to Eastern Samar! Instead, after about a 30 minute ride, we arrived at the “Van Van” terminal. The Van Vans are Toyota mini-vans that they cram 5 rows of seats into, spaced about 2 feet apart. Ate Regie led me to a Van Van and told me she’d wait with me until it left. I thought I had missed something…where was I going? When would I get off? Who would be awaiting me in Eastern Samar? Who did I pay for the ride? How long would it take? She finally answered these questions, gave me the cell phone numbers of the local Nehemiah team and put me on the phone with Ate Sheira who told me to get off at the Van Van terminal which is the last stop in Eastern Samar, and that Josh, one of the Nehemiah managers would pick me up. I found out that it would take about 4 hours, but we couldn’t depart until all 15 seats were filled. I started getting texts from the team telling me to be safe and that they were praying for me. We finally got going, and after filling up at the gas station, 2 more passengers were banging on the door to be let on the van! The driver finally agreed, so they squeezed into non-existent seats. This began the bumpiest ride of my life. Most of the roads were unpaved and had more potholes than I’ve ever experienced. That, coupled with a seat that bounced up and down, and very bouncy suspension on the Van Van, I might as well have been in a bumper car for 5 hours! And the facilities at the Van Van terminal made those at the airport seem first rate, so let’s just say I endured this ride with a full bladder! We had to pass several security check points and let passengers on and throughout the drive, and finally at close to 11pm we arrived at the Van Van terminal. Josh came to pick me up in a pedicab, and I was so glad to see him!
The next morning Josh, Anna Mae who heads up the Nehemiah Project, and I were joined by Yup, the project director of Woord en Daad – a partner organization on the project, and we were picked up by two directors from ZOA, another Dutch partner organization. We were heading to the first commencement ceremony for the Skilled Workers of the Nehemiah Project in Hermani, Eastern Samar. As we drove along, I started to notice that all of the roads were being paved. I started asking about the road work, and learned that it was all funded by the US government…our taxpayer money! I soon started seeing large signs that said “Funded by the American People.” Some were being paved with asphalt, and others with concrete. I asked about this, and they said that for the most part, the material chosen matches what currently had been used to pave that area, however concrete is preferred, and is usually chosen in the areas where voter turn-out is higher (and the mayor’s opinion is stronger.) Many of the bridges had been washed out, as was much of the earth on the sides of the roads. Small shacks that serve as houses had largely been re-built, and often the roofs consisted of tarps from various relief organizations, their logos marking their presence in that region. At this stage, shelters have been restored to residents, but the towns are still in shambles. Schools, churches, markets, and community centers all needing to be rebuilt.
Which brings me back to the Nehemiah Project. The residents that lost their livelihoods (smalls stands selling food, produce, or other goods; fishing boats) needed their livelihoods restored. The towns need their infrastructure rebuilt (schools, churches, markets, community centers), and a fleet of skilled workers would both serve to restore a means of livelihood, and the workforce to rebuild these towns. Several international NGO’s have partnered with CCT to provide funding, both the training and TESDA certification are provided to the students free of charge, and the graduates of CCT’s tech-voc school have become the teachers and counselors for these students! They receive training in either Construction Building and Materials, Electrical Maintenance, Plumbing, or Masonry, and upon graduation will be employed by the local government to start rebuilding their town! The graduation we attended in Hermani was housed in a community center on the beach. Basically all the buildings and houses in this town are right on the beach, as the landscape is a long stretch of sand and then mountains, and the main source of income is fishing. The graduates ranged from young 16 year olds to men in their 50s or so. The graduation the following day was on the campus of Eastern Visayas State University. This school had been severely damaged and was closed for 3 months. Many students, both male and female, enrolled in the skilled workers program while they couldn’t attend regular classes, and as part of their hands-on training, started rebuilding some of their school! That graduation took place in the school activity hall, one of the buildings that the graduates had repaired. The school has just received funding to start more repairs, as has the town, and this new fleet of skilled workers is who they will employ! All of the graduates, over 100 at each location, were so excited, and for many of them this was the first time they had ever experienced getting any sort of degree! The ceremony brought together the townspeople, local government officials, the provincial directors of TESDA, directors from the University, partner organizations, and both local and regional CCT staff. The graduations were more like church services and gave all the glory to God. I was so in awe of the way that God has used CCT’s presence here because of Yolanda to make his mercies known, and bring people to himself! Everyone who got up to speak was so thankful that CCT had chosen to work in their town and to partner with them. Throughout the graduation I was recognized as a “representative from PEER Servants in the US” and thanked for attending! This was so unexpected! I was also later informed that everyone, repeatedly, kept commenting about me that, “she looks just like barbie! Her eyes are so round, and her hair is so blonde!”
Aside from training skilled workers, the Nehemiah Project also restores livelihoods in the areas of buying new boats for fisherfolk, and organizing coops for the fisherfolk and traders to pool their resources to start other non-fishing enterprises in the the areas of farming and transportation. And in all of the Nehemiah Project areas, the first services that the residents are encouraged to participate in are savings programs (so that if another natural disaster strikes they have savings set aside, accruing interest), and Bible studies. It is a truly comprehensive program, helping the spiritual and material needs of the individual and the community.
After the graduation in Hermite, Eastern Samar, we walked down the beach to where there were small shacks with picnic tables inside. The shacks were made of various parts of coconut trees! The local fisherfolk, to show their appreciation, caught and cooked us crabs, spiny lobster, octopus, and assorted whole fish. One of the CCT staff had cooked literally a bucket full of rice, and this whole meal was cracked and eaten by hand. It was the most amazing seafood I’ve ever had in my life! The crab and lobster was unbelievably sweet. I sucked every last drop of juice out of it! The fish was so flavorful, and the octopus was so tender. And after we ate, we just washed our hands off in the ocean! The water was crystal clear, and very shallow for about 50 feet. After this was a sand bar with sand/rock formations rising up about 30 feet. At the base of these were deep pools of aqua water. Beyond these sand bars started the deep ocean of various shades of aqua and dark blue. It was so stunning, and even though I was fully dressed, I wanted to run out to the sand bar and go for a swim!
That afternoon we drove to another town where we would spend the night at a woman’s house-turned inn. After Yolanda she opened her home up to guests, and one of the relief organizations set up their headquarters there. It was a really tranquil setting, and rice patties extended as far as I could see out the back of the property. Anna Mae and I shared a room as it was the only one left with air conditioning (it was in the 90’s, and the wet rice patties are breeding grounds for mosquitoes!) The room was modest but clean, with a set of bunk beds with mis-matched sheets, but I noticed there was no bathroom. Anna Mae showed me where the “WC’s” were…and now I know where water closet got it’s name! In the middle of the property there was a row of three rooms. They were about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide with tiled floors. Some had a toilet at one end, others just a hole, and there was a low faucet on the side of the wall, a large bucket, and a small bucket. Once we settled in Anna Mae told me she was going to take a bath. I thought this sounded like a great idea, considering I was covered in sweet seafood juice. I went in search of a bathtub/shower but couldn’t find one. When Anna Mae returned I asked her where the bath was, and she told me she had already showed me where the “WC’s” were! It was one stop shopping here – use the toilet, take a bath, brush your teeth (by bringing in a cup of potable water, rinsing your mouth with it and spitting it on the floor inside the WC!) We had a simple but delicious dinner of whole grilled fish, braised chicken (that I later found out was cooked in a Sprite-like soda), steamed okra, and of course rice! The next day while eating lunch at a restaurant called “Crocs,” I was the only one from our group to order the crocodile! It’s farm-raised in nearby Palawan (another Nehemiah area I’ll be visiting in a few weeks), and it was delicious! As the sun set over the rice patties, large lizards that make a loud squeaking noise started appearing on the walls. Josh came running out of his room and said that there was a frog inside, and he is afraid of frogs! Yup, our Dutch companion in his 60s, informed us that he’s also afraid of frogs, so Anna Mae and I went in to rescue Josh! I pinned the frog behind the dresser and tried to fish it out with an umbrella. When it had no where else to go, it jumped on top of me, over the bed, and under the other dresser! Finally the inn owner came and caught it. The next night as the sun set on the campus, I was walking around and noticed a toad. All of a sudden I realized that they were everywhere! About 20 of them just on the one stretch of sidewalk where I was walking! I also saw huge spiders, and a lizard that was over a foot long that had perfectly camouflaged itself to match the cream colored facade of the student center.
After leaving the inn in the morning to drive to the second graduation at the university in Tanauan, Leyte, we drove through some of the most stunning landscape I’ve ever seen. Jungle-like mountains rising up out of aqua water. Huge rock formations with hidden caves. It looked like the Amalfi Coast combined with Cinque Terre, only where in Italy there are brightly colored houses dotting the landscape, here there are shacks made of relief tarps, coconut branches, bamboo, cardboard, and tin scraps. I saw where beach resorts once were, where boats used to take people to explore the hidden caves, and markets used to sell the freshly caught seafood. Despite all this devastation, the people’s spirit has not been crushed. The mayor who spoke at the graduation at Eastern Visayas State University said that where before they had only a single-level health clinic, their new fleet of workers will now build a two-story hospital. And the old market that is no longer will be replaced with a hyper-mart.
I spent the last night of our trip in a hotel that this time had an in-room water closet. Thankfully the water didn’t travel all the way into the room itself! The sheets were stained, the floor was dirty, and the inn on the rice patty now seemed like a palace. But I was thankful to have a roof (not a relief tarp) over my head.
I’ve been here for three weeks now; I’ve learned how to say “I like fruit and vegetables” in tagalog “gusto ko ng gulay at prutas.” And I am learning ever more to continually put my trust in God and look to him for protection, guidance, wisdom, strength, and comfort. All while praising Him for this insanely beautiful country he has made!!