MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Good morning Wesleyan! I write to you from across the world, where night has already fallen, with some long, overdue news from a tiny archipelago I (occasionally) call home: the Philippines.
What am I doing here, you ask? It’s an excellent question, really—one I have asked myself multiple times, mostly during the three all-nighters I spent trying to keep up with midterms and other school work.
In the 10 years before I began college, I lived under a hopelessly corrupt government masquerading as some kind of democracy. The past eight years of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration were defined by countless political killings, political scandals, and military coup d’etat attempts. After Iraq, we’ve become the most dangerous country for journalists (which I suppose should worry me… hmm…).
Such events became so intrinsic in our political culture that most Filipinos could do nothing but laugh them off. When I witnessed the first coup attempt, as tanks rolled down the streets only a mile from my house, I was really only upset that I couldn’t go shopping for my best friend’s birthday present. It is for such reasons that when I finally got to college, I became convinced that I would only ever return home to visit family and eat good food.
But about a month ago, when Typhoon Ketsana (local name: Ondoy) hit my hometown, I found myself broken by the images of my city as it sunk beneath the floodwaters that submerged entire houses. I watched from afar as my fellow Filipinos wandered shoulder deep with their children above their heads, and waited as the death toll quickly rose to 300. I read stories of an 18-year-old boy who had saved 30 lives before getting washed away in the flood. Lives were lost because my government wasn’t prepared, despite their responsibility to care for one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.
On Skype, at 11pm EST, I struggled through my tears to speak with my childhood nanny, Nana Cita, who had lost everything to the flood, and was living with her children in a temporary relief shelter hosting hundreds of other victims. I gave the clothes I had left behind to her children, and she thanked me for my kindness, despite always being so tough on me (when I was three, Nana Cita was notoriously unsympathetic to my crying when she pulled too hard while brushing my hair). Nana Cita like family to all of us and though we offered her a place to stay, she insisted that her house would be rebuilt soon, and their lives along with it.
The typhoon, in short, was my breaking point. In the two weeks preparing for my trip home, I did what I could to raise relief funds and organize clothing drives, all the while knowing that I could do more. The elections were coming up in May 2010, and, having become hopelessly optimistic after witnessing the rise of Barack Obama to the White House, I believed it was time for, well, change. I knew the task would be infinitely more difficult in this country, but I thought myself up to the task.
The series of articles to follow will include a number of interviews with candidates for the Philippine Senate, top journalists, outspoken University professors, former government officials, leaders of Youth movements through advocacy and the arts, and volunteers who saw the horrors that the Typhoons brought upon my country, as well as the incredible results of sustainable NGOs that allowed the poorest of Metro Manila’s citizens to rise above the waters to help their less fortunate neighbors. In addition, I will be writing my own op-eds synthesizing what I have learned and witnessed during my time here.
With one day left in Manila, I encourage you all to follow what I have learned, because it does not end with these 14 days in the Philippines. My trip home, despite many moments of extreme discouragement, has been incredibly inspiring to me. As the elections near, I believe there is an avenue through which the people of this country, especially the youth, can overcome the cynicism and hopelessness that has riddled it for years. I will continue to work for them and for a government we can count on, because as this trip has taught me, whatever situation this country might face, one can always count on the Filipino spirit to rise above whatever obstacle—whether it be unrelenting rainfall or an unthinkable level of corruption—and fight to get their lives back.