Sunday, September 28, 2014

Philippines by the Numbers

I’ve learned a lot about the history and situation in this wonderful country in the past month. Most of these things I didn’t really know before I arrived, thanks to our wonderful educational system that does nothing in terms of informing us of US involvement in countries that used to be colonies. For this reason, I will try to put the country into a context so that it is easier for you, the readers, to understand what I am experiencing and why certain parts of this experience are so significant. These facts and figures come from various orientations with United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and Farmers Development Center (FARDEC), as well as what I learned in Handbook Philippines: Society, Politics, Economy, and Culture.

• Population: 96 million
• 7,107 islands
• 880 inhabited islands
• 8-number of islands I have visited so far
• 3 groupings of islands (north-Luzon, central-Visayas, south-Mindanao)
• 22 active volcanoes
• 200 km-farthest you will ever be from the coastline in the country
• 80°F average year-round temperature
• 20 typhoons enter the Philippines yearly, 8-9 make landfall in populated places
• 70% of world’s species can be found in the Philippines (5,000 animal species, 13,000 plant species, ⅔ of which are only found here)
• 20,000 square kilometers of coral reefs
• 170 different languages
• 3.5 million are unemployed
• 18.6 million are underemployed
• 12 million are registered Overseas Filipin@ Workers (OFW) (an estimated 6 million more are unregistered)
• 91% of Filipin@s identify as Christian (81% of these are Catholic, 19% are Protestant
• 5% identify as Muslim/Moro (derogatory word used by the Spanish but reclaimed in the second half of the 20th century)
• 4% identify as Iglesia ni Cristo, Buddhist, Hindu, or animistic religions
• 343,448 square kilometers of land, 48% of which is agricultural
• 66% of population live in urban areas, farms, 34% live in rural areas
• 70% of farmers do not own the land they work
¼-¾ typical landlord/tenant farmer split of harvest (can be up to half and half)
• 5% of farmers in Central Visayas have access to tractors
• 14% of country’s rice is imported
• Philippines is the largest exporter of labor in Asia
• 71.6 years-average life expectancy at birth (68.7 years-men, 74.7 years-women)
• 22.9 years-median age
• 19.3 infants per 1,000 live births-infant mortality rate
• US$188 billion GDP (2009-2010)
• 0.448% GINI coefficient (poorest 20% have 5.8% share in GNI)
• US$1=PhP44 (Philippine Peso)
• 27.2% poverty rate (26.1 million people live on less than PhP52=US$1.18/day)
• 70% more appropriate poverty rate (67.2 million people live on less than PhP104=US$2.36/day)
• US$26.8 billion revenue US$33.8 billion expenditures-national budget
• US$110 billion-public debt
• US$46.5 billion-external debt
• 1% of the population hold 30% of country’s wealth
• PhP45 billion-net worth of 10 wealthiest people in the country=net worth of 74 million poorest people in the country
• 169 victims of extrajudicial killings since 2010
• 23 victims of extrajudicial killings were church workers
• 19 victims of enforced disappearances since 2010
• 427 political prisoners since 2010
• 17 open cases of farmers accused of theft, trespassing, death threats, attempted murder, and murder in FARDEC areas
• 1 case of landgrabbing involved 300 police officers who arrested and imprisoned 39 people (36 elderly women, 3 students)
• 500 US troops rotate through the Philippines to find al Qaeda operatives and protect from an attack by the Chinese government, but no one has been arrested yet
• Oldest remains of humans found in the Philippines date back to 67,000 BCE
• 600 BCE-began trade with China and Japan
• 1380 CE-Muslim empire reaches the Philippines
• 1521-Magellan lands in the Philippines and is killed in battle, the Philippines defeats a potential colonizer
• 1565-Miguel López de Legazpi lands and begins the colonization of the Philippines
• June 12, 1898-declaration of independence from Spain
• December 1898-US pays US$20 million to Spain as compensation for losing the Philippine colony, beginning of US colonial rule
• December 8, 1941-Japan begins attack on the Philippines
• January 2, 1942-beginning of Japanese colonial era
• August 1945-end of Japanese colonial rule
• July 4, 1946-end of US colonial rule
• May 25, 1948-foundation of United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) (167 representatives from Presbyterian, United Church of the Brethren, Congregational, Church of Christ-Disciples, and Philippine Methodist Church unite to form UCCP)
• ~4,000 UCCP churches today
• Esther 4:15-16 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
• 1 day until I travel to my site placement in Kananga, Leyte

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Comfort?

This week marks the end of my first month in the Philippines. I have learned so much. My comfort zone has expanded in ways that I naively thought were not possible. I even made a pretty drastic hair cut that I absolutely love! I have changed and/or strengthened my views on certain topics. I am finally starting to get the hang of this country and its beautiful culture. I am starting to learn bits and pieces of the language. I catch myself mimicking facial expressions that I see all the time. It’s nice. I am starting to feel comfortable here.

I decided simple living meant getting a hair cut that allowed me to be more efficient with my time and resources.

I have also received a fundraising update. As of September 17, I have received $7,455 in gifts and pledges! Thank you so much! This month has shown me just how important it is that I have a strong cloud of witnesses praying for and thinking about me. I am so humbled by your love and dedication.

I just want to share a few things about this week. We arrived in Dumaguete 4 am Sunday morning, September 21. This is where fellow YAVs Tyler and Kendall will be living and serving and where our lovely site coordinators, Dessa and Cobbie live and work. Tuesday to Friday, we had our first retreat as a group. As I have explained in previous posts, this past month has been full of orientations and immersions into various parts of Filipin@* culture. Most of these have put us in situations we would have thought uncomfortable two months ago. However, we have adapted and grown thankful that families simply open their homes and hearts to us.

During these experiences, I have tried to maintain a practice of journaling about each day and reading chapters of the Bible. My goal is to finish at least the Old Testament, if not the whole Bible, before I leave the Philippines. I started this project of reading straight through the Bible sometime during middle school, so clearly I’ve encountered some troubles (mainly thanks to the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles).

When we left for our retreat, we found ourselves about an hour south of Dumaguete at a resort called KoKoo’s Nest. It is a wonderfully tucked away placed owned by a lovely English couple and their five dogs (four of which are beautiful golden retrievers). It is exactly what I signed up for when I wanted to come to the Philippines. The clear blue waters and lush green scenery were almost perfect, especially with hammocks everywhere and beautiful wooden huts for our rooms.

Driftwood, our home for retreat

Even though this felt so perfect, I still had issues. We have so much privilege. The privilege to leave is one of the most significant in my mind. Some of our guides have congratulated us on “surviving” these immersions. I have strong feelings against the use of that word. It is insulting to those communities to say that we “survived” life there for only 2-3 days. Sure, it was difficult sometimes, but that is how they live every single day of their lives. Just because it may be different from what we are used to does not mean that it is worse than our lives in the US.

Additionally, what did it mean that we literally retreated from most of Filipin@ culture in order to process what we had experienced in less comfortable situations in this culture? This was the first establishment with non-Filipino owners that we experienced. It was quiet, save the sound of the waves ebbing and flowing onto the beach. We did not have to eat rice for every meal. Everything was in English. We heard very little Cebuano. We saw Filipin@s working to cook our food, performing maintenance tasks, and on the arms of older white men. That last point is a whole different issue.**

I felt incredibly comfortable. I didn’t journal all week. I didn’t read my Bible all week. I had all the time in the world to do it, but I didn’t feel that I had to. It wasn’t a coping mechanism for me anymore. Even when I felt bored, I didn’t reach for my pencil and journal. I didn’t even read a book. Instead, I escaped into my phone and the wifi. I reverted back to the habits I have in the US. I found myself annoyed during the day when my news feeds wouldn’t refresh fast enough to satisfy my need for entertainment because it was the middle of the night for most of my friends and family. I was aware of this issue, but it didn’t make me change it. I rationalized it to myself that this was the best wifi I had experienced for a month, and wifi in Kananga, my site placement, will not be this good. Naturally, I should take advantage of the time to feel as if I were just on a vacation and still connected to home. Even though I had all of these blog ideas, it was only when we returned to the city that I felt a strong urge to just sit and write (What I was planning to write was actually a blog post I’ve been composing in my head for about three weeks now and not this. Perhaps I’ll still feel motivated after I post this…).

Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful that Dessa and Cobbie gave us the opportunity to relax, process, and ask more questions in a safe place. I thoroughly enjoyed the great snorkeling, beautiful sunsets each night, and time to build relationships with our community and our site coordinators. It just feels weird and uncomfortable to take that time to process when so many of the people who welcomed us and fed us do not have that time to just sit and process. So I guess the point of this post is that this year is already changing me. Even when I am comfortable, I still have this underlying sense of discomfort. Will I ever be able to enjoy a relaxing vacation again? Who knows? I think I have truly experienced the presence of the corn in my foot, an illustration that one of our leaders on cultural competency used during (dis)orientation. I am thankful for the presence of that corn, that annoying thing that just won't go away, but I am still unsure what God wants me to do with it.

One of the incredibly colorful sunsets we had the opportunity to witness

*A note on my use of the word Filipin@: at (dis)orientation, I first saw the use of the word Latin@ to describe both Latinos and Latinas. It is a way to include women in languages that have a heavily gendered way of describing groups. For example, 100 women and 1 man would traditionally be a group of Latinos despite the overwhelming majority of women in the group.

**Particularly in Dumaguete, we have seen a fairly high number of older white men with much younger Filipinas with them. With this whole notion of privilege and social classes, the older men have access to resources that may be the only opportunity that Filipinas have for upward mobility. It is also seen as an opportunity for “good breeding.” Perhaps, if you have children, they will have lighter skin or a straighter, longer nose. On the flip side, we watched a man and his younger Filipina companion swimming and kayaking in the middle of the day with the hot sun out. As Cobbie put it, any Filipina would know that she does not want to be there. Any time of sun exposure means that your skin could get darker. The overwhelming presence of whitening lotions, creams, and other products make it quite clear that Filipin@s want to have lighter skin. However, she does what he asks because so many factors give him the power in the relationship. On the other hand, I have absolutely no problems with interracial relationships or healthy, loving relationships. Perhaps I am being too judgmental. However, in my mind, the potential is extremely high for power dynamics and privilege to create ulterior motives in the relationship for both parties.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Immersing and Exposing

Over the course of the past four weeks, we have experienced six immersions in different communities around the Philippines. Here are short reflections on each community. The name of each community is linked to the Google Maps page for that place so that you have some sort of idea of where these places are. The pictures are lacking for the later immersions because I was more conscious of experiencing these things with my own eyes and body, rather than trying to preserve and document them behind a camera or phone. I hoped to make myself more present throughout the stay in the community.        

Indigenous People (IP) Community-This immersion taught me about living an abundant life within the context of simplicity. One of the main components of the YAV program is simple living. This can take many different forms based on your site placement. I am so thankful that our first immersion took place in this community. The village is 2 hours up into the mountains by habal habal (motorcycle). We were visiting a school in the community. We did not have access to electricity or running water, much less internet connection during this exposure. We went to bed early because it was dark outside. We woke up early because the roosters wouldn’t let us sleep. The beautiful children had so much joy and life in them despite their access to resources we consider basic necessities in the US. They live abundant lives, grateful for the land they live on and the opportunity to receive an education in their village while living quite simply.

Group picture with the teachers and students from the school in the IP community after our solidarity program, Photo Credit: Rachel Pomar

Banana Plantations-Visiting the banana plantation workers opened my eyes to the extent of the Empire’s power. When I went to Nicaragua for a month in 2012, I was studying the issues of banana plantation workers at the hands of huge multinational companies, particularly Dole. Even though Dole pulled out of Compostela about eight years ago, the plight of Filipin@ banana plantation workers is almost identical to the Nicaraguan banana plantation workers. Unfortunately for the Filipin@s, US attorneys haven’t swooped in to hold the companies accountable for the way they treat their workers. I was very angry as I learned and saw more of the situation for the workers in the fields and in the processing plants. I am still working on processing what to do with all of this information and how to act. More to come on that later.

A worker in the banana plantation pulling 6 50 kg bags of limestone through the fields

Moro (Muslim) Community-We only spent half a day with this community, but I was struck by my own perceptions of what it means, in my mind, to be Muslim. I am most familiar with Muslims of Arab descent and it was somewhat strange to me to see Filipina women wearing a hijab, the head covering. Despite the discrimination against their community and their gender, these women have organized to form Khadidja Cooperative. Through this organization, they fight for their rights as women and as Moros against discrimination within the community and outside of it.

Our group of volunteers with some of the women from Khadidja Cooperative in the Moro Community 
Kinatarcan Island-For this immersion, we split up our group of volunteers into three different barangays (villages) across the small island. Kendall and I stayed in Bitoon Barangay at the Barangay Captain’s house. It was high on a hill overlooking the barangay. Our comfort room (CR, bathroom) was at a neighbor’s house all the way down the steep hill. Kendall and I also experienced our first Philippine typhoon during this immersion. Typhoon Louise (category 1) came through the island on her way north to Luzon. Since we were at a higher elevation, the wind was much stronger. They arranged for Kendall and I to stay in what I guess could be described as a hut. It was a wooden structure with a tin roof, two tarp walls, a cardboard/plywood wall, and a roll-down canvas “wall.” Our first night in our humble abode was the scariest for me. I worried for the structural integrity of the hut. I felt the wind blow the tarp into my face over and over. I felt uncomfortable as we tried to sleep on a stack of plywood set on two wooden planks. In the middle of the night, I went to use the bathroom and saw that our hosts were sleeping on chairs under the small lip of roof outside of our room, covered with thin blankets. They slept in the wind and rain all night just in case we needed anything during the night. During the day, we were not allowed to come out of our space or help in any way. That didn’t stop Flora, our host mom, from cooking and cleaning almost constantly. Through the wind and rain, she kept an open fire going. Filipin@ hospitality means that the rice must go on, even in the middle of a typhoon. When I think back to how we like to react to storms and hurricanes in the US, it seems almost paranoid. This family and community are still recovering from Typhoon Yolanda that hit November 2013. That does not keep them from living life in the midst of new typhoons or storms. It is a beautiful example of resilience and amazing hospitality.
Our modest home on Kinatarcan Island

The beautiful view from our host family's house on the hill

The open fire used to boil water and cook our meals. It kept going throughout Typhoon Louise.

Kampingganon-Again, we were split among three different host families for this immersion on Bantayan Island. This community is a group of landless farmers who are tenants in a feudal system of agriculture. The farmers work the land but must give the landowners a share of the harvest. This sometimes leaves them unable to cover production costs, which means they must turn to the landowner for loans. Hopefully, they will be able to pay the loan back during the next growing season, but that may not happen. It is a cycle of dependence created and enforced by the system.
            The first night we stayed in this house, I watched Alfred, 4, pick up a packet of NesCafé coffee that was for our breakfast the next day. He was throwing it up in the air and trying to catch it. I motioned to him to throw it to me, which began a game of catch that lasted without pause for almost thirty minutes. Alfred learned to hold his hands together in order to have a better chance of catching the packet. It was so much fun despite its simplicity. As we were playing catch, Alfred’s mom was holding his younger sister. She urged the 2-3 year old to come to me and “bless.” The “Bless thing” or “mano po” is a sign of respect in Filipin@ families where a younger member holds out his/her hand to an older member. The older member holds it and puts the hand of the younger one to the hand of the older one, demonstrating a blessing or sharing of wisdom from the older to the younger. I had heard of this practice and observed it only a few times. I was extremely honored to be on the receiving end of it, especially after only knowing the family for a matter of hours. It showed me how easy it really is to begin to build relationships with children and adults in a short amount of time. I am so grateful for this experience, and it gives me confidence as I am eager to start working at my placement in Kananga, Leyte.

Patao-For this immersion, we spent three days in three different sitios (neighborhoods) within Patao Barangay. During this time, we experienced our second round with a strong Tropical Storm Mario that was heading north for Luzon.
In Guinlakgan, our first sitio, we bonded almost immediately with the children of the community by playing volleyball with the older boys and different games with the younger children. As we walked back around sunset, we started singing pop songs, much like the riff-off in the movie Pitch Perfect, including some of those songs, since the children love that movie. Again, this was a way for us to lower our guard in order to be together in community quicker and more easily. The next day it rained, so we stayed inside and played more games with the children. It was a perfect time to “be” rather than “do” as we learned and lived with this community.
We moved to Upper, the second sitio, as the rain continued. It was still a pretty lazy day, but we learned to remove corn kernels from each ear. The process does not take too much time with many hands, but it does cause blisters on thumbs fairly quickly if you are not used to the work. Then, they taught us to poke holes in shells that they use to make necklaces that sell for about PhP1 (1 Philippine Peso, PhP44=US$1) per strand. They look like necklaces you can find at just about any shop on the beach in the US. However, this price is so cheap, given the enormous amount of labor involved in collecting the shells, poking the holes, and stringing the necklaces. It will definitely make me think twice before bargaining down for something I consider cheap.
We then traveled to our last sitio, San Juan, to learn about life on the sea. We visited a community of people who were displaced by Yolanda and now live in woven huts with thatched roofs near mangroves. This will not be of much protection when the next strong typhoon comes through. We watched them stretch fishing net over bamboo boxes to make bobo, traps, for crabs and fish. I’m still lost on how they maintain their livelihood through sporadic work and payments that depend so much on the weather, but I think it’s ok that I don’t understand everything.

These have been a challenging, yet eye-opening and growing time for me to learn more about this country and its people. I have thoroughly enjoyed it so far and look forward to the months ahead. Thank you so much for all of your support. I will continue to need positive thoughts, prayers, and well-wishes as I continue on this whirlwind of an adventure.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Let Your Empire Come

First a schedule of my time in the Philippines so far:
Monday, August 25th: Depart US
Tuesday, August 26th: Arrive in Manila, yes, we lost a day in our travels.
Wednesday, August 27th: Fly from Manila to Davao, Mindanao
Thursday, August 28th-Friday, August 29th: Orientation, rest, relaxation, somewhat recover from jet lag in Davao at Haran Center, a mission house of United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP)
Saturday, August 30th-Tuesday, September 2nd: Immersion in an Indigenous People (IP) community in the mountains of Panansalan, Compostela, Compostela Valley Province, Mindanao, at Salugpongan Ta'Tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center, Inc., a K-8 school for Indigenous children living in the mountains
Tuesday, September 2nd: Travel to Tagum City for the night
Wednesday, September 3rd-Friday, September 5th: Immersion in the banana plantations in Compostela
Friday, September 5th: Return to Davao and Haran Center, our "home" sweet home
Saturday, September 6th: Immersion in a Moro community on the outskirts of Davao
Sunday, September 7th: Worship at Davao UCCP, travel to Samal Island for vacation, processing, and relaxation
Monday, September 8th: Enjoy a beach morning and return to Davao and Haran Center
Tuesday, September 9th: Leave Davao and Haran Center, fly to Cebu City, Cebu and begin stay at the Center for Development, Education, and Training (CENDET), the training center for UCCP
Wednesday, September 10th: The first full, and much needed, free day to relax
Thursday, September 11th: Orientation with Central Visayas Farmers Development Center, Inc. (FARDEC) and travel around Cebu City
Friday, September 12th-Saturday, September 20th: Travel around Cebu with FARDEC for another series of immersions with coastal and farming communities still rebuilding from Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in November 2013
Sunday, September 21st: Travel to Dumaguete, Negros Oriental for our first retreat and last week of orientation before we travel to our sites and begin at our work placements

Needless to say, it's been a lot. It's been busy. It's been hard to process. It's hard to feel settled at all. Half of my luggage was in Manila until it got shipped to Dumaguete. We had somewhat established our homebase at Haran in Davao...and then we left. Now, our home base is FARDEC and CENDET (Yes, Filipinos love their acronyms), but we will only spend four nights total here. It's a lot of change and transition that started three and a half weeks ago when I left South Carolina and flew to New York for a week of (dis)orientation. However, that's not the purpose of this particular blog post.

During (dis)orientation, we had many sessions that may or may not have challenged our beliefs about ourselves, society, religion, culture, relationships, and the Bible. One of these instances came when our worship leader and YAV alum (YAVA), Matt Black, explained a new (to me) interpretation of the Lord's Prayer. Apparently, the Greek word that is traditionally translated to "kingdom" refers to "empire," as in the Roman Empire elsewhere in the Bible. He invited us to consider what it would mean if we were asking God to bring God's empire to this world. What would that look like?

We explored this in our daily Bible studies with former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA), Rick Ufford-Chase, director of Stony Point Conference Center, where we had our (dis)orientation. Using the work of Ched Myers, Rick led us through a political reading and understanding of Jesus's life, ministry, and mission. Let me say that political does not necessarily mean partisan. Partisan is liberal, conservative, democrat, republican, libertarian, independent, etc. Political simply means that Jesus had some serious words for the government and culture of his time, no matter the ideology.

In our anti-racism and cultural competence training by Crossroads, we started to unpack the issues of privilege and our complicity in today's empire. We described the "cultural center" we saw in the US and what characteristics would lead someone to be outside of that center. Where do we fit inside or outside of the box? Now that we know this information, how can we use it in our years of service?

Again, this idea of an empire came up when J. Herbert Nelson, director of the PCUSA Office of Public Witness spoke to us about faith in advocacy. He confronted us about how we all have conformed to the empire. The empire is all about domination and control of everyone and everything. The empire protects its power. The empire is inviting and seductive.

So it is with this background that I came to the Philippines for my year of service for a lifetime of change. Oh, what a change it will be. I have already seen myself changing. I am probably going to come home much more radical than I was when I left. I'm really ok with that. These past few weeks have taught me that Jesus was a pretty radical guy. He wanted to really change the world (read: empire). If I am to truly follow him and strive to live like he did, then I must not be afraid to take risks for the sake of justice and peace.

At Haran, we had a book on our bedside table called Seeking God's Kingdom of Justice and Peace by Father Peter Geremia. Fr. Peter has been a priest for 51 years, and most of that time has been spent in the Philippines as a missionary, particularly in Mindanao. Now, those of you concerned for my safety may have seen that there is a US State Department travel warning issued for the Philippines. It warns US citizens not to travel to Mindanao, especially the southern and central areas. Well, what did we do the day after we arrived? We flew to Mindanao.

Fr. Peter's book is his diary from 1972, when he arrived in Manila, to 2013, his 50th anniversary of being a priest. During that time he received many death threats, was accused of rape and robbery (both false accounts), and saw his friends, fellow priests and church workers killed, threatened, and/or kidnapped. Did he ever stop? No. Was he afraid? Absolutely. However, he knew that the people and their rights were worth it. He was not going to let some paramilitary group waiver his commitment to empowering the people. He felt that his call was to work with and minister to the Poor, Deprived, Oppressed, Marginalized, Exploited, and Suffering people, or PDOMES.

Clearly, this book has meant a lot to me so far on this journey. It was comforting to read his first experiences with jeepneys and "Hey, Joe!" in 1972, as we were getting acclimated to the same things 40 years later. It was also an eye-opener into the history of the Philippines and why things are the way they are. Unfortunately, the situation has not changed much. In 2012, one of Fr. Peter's companions, another priest, was gunned down by a motorcyclist as he was getting into his car. Extrajudicial killings against church workers and those working to organize PDOMES populations are still happening.

Like Fr. Peter, I refuse to let these stories deter me from seeking God's will in this country this year. Instead, they give me great determination and motivation to learn as much as I can from these lovely beautiful people. I welcome the change that will come this year, even if that may put me in harm's way this year or later in my life. It is ok because it's not about me, anyway.

As usually happens when I blog, I get sidetracked and write about something different than I had planned. I will call it a night for now (or morning for everyone in the other hemisphere) and get back with more of my thoughts and reactions to the empire later.

Until then, much peace and love.