(Author of Gun Dealers' Daughter, winner of PEN America/Open Book Award 2013)
I was getting my first dose of chemotherapy on the day Yolanda hit Tacloban, November 8. I was doing research on my fourth novel, William McKinley’s World, about Tacloban and Balangiga in 1901. My veins were dripping steroids and taxol, cytoxan and dexamathosone as I was looking at pictures of the dead killed by American forces in 1901. And when I turned on Facebook, I saw this other horror.
It was a trifecta, one might call it: history and body and geography all at once surging into my bones and saying—help me.
Even now, remembering that day, I feel this weakening, a crying jag falling upon me—because I grew up in Tacloban. It is my city. I grew up in Housing and then on Juan Luna Street, corner Burgos, but now I live abroad, like too many of us, and like everyone else in these Yolanda stories of horror, I scanned FB and local tv patrol shows online for signs of my street and family. By Day 4, in perhaps some hyperactive ravage of taxotere and steroids, I wrote an op ed for the New York Times about the unconsoling wreckage of my city’s history. In so many ways, you see, I have always been dismayed by Tacloban.
Tacloban is a city of hierarchies and a venal fiefdom of families and their entrenched henchmen, and I have always, even as a child, hated its feudal personality politics, a divided city with a very few rich, often fatted by plunder, and a too vast poor, often failed by plunder, and the many able professionals in the middle who, like me, leave it. Not too different from any of the other provinces in the country, maybe. I am very aware of my unstable place in my country as I weep over ravage: we who leave because mind and body find shelter conveniently elsewhere. It is both a human circumstance and a Philippine condition—this migration. Paul Nadal, a critic at Berkeley, tells me that the Filipino novel (the kind of book I am writing in New York about Tacloban and Balangiga) began as an envoi from abroad, starting with, say, Rizal’s Crisostomo Ibarra, and the work of the great Filipino novelist, Juan C. Laya, for whom the National Book Award for the Novel in English is named. The Filipino novel is a kind of tax from the migrant who is always thinking of home.
In the wake of the typhoon, a group of us, some abroad, most in Tacloban, created a volunteer relief organization, Kusog Tacloban (kusog means strength in Waray), organized mainly on FB, to help with the vanquished manpower on the ground. No one could help because the mobilizers were also victims, reported Joji Dorado to my sister, who, though a consultant who audits global labor practices, is also an entrepreneur running a business in Palo. We’ve been doing stopgap relief since the storm’s second week—recruiting doctors for the MSF and UNFP, aiding soup kitchens, hammering in temporary roofs, assessing school damage, fielding calls from desperate barangays, setting up psychosocial services for traumatized children.
Like all who have joined in the relief effort, from international to national to local to private aid groups, from barangay to familial, we find that needs are constant, heartbreaking, and overwhelming.
The work already done is herculean—not to be dismissed. The generous aid of international groups, the harassed yet constant work of the national government, the frazzled and committed work of the local units, the frustrated yet persistent work of the barangays—the daily difficulty of rebuilding is clear.
We know everyone is trying to pitch in—concern is there.
And yet, and yet. A cancer dripping in the bones, a weakened body.
The aid work is turning from “emergency response phase to early recovery programming,” as the USAID website calls its shift in goals beginning December 18. But what Kusog Tacloban workers on the ground have noticed is, instead of optimism, a deepening despair.
On our ops page, we post this: Hi Kapitana Epang han Bgy 62C han Sagkahan, Tacloban, nagsiring kan Magina Fernandez: Diri man kami naabat ha amon barangay nga mayda nasulod nga bulig tikang ha gawas. Nahuhulop na kami hit kabutangan hit amon barangay. Kutob san-o kami maghuhulat?
Kapitana Epang of Barangay 62C of Sagkahan, Tacloban, tells Magina Fernandez (of Kusog and of Barangay 62C): We do not feel in our barangay any sense of aid coming from outside. We are in despair over the state of our barangay. How long are we going to wait?
This is what we understand from people on the ground:
Makahurulop gud man it diri nasabot hit mga nananabo. Para kan Kapitana Epang ngan hi Kapitana Nimfa han Candahug, makakabulig it informasyon parte hit mga aid: pera it maabot? para ano nga mga project? ano nga mga barangay it makakarawat? ginaano nira pagpili kun hin-o it makakakarawat? san-o matikang ito nga project? san-o matatapos? ano nga klase hin materiales it dapat gingamit han contractor, kun balay man ito or eskuwelahan? ano’t kadako?
It is frustrating when you don’t know what’s coming up. Kapitana Epang of Sagkahan and Kapitana Nimfa of Candahug will be helped by specific information: How much aid is coming? For what projects? Which barangays will get them? How will the beneficiaries be chosen? When will the project begin? When will it end? What materials will the contractor use, for homes and schools? How big will the buildings be?
Here’s what we see on the ground:
Kun maaram it aton mga kapitana, makakasamwak hira hit ira mga residente hini nga datos. Makakagi-os hira. Diri hira sugad nga mahuhulop. Kun maaram it mga tawo hini nga mga datos, pwede hira mag-evaluate ngan mag-monitor: tama ba ini nga hingangadtuan hini nga aid? Amo ba gud it aton panginahanglan? Maupay ba it ira kagamit han kwarta? Makakasabot gihap kun baga may nangungupit.
If the barangay kapitanas Epang and Nimfa knew, they could share the information with their people. They could be proactive. They would not feel so helpless. If people had information, they could evaluate and monitor. Is this the correct use of our aid? Is it what we need? Are they using the money well? And if people have information, they will know if someone is cheating.
I know, as a cancer patient, that knowledge is power. To be told clearly your regimen, the specific medicines and why, the length of treatment, the numbers to call. To have a mechanism for information, for intervention, when the treatment drags you down, when your body is failing, and you need to understand why.
Rizal, of course, was an eye doctor. He wrote a novel about our need to see. As Rizal knew, and as anyone can look up in an ebook on Google, first published in 1915, Ophthalmology: Essays, Abstracts and Reviews, Volume 11, noli me tangere was also a term for an inoperable cancer, a fatal cataract that was his symbol for a darkened country. But he wrote the novel to open his people’s eyes—to let them know.
Knowledge is power.
Two months after Yolanda, the plea from the devastated—an mga na-Yolandahan, as we Warays, a verb-bound, gerund-making people, now call ourselves—is simple.
A path to strength, to healing this trifecta of ill—of the body, the geographic, and the politic—is to give us tools for knowing. Let us have mechanisms from all actors involved, give us means to see, to monitor our aid. Let us know what is coming, to soothe this growing rather than diminishing sense of despair.
To the embassies of the generous countries offering assistance, we are petitioning that they instate one such mechanism, a website with a dedicated section on:
(1) aid amounts for Yolanda-stricken areas, allocated by project; ?
(2) project plans (objectives, project sites, target beneficiaries, expected outputs/outcomes, and implementation timelines); ?
(3) agencies/organizations accountable for implementing these projects;?
(4) regular project updates on progress and performance.
This petition on change.org is one in a series. http://tinyurl.com/o55k7my
We will be urging all major actors (international, national, local, corporate, and nonprofit) to provide specific and actionable mechanisms for transparency, imagined as tools for citizens, so we are not in the dark about our future.
We are happy to hear President Noynoy Aquino’s comments on transparency at the Good Governance Summit last January 15, announcing the government’s Open Data project, aligned with its FAITH hub itemizing foreign aid. Ping Lacson, the rehabilitation czar, is working with private corporations to craft plans for a “bridal registry” of projects, and we hope transparency will also be central to their plans. We hope, through these petitions that bring transparency to the fore, urging clear information from all actors, we can triangulate details and gain the best vision of our future. A sustainable future of environmental stability, economic integrity geared toward the local population’s needs, and progress available to all, not just the few with power.
We hope you can sign this series of petitions on transparency with us, our way to counteract the cancer of the body politic—the cancer of disempowerment, the cataract of not knowing. Transparency is a way for citizens to write our own novel. It is key toward our path of healing.