Tuesday 24 December 2013

The gift of giving

A group of Filipino friends taught me a thing or two about giving to people who need help
By Wong Kim Hoh, The Sunday Times, 22 Dec 2013

Last week in the Philippines, I came across a Christmas tree unlike any I've seen.

It was done up by the denizens in Tanauan, which along with Palo and Tacloban, is one of the areas worst hit by typhoon Haiyan.

The tree had no tinsel or pine needles and there was no angel for a tree topper. Instead, on the gnarly labyrinthine roots of an upturned tree, the typhoon victims had hung placards, fashioned from pieces of plank and driftwood, bearing the names of all the good folks and organisations which have helped them.

The tree speaks of gratitude and hope, thanks and giving and is an arresting sight in the desolate landscape. I had gone to the Leyte province after I found out what my colleague Jomar, a senior sub-editor based in Manila, and his friends Rogelio, Clint, Torks and Irene have been doing here.

On their own, the five - tight friends since their undergraduate days at the University of Philippines in Tacloban in the 1980s - have organised their own mercy mission, issuing safety boots to electricians restoring power lines and distributing food supplies to hundreds of hungry families after typhoon Haiyan - or Yolanda as the locals call her - struck last month. More than 6,000 people were killed and about 1,800 others are missing.

The next item on their agenda: helping to rebuild schools and homes. They are doing all this in the true spirit of giving, for no other reason than to see the city that they love get back on its feet.

I was moved so I told Jomar I would like to go with him on one of his trips too.

I don't know if ageing does this to people, but as I grow older, I feel that I should do more to school my soul, make it a little kinder, more inclusive and expansive.

Jomar was a good example to emulate. Since the disaster, he has made several trips from Manila to ground zero. He camped out for a couple of days at Villamor Airbase in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon to get on a flight to Tacloban. In between rallying for aid and relief supplies, he also went out of his way to help a family of five - who had lost everything except the clothes on their backs - he met at the airport.

The day before we left Manila for Tacloban, he, Torks and their children stayed up to pack 500 school bags filled with stationery and notebooks for schoolchildren.

When calamity strikes, people react differently. Some help by giving money; others give time. Jomar and his friends are giving both.

I asked him why one morning. Why stake such a personal claim, why expose yourself to dead bodies, destruction and heartbreak, why wear yourself out juggling work, fatherhood and this when the easier thing to do would have been to send a cheque to a relief organisation and let it do the job?

Because, he said simply, my cousin, my friends and people I know are affected. Because the people of Tacloban need help and we are in a position to help. And because, he added, doing this is therapeutic; it helps me forget my own problems.

It's a sentiment echoed by his friend Rogelio who lives in Tacloban. The lawyer packed his children off to relatives in Cebu but chose to stay behind with his wife Rufel to help Jomar.

"If you can't help yourself, you'd better help other people," he told me wryly.

He is not joking when he said Haiyan has thrown him into a pit of woes.

He had poured his savings and taken bank loans to build his dream home for his family and they were supposed to have moved in before Christmas.

But what was to have been an elegant two-storey house with a walk-in wardrobe in the master bedroom and a commanding view of the sea from the second floor balcony is now just a sad concrete shell. The typhoon had blown off the roof; and looters had carted away the handsome fittings and construction materials.

Haiyan even deposited a huge rice barge named Ligaya (which means joy in Tagalog) in front of the house, blocking the view of the sea.

"I cried when I first saw what had become of my dream house. I have kids in school, loans to service and no legal work now. I don't even know if all my clients are still alive," he said.

And yet three days after the catastrophe, he and his wife were distributing food and medical supplies to the very people who looted his home.

His wife Rufel said: "What else can we do but open our hearts? They probably needed the building materials more."

Perhaps the experts are right. People who give selflessly, they say, experience a lot of good things: self-worth, happiness, peace and love, among others.

It certainly explains why Clint - yet another member of Jomar's band of able helpers - has his good humour intact even though the typhoon has robbed him blind.

"Why, why, why Yolanda? Why, why, why Yolanda?" he would often sing to the tune of Tom Jones' classic hit Delilah.

I spent three days in the Leyte Province with these good folks. On the second day, the rain led us to stop the car in Basey in Samar, another area wrecked by the typhoon.

We got out and found ourselves in the San Antonio Elementary School. Principal Theresa Malacan was huddled in a room with her 14 female teachers to discuss the future. She told us that Yolanda killed six of her 547 students, made two of her teachers homeless and destroyed several of the classrooms in the school.

She and her staff were at a loss as to what to do. The new term starts next month and they had no teaching materials. To add to their woes, the authorities had given them just enough money to pay for construction materials but not enough to pay for labour to build six makeshift classrooms.

After an hour of animated discussion, we told Mrs Malacan and her staff we would pay the wages of the workmen and get them a photocopier and generator so that they could make copies of their teaching materials in time for the new school term.

When we walked out of the classroom, their whoops of joy rang in our ears.

My three-day sojourn with Jomar and company is bitter-sweet. But I think it's the best Christmas present I've given myself by far.

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