COVID-19 is a Great Equalizer

I left the Philippines when the new virus started to affect Wuhan. That was the first of February. I went prepared, even brought with me masks and hand sanitiser. It was the only time I spent over 3 hours waiting for my flight. Then, I arrived in Uganda not having to get myself checked or quarantined, like it is now. I only have to show the usual yellow card to let the officers at the airport know I am vaccinated with yellow fever and I’m good to go.

Two months since, I am self quarantined in my little house up in West Nile after I was told I am a PUM – person under monitoring. 

I left KAMPALA just in time for the government declaration of national lock down, even private vehicles are not anymore allowed in the streets.  But I was there in Kampala when the first case was confirmed. The same day most expats with families are able to leave to go home fearing the worst being here. I got exposed from one of those under 20 people despedida, thanks to the many meetings we do trying to anticipate the arrival of the virus at Uganda doorstep. 

With the national lockdown, my organisation  has to stop our field intervention in the refugee settlement. Myself being in quarantine is relegated to work-from-home and had to endure Skype meetings to get something done for our projects.

Social distancing is already hard, being self-quarantined is harder. I don’t envy those with families with them, especially young kids. The same time the office has output expectations while on it.  But hey, I am not complaining, just stating facts!

The virus is a great equalizer; it is a serious business. If we don’t follow all the precautionary measures we put many peoples life at stake, and to be in charge of getting guidelines for our intervention in the failed, I have to set an example for all.

Stay safe everyone.

A Reluctant Overseas Worker

How many of you remember your first overseas sojourn outside the Philippines?

I am sure you were very excited with a mixture of apprehension of not knowing what to expect from the airport of origin to the new port of entry.

I finished a course in college where we are destined to be working overseas. My friends already had contracts signed for the US before they even graduated. They cannot stop talking where they will go, but not me. I didn’t find working overseas appealing until I experienced it myself.

A little backstory

I content myself working in a tertiary hospital 10 minutes walk from my house. The hospital was behind the zoo and next to the Manila Bay. The lion was my alarm clock, but I don’t need to rush to go to work. I eat proper breakfast, and I always get to attend the morning mass before I head to my department to prepare.

I was seeing an average of 40 patients every day and supervised at least six students. I was not obliged to attend any meetings, so all the time spent in the hospital was mostly patient care and supervision-training of future therapists.

And then I got bored. I got disillusioned with my chosen profession because being in a tertiary hospital; you don’t get much excitement regarding the type of cases to treat. We had the usual instances of strokes. Then there would be the occasional fracture, cerebral palsy, and plenty of arthritis.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to be with those people, but it just became monotonous and mediocre before I even knew that word exists.

Despite the department being the hub for cases that take forever to heal, the people I met and gave treatment to are the best people you will encounter in your life. The most grateful people. I was well fed with local delicacies because one of my oldest patients owns the biggest stall in the Paco Market, selling all local “kakanin” (treats). We met special people too, and they get attached to their therapist that sometimes it becomes a competition – a healthy one to who should go first.

Then I changed work. 

For a year, I became a secretary of one medical association. I can’t say it enriched my life except being organized. I discovered how awful some doctors are in real life at the same time I made friends for life.

I decided to quit for my sanity’s sake and took the ship to go to the south of the Philippines and discover General Santos and Davao. It was a good break, and it also broke the bank that pushed me to accept the first job offered by a competent doctor I met the year before.

I became a research assistant and bypassed the recruitment process until I can’t anymore. That stint enriched my life – it opened my eyes to a full new understanding of research and ethics. And of course office politics.

A blessing in disguise 

I can’t seem to get my laboratory to become a regular employee. After several attempts, I accepted that I would only work as a temp and wilt away in the lab with the monkeys.

Until I got a call from my brother saying he gave my credential to one international organization in Cambodia and should wait to be contacted. Eventually got the proverbial call, offering a short term job training local physiotherapists on the job. How hard can it be? Since I was already doing it, the decision to accept didn’t take too long to come.

I got hired.

The organization processed my paper immediately once I had all my documents in order, and two months after my birthday celebration in the year 2000, I flew out of the Philippines landing in Cambodia to start a new adventure, and I never looked back.

 

Can Abortion Be Justified?

Last night I dined with a friend. He’s the coordinator of one big international humanitarian NGO. We worked in a very different field, but somehow it is still connected.

Over wine, we got talking about the kinds of things we see in our places of work. On why expatriates like us are discouraged from being in insecure locations such as inside the settlement to spend the night, let alone live every day.

I said I would not do it. I am done with my cowboy days but I am sure young humanitarian actors will push their luck and try the adventure. But is it an adventure to live with the refugees if you represent oppression and reason for them being displaced? Maybe not, but that’s a story for another time.

On a more serious tone, our conversation gravitated on the subject of abortion. Since both of us work in the health sector, these are subjects we know are sensitive, and talked on hushed voices, and never blurted out in daylight, but we know it happens, and justified.

You see, without blaming anyone or any agency, we know that rape happens in the settlement or camps. People are in an insecure location and vulnerable situation, and many are just vultures taking advantage of the case, and the people they think are below them.

Imagine my surprise to hear that not only women are vulnerable in such a situation. In one week, he said they got report of men being raped but women out numbered them. Reports of defilement is available at police stations, but whether or not perpetrators are apprehended is hard to tell.

So, what he told me why they do it – abortion to victims of rape, made me think twice about why I am doing what I am doing here in Uganda. I even have to agree to disagree with him based on my faith.

That’s why abortion is hush-hush is because it’s the last resort. He said the best is still to have more robust policies on the protection of women and men against sexual exploitation and abuse, and stronger enforcement from the authorities. But when that system fails, there should be a support network that will catch these women victimized by their vulnerability, in a place where they thought they are protected but are not.

Being a victim is a hard pill to swallow. The psychological trauma it brings to the victim makes it hard for them to think straight. The fear of being discovered, labeled, and eventually ostracised in a community where you’re supposed to get your strength from to go on each day is tremendous.

What happens when the rape resulted in pregnancy?

That’s when another cycle of psychological trauma happens. Being pregnant from a rape always remind that person of what happened, of how she was not able to avoid it. Blame herself for bringing it to herself. The fight internally gets intense, making it hard for her to fight back, and often, the psychological trauma wins over the rational way of thinking, which can lead to many difficult decisions, including abortion and the worst suicide.

The mental health support system is as complicated as it can get. Not everybody understands what they are talking about, and when in such a complicated situation, often, the victims are left to fend for themselves. Making it hard for women to feel they had someone on their side. My friend told me that even he doesn’t like that program they have on abortion, but after seeing women getting into such a situation, he knew it has to be done. But he also told me that its the last resort when all support fails, and if they don’t do it, women will also find a crude way to get rid of the pregnancy that will also put their life further at risk.

So for us not to get there, as a humanitarian actor, we have a lot of responsibility for the people we serve.

First, when we design policy on protection and prevention of sexual violence and abuse, don’t let it on paper and pretend that action will magically materialize. No, it never does, that is why we should put weight on it and enforce it. We are making sure something or someone answers for the atrocities received in the hands of perpetrators.

Second, empower the support groups. Avoid the victim-blaming that often happens when rape is discovered. Nobody wants to be accosted and violated. Notably, no one should take advantage of a vulnerable situation to exert power over women and men.

Third, regardless of faith practices, we have to find solutions that best serve the many. I am not endorsing abortion. Like my friend, I am against it and will never advise it on anyone, but if all else fails, make sure that the solution identified will serve best the person and allowed to believe that s/he is not a victim but rather a survivor.

Fourth, as a person, we are our brothers and sisters keeper. We look out for each other and support each other by making sure that we all are equitable. God never wants harm to come our way, He wants us to live in harmony, but the world is crazy now. We become selfish and self-centered to the point of destruction.

The life where I live now is never easy. We make do of what we have, take advantage of the simple pleasures where it is merited. My friends here and I take our jobs seriously, that’s why our after-dinner subject was something that resonated in my head long after the wine wears off.

The road we travel to reach our workplace

Home for the Holidays

Ten months after my recovery from an injury in 2018, I accepted a job to support the refugee crisis in Uganda. By mid-November, 2018, I found myself changing continent once again, and psyching myself to live up north, west of the Nile river. 

Uganda, like the Philippines, is mostly Catholic. They have the same faith practice as us, though we are more into the fanfare, colors, and traditions. Theirs from my experience is mostly tradition and loud music.

When December came, instead of me planning to take my holidays outside of my new country, I decided to spend it with the locals. Thinking that since it’s with a family, I’ll get to experience “holidays a la Uganda.” Of course, I had a bias coming from the Philippines where Christmas season begins the moment the months’ last syllables end in “ber.” 

It was not the same. Instead, I get to live and experience, central Uganda way of life, especially on food and experience my good friends family’s faith practice without the fun-fare, lights, and colors I am used in my country. 

That’s why when I was asked to stay for another year, one of my conditions was to be allowed to travel home and spend my collected leave in my home country. 

—-

As always, the Philippines did not disappoint. 

I arrived with music and decorations fitting to my expectations. The airport was alive with live music from a chorale while families and friends are eagerly awaiting their loved ones. 

At my home, the motif was blue and silver with LED fairy lights. My dad’s little yellow house is like always on fire when the tree is lighted. Food, of course, was what I missed – the traditional rice cakes and the pork dishes I only imagined back in Uganda. 

Meeting friends was inevitable, and it is still fun catching up on what has happened since we last met, also going back to our kindergarten life. 

I got sick, of course. The change in the weather and long travel made me weak after Christmas, so New Year was a little subdued, but still, nothing beats an hour of fireworks display before I return to a slower welcome to 2020. When I welcomed 2019, I was in bed before midnight, and we don’t have the big table of food and pastries that are served to welcome the year, and I was not part of our family’s welcome photo. But this year, our yellow motif was punctuated by me wearing my yellow and black Ketenga cloth wrap dress. 

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As I continue to enjoy my seven weeks break, the Taal volcano, which is 50 kilometers away from where my dad lives, erupted. One moment was still planning to make a road trip; the next thing I knew, all the places we planned to visit is covered in ash. 

The momentum change. I cannot be idle while on holiday. I was avoiding to work, but I cannot let my friends down. I helped in any way I can. 

Two days after it erupted, I had my eye surgery. A minor operation, but very sensitive. It prevented me from going to ash-laden provinces and be at the forefront. Instead, I used my connections to help mobilize support to the most vulnerable people in times like this – the people with disabilities and the elderly. Pretty much the same as what I am doing in Uganda.

I am glad I have friends that are present on the ground and providing specific support to people with disabilities in the evacuation centers. And those, making sure funds received are provided to those that needed them the most. 

In the end, my holidays turning out to be very enriching. I don’t celebrate the hardship people have now because of the Taal volcano erupting. I celebrate the people that heed the call for help, and the Batangueno affected for trying to help each other out. 

I celebrate those behind the scenes, helping in any way they can to support the efforts on the ground. 

I have a couple of weeks left before I go back to Uganda, but before I do that, I will celebrate my birth month through our yearly feeding program. Isang Bata Isang Tasa (One Child One Cup) started 13 years ago, as a way to thank God for a new year by sharing my blessing to the children in my community. 

We give special attention to children under five and children with disabilities to encourage them to live healthier. We also educate their caregivers – mother, father, sisters, grandmother, etc. on how to continue to live a healthy lifestyle, in body and mind. 

Once done,  I will plan now for the 14th year, looking for sponsors and additional activities to make sure that we bring this service beyond my village and help more kids appreciate growing up healthy and clean all the time. 

Until the next celebration!

This article had been published in World Pulse

https://www.worldpulse.com/community/users/coolasas/posts/93687

Thatch

Home away from home.

For most people in the settlement, this is what they call home.

When before they live freely, roaming the streets without fear.

Finding everything they need.

Where children can play. You hear laughter like no cares in the world.

Now, they live under protection.

Because some people decided a life for them.

Where fighting becomes normal everyday life.

Men become greedy with power.

That they forget that the world is not only for them but for all.

Out of fear.

They run.They fled. They cry.

That one day, their life will be back to the way it was.

In their own home.

In their own land.

Almost Home

I like to take the car when I travel to and from Kampala from my home in Arua, almost 500 kilometers away. When alone in the car with the driver I get to see everything and take photos all I want, like this highway in front of me.

The bridge in front of me is the sign I am almost home after a little over six hours in the road. Two more and I will finally be at the comfort of it.

Meantime, I enjoyed watching the clouds in front of me and marvel at the blue skies that welcome me back in the north of Uganda.

#NeverAgain: The Parallelism of the Suffering of the Filipino People Then and Now

Ironically today is also the #InternationalDayofPeace and apt occasion for us to go back to the history of the #Philippines at the time we were ruled by Marcos, his family and his cronies.

I was still in cloth diapers when Martial Law was declared, I was in my ruffled knickers running around when all the atrocities were happening around me, and I was in grade school when #EdsaRevolution happened. The events that happened in those times did not impact my childhood because life then was normal. You can say, I enjoyed the perks of being under the rule because as a child I am impressionable — I will agree to anything you tell me and eat whatever was on the table.

But as I grew up I realized, life was not easy, we are not rich, many more are poorer than the poor us. While those in the government are rich, and so are their friends. I soon realized there’s wealth inequality in our country and there are insurgencies in the mountains fighting for the greater good of who is still something that baffles me up to now.

I never like politics, we never talk about it, but I am not naive. Mind you my mom was a loyalist to Marcos, and we never ate galunggong and just to oppose we say we are pro Aquino but it was not true because for me they are all cut from the same cloth only some are more greedy than the others.

Now fast forward to 2018, the early part of the video – a review of how it – the Martial Law all begun seems to be repeating itself in the personality of the self-proclaimed “good” leader – the good mayor who is deluding himself as the president of the Republic. He emulates someone who had divided the country into their own pieces of Legoland and does not care if the legos are trampled upon. We’re going back in the dark times and worst, the young and the poor are being led to believe that this is the way forward, to progress.

But do you see the parallelism of then and now?

The same is happening again and maybe worst … the prices of food are soaring while our lives continue to derail. Plummeting down like we didn’t know any better. Security even inside your own home is becoming insecure and an illusion of a good life seems to be getting blurry and the dreams becoming more unreachable.

You will hear, those loyal to the Marcoses and to the current government that no martial law happened. Conditioning the minds as if all of us are demented. I suggest you watch the video.

If you can maintain an open mind or remove bias in your system, you will see the parallelism of THEN and NOW and you ask again — did it or did it not happen?

If I can answer for you … it happened, and I will tell you it should not happen #NEVERAGAIN again because we should never let it happen for us now and for the future generations (again).