I went back to Tacloban one year after the biggest typhoon believed to ever make land struck the Visayas, the central islands of the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) left death and destruction, destroying people’s jobs, their homes, their schools and health clinics. There was so much debris on the road from the airport to the town it prevented the much needed rescue operation getting under way for several days.
I visited with the UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos, flying over the city and it was like as if somebody had tossed their toys out of a pram. Masts were mangled, cars and motorcycle taxis strewn around, ships gone aground and everywhere the corrugated tin roofs and houses blown to shreds.
A tidal wave caused by the storm killed many hundred of people living along the shoreline in shanty towns. One aid worker travelling to a meeting a few days after the typhoon saw the leg of a dead child sticking out from under the debris.
Stopping at the spot to rescue the body on his return, they lifted some of the debris to find 50 bodies beneath. These were the poorest of the poor; the people who live in shanty towns built on the shores of the ocean and whose only means of earning a living is by fishing. Many are undocumented, probably never registered at birth adding to the uncertainty of just how many died during that time – we may never know the true numbers.
One year on and Tacloban is a different city. Traffic is back, people are trading on the streets again, the city is alive. There are large numbers of very vulnerable people who remain living in less than ideal conditions and there are concerns that when the next puff of wind comes along, they will be the most affected. The very poor have no safety nets. To truly protect them, you would first need to tackle the problem of endemic poverty.
However, standing in the streets of Tacloban and looking around the improvement is remarkable and visible. All is not perfect, but in true Filipino fashion, they have dusted themselves off and are getting on with their lives. Their resilience is awe inspiring and often times humbling.
Jeff Manibay is one such example of Filipino resilience. Both his elderly parents died during the typhoon. “We are well used to typhoons,” he told me, “but nobody expected the tsunami-like surge of water that came.” With the death of his parents Manibay lost almost everything he held dear, including his business.
The owner of a small cable network Cat8, all Jeff’s equipment was lost when the ocean surge crashed through the streets of Tacloban. His team were out filming the typhoon at the time.
Rather than wallowing in pity, Manibay set out to rebuild his life, energising the community and bringing them together to remember those who were lost during the typhoon. He organised the candlelight vigil and worked tirelessly to ensure people across the Philippines and the world do not forget what happened to them.
Mass was celebrated at the graveyard in the morning where the victims were buried. Thousands came to mourn their dead. I watched one woman stand alone at a grave, head bent, sobbing silently. She was like so many others who came. The heads of the UN agencies came to pay their respect, as did the non-government organisations who were so crucial to the recovery efforts in the clean up operation.
Tacloban is Marcos-country and Imelda herself arrived via helicopter. She was then brought in a wheelchair to the awning, where she sat at the top row. I know the woman is 85 years-old but she has had some amount of plastic surgery, not a line on her face, or her make up was so thick you just couldn’t see what was behind the mask. She was wearing a wig and had a beautiful diamond swan broche pinned on her dress. She was wearing a pair of Ecco sandals, which resembled something a nun would wear… I wasn’t impressed with the choice of shoes from a woman whose footwear take up the contents of a museum in Manila.
The Marcos and Aquino families are political opponents, so there was minimal representation from the government, which is currently Aquino-led. The Mayor (a relation of Imelda) is critical of the government’s response to the recovery efforts. At the end of the day everything is political, even rebuilding communities after a typhoon.
That evening people lined the streets in a candlelight vigil that stretched for over 24 kilometres. The atmosphere changed from the somber graveside prayers earlier in the morning to an almost carnival-like celebration with candles lined along the main streets, winding around the side roads and out as far as the settlements housing those who lost their home duirng the storm.
I was privileged to be able to return one year after Typhoon Haiyan; privileged to stand with the people of Tacloban; and privileged to call some my friends.
Imelda Marcos uses her body guards as crutches to help her to her seat at the commemoration mass for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan
Remembering the dead at the one year anniversary mass for victims of Typhoon Haiyan
Check out some of their stories on unocha.org/philippines
Irish aid worker Orla Fagan is based in the Philippines and she tells John this morning about civet coffee produced in an unusual manner using civet cats. You can follow Orla on her blog at http://www.fagansblog.com
I was just one day in the office in Manila before the first typhoon of 2014 came trundling down the Pacific and crashed into Northern Luzon, striking Manila, Albay and Bataan. It was a bit of a baptism of fire and hopefully not an omen of things to come over the next few months.
Almost 100 people lost their lives in the typhoon and luckily it avoided the areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan on 8 November 2013. There are still millions of people left homeless in the wake of Haiyan, believed to be the biggest weather system to ever make landfall. Another typhoon hitting them at this time would be catastrophic and indeed I don’t suppose they will be as lucky when the next weather system strikes.
In a typical Filipino fashion, everything and everybody is called something different to their original name. The most recent typhoon was known internationally as Rammasun, but known locally as Glenda. Super-typhoon Haiyan also had a different local name – Yolanda. Confused? Good, because that’s only the start of it. Every single Filipino I know uses a different name to their birth name. The lady who cleans my home is Virgi, short for Virginia, but not her real name, which is something like Rachel. Then I thought, maybe Agnes, one of the senior members of our staff in OCHA, that it was her original name, until I realised she is Maria Agnes…Maria being her first name. Eio from UNDP is Eliot etc.
When I arrived back to Manila the level of in-your-face consumerism once again struck me. The route from the airport to the city is just one massive billboard after another. The latest craze according to one of the billboards is for men’s beauty. “How to have thicker eye brows,” with a picture of a young Filipino male with bushy brows, followed by ads for deodorant that promise to whiten the underarm skin as it reduces odours. I feel bad enough that deodorant is sprayed/rolled under the glands, but mixing it with whitening chemicals… holy moley – just asking for trouble. There’s an obsession with white skin – it always amuses me because Caucasian skin wrinkles and ages more quickly.
Outside my national work colleagues who are well used to working with international colleagues, often times with a healthy and justified disrespect; there are many Filipinos who see having a Caucasian friend as a desirable thing, almost like owning a Mercedes or a pair of Gucci gloves.
My Irish friend here at the moment (Lu) likes to play golf and spends her weekends on some of the golf courses around Manila. She had befriended a woman, in her sixties, who is the epitome of the Filipino wantabe upper middle-classes. I’m not sure whether Raquel just never went out in the sun and used an umbrella like a sun shield (as I do now) or whether she could write a guidebook to cosmetic surgery clinics in the Philippines. In fairness has an amazing figure for a woman of her years. I met her when Lu was invited to a Rotary party for the president’s birthday (husband of the Rotary president, I may add).
Raquel picked us up with her car and driver, dressed in little black sleeveless, over the knee number (dress) and we headed off to Quezeon city. She had her ‘grand daughter’ with her (her friend’s daughter). The child had just celebrated her seventh birthday and was sporting a pair of high heels, in a little yellow dress with matching handbag, containing her iPad. All a bit too much for me I have to say.
We arrived at the party house. The owner runs a wedding business, so there were old white Mercedes all parked alongside the house, decked with plastic flowers. The almost empty room was like a big barn, with between 25 and 30 large circular tables and the music was blasting out of the enormous speakers. The glass look-alike see-through plastic chairs were around each table, draped in blue polyester material, matching the tablecloths. Upside down umbrellas hung from the ceiling and there were several enormous chandeliers, lighting up the fake cherry blossom trees sprouting out of the walls. We were told the party started at six but when we got there at 7 pm we were among the first guests.
I glanced over at my friend and indicated that 30 minutes was probably enough time to stay. Several Rotary people joined the table and made some small talk about humanitarian assistance and the good work they are involved in. When it was time to eat, there was a decent size buffet but I’m reluctant to tuck in on these occasions because of the abundance of monosodium glutamate used in the Philippines and it would be a bit of an understatement to say I don’t react well to MSG. One lady at the table was talking about diets and how she had lost 7 kgs recently. She proceeded to take out a food weighing scales and weight the meat from her plate. She actually cut a piece of meat into small pieces because she was able to have another 20 grammes. It’s just amazing the sad, sad people you bump into some days.
The party goers came in dribs and drabs and we were wheeled out and introduced to people as they arrived, like some sort of show poodles. Everybody was told we worked in the UN and I grinned through my teeth and muttered a few words, jumping from foot to foot to just get out of the place. We made our escape about 8.30 muttering excuses about having to work the next day. As we left there were still only about three full tables out of at least 30 tables.
The following week Lu and myself met or lunch in Fort Bonafacio, a popular shopping spot for the more wealthy Filipinos. We sat outside a trendy gastro pub (not so popular with me after a dose of MSG), when a group of wannabes strolled past walking their dogs. One of the dogs, a poor poodle, with more make-up and hair dye than Lady GaGa on a good week, passed by leaving me bewildered at the level of extremes I see most days in the Philippines.
Another friend, Anu, is here in the Philippines, having arrived six months ago. It’s great to have her around – this woman is as solid as a rock, with a great sense of humour. We went off to Tagaytay, over an hour’s drive from Manila and a popular tourist spot because of its beauty and big volcano. We headed off to ‘gaze at our navels’ at some spiritual retreat house one Sunday morning. No point in trying to negotiate the Manila traffic, even on a Sunday, so we rented car and driver to bring us to volcano town. I have to report it was surprisingly worthwhile and enjoyable.
On the way Anu mentioned that she had stopped at Maria’s Café to taste civet cat coffee – a coffee drinkers nirvana. The coffee grows in the Mt Apo ranges, which is in Davao in the south, but obviously also grows in Luzon, north of Manila (at least I think we went north – I was never interested in the direction I was going). We were reliably informed these are the best coffee beans in the Philippines. However, what makes the coffee special it that it comes from civet cat poo – yes, there are farmers who shift through the shit of the civet cat and pluck out the coffee beans from the shit to prepare for roasting.
According to the web, civets are nocturnal cats that feed on the fleshy pulp of fruits like coffee berries. Only the fleshy pulp is digested and the beans stay intact. Proteolytic enzymes inside the cat’s tummy seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and creating shorten peptide as well as an abundance of amino acids, resulting in less bitterness and more aromatic chocolate taste. Apparently the cats select only the best coffee beans; well that’s what I’m reading anyway.
According to Maria, the coffee shop owner, the farmers come in once a week with the beans and each farmer brings just one or two kgs with him – it’s what makes it so expensive. We were assured that the bean comes out whole as the cat can’t digest the outer shell and when the farmer eventually finds the beans in the cat poo, they are thoroughly washed by the farmers before being roasted.
It is said that the coffee is the most expensive in the world. People are reported to have paid up to $80 per cup for cat-crap coffee. They give free espresso cups of coffee in Maria’s with the promise that it will ward of sleepiness and banishes bodily aches and pains! I’m not sure of the weight of the bag I bought, but I reckon it’s a mere 100 kilogrammes and cost +€20. Maria was happy to accompany me to show me the coffee shop’s civet cat in a cage apartment, with the cat on the ‘bottom’ floor and a poor monkey on the top floor, hardly able to move.
It was a week of travel; earlier that week I visited Zamboanga in Mindanao, the Muslim region of the Philippines. Last November 9th, a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front decided to go on a bit of a kidnapping spate (something like 130+ people) around the town. The Government responded in an effort to free those who were kidnapped and in doing so, many innocent people lost their homes as they were burnt down.
At the height of the conflict, 112,000 people were displaced from their homes. About 25,000 of them are still living in the sports stadium and transition camps in terrible living conditions. It all seemed so surreal when the stadium’s loud- speaker was playing Charlene’s I’ve never been to Me on full blast to people living in appalling degradation, with the stench of sewage permeating the air, choking me and everybody else throughout the stadium.
Up to 10,000 people remain in the sports stadium and I had the opportunity to visit to speak to people about their experiences. Many live on the steps of the stadium and whole family’s on one step, about two feet wide. Their possessions amount to some cooking equipment and clothes – nothing else. Some have set up ‘shops’ around the compound selling small bags of washing powder and the basics such as rice and tinned milk. The biggest fear is that there will be an outbreak of disease, not helped by the recent rains, which saw a lot of dengue fever in the camps. This is worrying; as it will likely affect children and old people the most. It is a terrible, terrible life and as usual, the most vulnerable are the ones who continue to suffer.
This week I head to Tacloban, where I had visited in November 2013 after Typhoon Haiyan to see what’s happening with the community down there.
When I arrive in a new country, my most pressing need is to find safe and secure accommodation. As soon as that is out of the way and my bags are unpacked, there are three things I prioritise: 1) a massage parlour because of the stressful nature of my work, 2) a wine store for obvious reasons, and 3) a decent, recommended hairdressers.
Fine wispy hair requires as much if not more maintenance as long flowing locks and can cause heartache for a traveller. I can go four or possibly five weeks without a visit to the hairdressers and then it becomes more urgent than finding either accommodation, massage or wine. At the beginning of week five after a haircut, my hair begins to curl out at the sides, giving Bozo the Clown a run for his money. Once it descends over the upper earlobes, I get a Hilary Clinton aka ‘OMG somebody tell the woman she needs a haircut’ look, which just isn’t right.
I remember an Irish friend telling me years ago how she would travel through the horrendous Nairobi traffic from Karen where she lived, to the Hilton Hotel in the centre of the city, to get a haircut. The nature and texture of African hair is poles apart from the often straighter, softer hair found elsewhere in the world. Most African women use wigs and extensions, and can spend whole weekends having extensions woven through their hair. Some of the most beautiful females I have seen are African women with shaven heads – it is rarely I’ve seen an African woman looking better with a wig or hair extensions.
In 2012 I worked for the UN operation in Somalia, based in Nairobi. My Italian colleague Roberta arrived in the office one day with a stunning haircut, announcing that it was the work of the hairdressing salon on the third floor of the Sarit Centre, just around the corner from where I was living. I headed off the following Saturday and scouting around the Sarit, found the salon on the third floor. I should have suspected something was up when I realised I was the only white woman in the salon, but I kept going. “Is there is a stylist free, who is used to cutting straight hair,” I enquired of the woman behind the reception desk. She assured me that there was indeed a stylist experienced in cutting straight hair.
First aid for hairdressers
Ushered off to have my hair washed I was greeted by, I think a young woman, (it’s impossible to tell the age of Africans, they could be 15 or 50, their skin doesn’t wrinkle). I sat up in the swivel chair and she began cutting. Her cheeks were puffed out and she was biting her tongue in concentration. It was too late to stop. Searing pain set it when she kept pulling the hair out from my head as if she was in a tug-of-war and I stopped her to show her how to hold hair between her fingers and cut along the exposed hair jutting along the edge of her fingers. I was aware that if I did stop the process, not only would I be left with a botched haircut, but also my young stylist’s confidence would be greatly damaged and I really didn’t want to do that.
“Relax,” I kept telling her as I realised the poor woman was a bag of nerves. Ten minutes into the haircut and there’s blood pouring everywhere. The hairdresser was screaming. I was screaming. Everything in the salon stopped. All eyes were on the young stylist and me. My hands went up to my head searching for where I had been cut but it didn’t take long to realise that it was the hairdresser who had cut her hand. My instructions obviously didn’t carry a safety warning. The poor woman was so uptight about cutting a mzungu’s (white person) hair the scissors slipped and stabbed her.
The first aid kit came out and after her wound was attended to by some of the other staff, she came back over to me. I insisted she continue what she had started albeit with a very large bandage wrapped over the cut hand. When she had finished and I was leaving the salon, I tipped her and hopefully left some of her confidence intact to be able to deal with the next mzungu who came through the door. Despite my assurance at the cash desk that I would be back for another haircut, I had no intentions of returning.
On Monday when I got to the office, Roberta informed me I had visited the wrong hairdressers.
The hunt went on to find a suitable hairdresser in Nairobi and at the spa between the Sarit Centre and Westgate Mall I found Kelvin, bless him. There’s probably more work keeping short hair looking good, than styling long tresses. I would visit the salon every four/five weeks and would come out with a top class haircut, feeling great. Kelvin is a talented man who knows how to charge but he was worth every penny. I was paying the equivalent of €30 – first world prices and aware that it was the mzungus and wealthy Kenyans could afford such extravagances.
After a number of months visiting Kelvin I was told that the price had increased. Not by a few miserly Kenyan Shillings but by a whopping 30 per cent. The price of the haircut went from the extravagant €30 to an outrageous €40, breaking down to €10 a week for a haircut. Even for a mzungu it was just too much to swallow. It was also unusual for a mzungu to question the price of anything, but they hadn’t met me before. I refused to pay the woman at the cash desk, calling out for Kelvin to explain the inordinate increase in price. “The cost of the materials,” I was told. I like to think I am fair and I don’t mind that I pay more in a developing country because of the colour of my skin, but a thimble-full of shampoo and conditioner? I didn’t think it warranted that much of a price increase. We agreed that the frequency of my visits merited a lower pricing structure and I continued my monthly encounters with Kelvin until I left Nairobi.
Amin in Amman
It was a lot cheaper in the Middle East for a good haircut. Amin, a young male hairdresser in Toni and Guy in Abdoun gives a great haircut and his price varied between €10 and €17. I was genuinely pleased for him when he excitedly told me one day how he was be selected to do a course in Toni and Guy in London, and the idea of visiting the Oxford Street had him grinning from ear to ear. Every time I returned I would ask did he complete his course, but the British Embassy in Jordan didn’t trust that he would return and denied him a visa, which was a great shame considering his obvious talent.
Abdoun is the embassy area of Amman so many of the more wealthy Muslim women who lived in the area wouldn’t wear the hijab (the head scarf worn by Muslim women) or the niquabs (full facial and head covering). In many Muslim countries women as seen as the property of a man and cannot go outside unless she is in the company of a male relative. The wealthy women around Abdoun had no difficulty being in the company of males who were not related to them nor visiting the hair salon alone nor having a male outside the family tending their beauty needs. Occasionally a fully clad nijab wearer would be ushered in to have her hair coiffured by a female stylist in a separate private room, away from the gaze of men.
I always thought it was such a waste to have your hair done then for it all to be covered up by either a hijab or niquabs, especially during the summer months when the temperature rises and just standing still makes me sweat. I just can’t understand how women can look so cool under the polyester scarfs they use winter and summer. A Palestinian friend came to visit once clad in her niquabs and she disappeared into the bathroom to return 10 minutes later fully made up with the most gorgeous head of hair. She was able to remove the layers because she was in the company of women.
In December 2012 I returned Baggers (Baghdad) to work with the UN mission. Such was my hurry leaving Ireland I didn’t have time to have my ‘shorter than short, I’m going abroad’ haircut and left Ireland on the cusp of requiring an encounter with a pair of scissors.
UN staff has no choice in where they live in Baghdad. There are two accommodation compounds, Tamimi and D2 – both located in the Green Zone, (now known as the International Zone (IZ)). The IZ is relatively safe from the daily bombings in the Red Zone. The more privileged employees live in D2, a compound gifted by the American Government to the UN. The bungalows are brick-built and have real windows – they also boast a bedroom and separate living area with cooking facilities. The majority of the staff however, live in much poorer conditions in Camp Tamimi.
Tamimi is a village of container accommodation, with windows in the containers covered by sandbags allowing no natural light to enter. It’s akin to living in a rabbit warren as the containers are then enveloped in a structure also filled with sandbags, to protect its residents from the rockets that once plague the compound on a regular basis. (Since the American withdrew from Iraq they are more likely to throw rockets at each other and leave the IZ alone). Tamimi boasts of a dining facility called a defac (not quite sure why it’s not called a canteen), run by Bangladeshi migrant workers, serving food dripping in grease. These two compounds are about five kilometres apart in the relatively ‘safer’ IZ. D2 not only is a nicer place to live, it also boasts a unisex hair salon.
The Scissor Brothers
Two Iraqi men operate the salon at the weekends and the Fiji troops, who protect the two compounds, are entitled to free haircuts, while everybody else is changed the princely sum of $5. I was about week eight post-haircut, with no sign of a reprieve from Baggers and no entitlement to any rest and recuperation because I worked as a consultant. I was looking more like Hilary that I ever wanted. I decided I needed a haircut but was reluctant to admit to any of my colleagues that I planned to visit the D2 salon. It was considered okay for men to visit the salon, but not really for a woman.
Friday is the first day of the weekend in the Middle East and our working week was Sunday to Thursday. On Friday mornings it was common for employees to circle the compound, either running or walking for exercise. I was lucky enough to be staying in a friend’s accommodation in D2 while she was on out on leave, so slipping into the salon for a haircut was not so noticeable.
I ensured there was nobody else in the salon before entering and as I sat up in the chair I proceeded to give instructions in sign language. The two gentlemen knew no English and my Arabic is limited to giving taxi drivers instructions, so I proceeded to indicate how short I wanted my hair cut. The towel was put around my shoulders and the nylon shawl placed over the towel almost choked me when the stylist takes out a pair of kitchen scissors and begins to cut. I really need to write a note to self and just tell hairdressers when I am not comfortable. However, telling an Iraqi man with a pair of kitchen scissors in his hands that I wasn’t comfortable was probably not the best time to practice being assertive. I am sure I was the first non-army woman to enter the door of the salon.
Mostly I’d like to think I’m philosophical about haircuts. Hair grows back and whatever mess has been made, corrects itself. The Baggers cut though was a little different and retrospect is a fine teacher.
I would have been better off if I had requested the razor and gone for an army style short, back and sides. The man with the blunt kitchen scissors started combing my hair with a filthy-looking comb before he began hacking at it. I really don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I got. I would have got a better haircut if I had given a seven year-old child a pair of scissors and let them at it. I ended up with the hair on the crown of my head permanently sticking up and even when it was wet, it refused to sit down and behave itself! It was the topic of conversation long after I left the mission in Iraq and served as a warning for women not only to hold off and wait until they got to Amman but looking like Hilary Clinton wasn’t so bad as it first seemed – at least she has brains!
Working in Kabul was a little different to Baggers – there was no IZ to ‘protect’ us and we travelled (albeit in armoured plated vehicles) through the city to meetings. We could actually see people on the streets and how they lived, unlike the IZ where I never saw a child during all the time I was there.
The ring of steel, supposed to stop the Taliban from entering Kaboom wasn’t quite as effective as President Karzai would have wished. On 28 October 2009, the Baktar Guest House where several of my colleagues resided was attacked and the Taliban murdered five UN staff. At the time, we lived in guesthouses around the city with some staff living in rented houses. I opted to stay in the shabby but friendly UNICA compound, which boasted about 40 rooms spread over several buildings, each one was different and each had its own peculiarities.
UNICA first opened its doors as a UN guesthouse in 1958. The owners kept adding to it over the years and the compound even boasted a bar. During the time of the Tailban it was the only place in Kabul where a body could find alcohol and Hamid the bar man had worked there for more years than I think he even cared to remember.
While supermarket shopping was permitted, we were not allowed to visit any other establishment. There were beauty parlours for women everywhere and they had heavy net curtains, preventing people (mainly men) seeing inside. They reminded me of seedy sex shops around Europe. Like Abound in Amman, it was the wealthier women who would frequent the beauty parlours and they would emerge without burqas but often with niquabs looking stunning with make up, lipstick and nails polished.
We had a hairdressers in UNICA and a young lad, dressed in the trendiest Western gear would appear each weekend and we would queue up for haircuts. There were no heavy curtains on the windows and men and women sat together waiting on their turn. Haircuts were good value at US$10. It wasn’t the best haircut in the world, but you could at least appear in public and didn’t feel the need to wear your niquab around the office.
UNICA eventually closed down shortly after I left Afghanistan. The elderly owner lived in the States and her children had no interest in managing the property. It sold for over US$5 million and the last I heard, they had built an office block on its grounds. It was the end of an era for many foreigners who travelled through and found sanctuary and solace inside its walls.
I got back from work one Saturday to find the Zim Bridies (Zimbabwean women) on the couch with the bottles of nail polish out and Fatmata standing on the balcony with a baby in her arms. The baby had been taken in by Aunty Marie (the down stairs cleaning lady). According to Aunty Marie, the child’s mother Anna, had threatened to throw the baby into the Atlantic because she didn’t want it. Abduli Nasha is the most beautiful baby imaginable.
We contributed donations for food and nappies and Fatmata was sent out to make the purchases. When he began screeching for food I took out the formula only to discover it was porridge suitable for children from two years. Rather than chance killing the child with solids, we bundled him up and he was brought off to Maria’s (another Zim Bridie) who was mother to a one-year-old boy. Fatmata went along as the chief child minder and was in her element, sitting up in the UN vehicle with the babe in her arms willing her friends to see her in such a flash car.
Maria shared a rather large apartment in a modern building and has been working in Salone for some time. Her home is sumptuous by Sierra Leonean standards. Fatmata’s eyes, by all accounts were hanging out of her head trying to take in the luxury in Maria’s home in order to relate to her friends later that evening. The Mission to Stop the Baby Crying arrived back an hour or so later with the baby washed, changed, fed and sleeping.
We lived in the upstairs part of the house that was accessed by an outside stairs. After a few days Aunty Marie would appear up the stairs to our quarters with the baby and when we would all gather to cooo and aaah around him, she would be spotted trying to sneak out the door, leaving child and responsibility behind.
No one day was the same as the previous and we muddled along, trying to do what we felt was best for the baby. There was a sense of responsibility to Nasha and I worried that he wasn’t getting his nourishment. About a week had passed after he became part of our lives, when unannounced, Anna returned and brought Nasha off with her. We suspect that somebody told her that the foreigners would give her money for his keep and he would be a good source of income. While we were prepared to buy formula and other necessities for Nasha, we weren’t parting with cash for Anna, who we suspect had no intentions on spending it on her baby.
At the time Nasha was removed from the house, I was up country but I heard Aunty Marie was very upset and there were rivers of tears and dramatics galore. According to Fatmata she had been feeding him gin when he was crying, which somehow failed to surprise me. Anna, obviously having difficulty coping with Nasha returned a couple of nights later and we convinced her to leave the baby with Aunty Marie. It was the best option at the time despite the fact that Aunty Marie smoked and drank way too much but attempted to redeemed herself by visiting the mosque every evening.
All the Bridies said they’d take Nasha if he was a girl, but they had no interest in taking on a boy – they had too many boys between them. Anna had appeared back a few times to visit but could hardly hold him properly and the last time we saw her she looked very under the weather. Nasha was at the time thriving, but hygiene wasn’t a priority in the household, so if we weren’t around to keep an eye on things standards slipped dramatically and I didn’t hold out much on his chances.
Emily was my closest friend in the residence, full of fun and personality with a generous nature, we got on well. She was terribly homesick though and constantly worried about her mother and the availability of diabetic medicine for her in Harare and of course the welfare of her children. Six weeks after I moved in, Emily decided to return to Zimbabwe and her family.
A country that was once the food basket of Africa, Zimbabwe was divided up and shared out among the supporters of its president Robert Mugabe. The previous distribution of land and wealth among the white population certainly wasn’t equitable, but neither was the last distribution to people who knew little of farming but plenty about corruption. Many ordinary Zimbabweans go hungry; educations standards, once the best in Africa have gone down the tubes and what was once held up as an example of how progress is possible, sadly transmuted with Mugabe’s meglomania. Unless you had a job in an international organisation, then life for the majority of Zimbabweans is just a daily struggle for survival. Luckily for Emily, she went back to a promotion in the UN in Harare so at least she had something to return to.
Prior to Emily’s stint in Sierra Leone, shopping in Zimbabwe would entail travel by car to South Africa but there is little fuel for sale to the public in Zimbabwe and trying to fill a petrol tank can take four to five hour queuing. Having a decent job guaranteed that she could afford to fly to Johannesburg every few months to stock up on essentials.
As Emily’s departure became more imminent the shopping and packing began in earnest. I have yet to meet anybody to have so many suitcases after such a relatively short space of time. Several of the staff who arrived as election observers were cajoled into bringing some of her suitcases back but she still had four cases at the airport and the wanted to charge her $1,600. She produced a few tears and bargained them down to $500, the allowance given to the UN volunteers for repatriation. African clothes and the wonderful West African material from Nigeria and Ghana is cheap in comparison to Zimbabwe and in her usual entrepreneurial manner Emily intended to sell off most of what she was bringing back and make a decent profit for herself.
During our evenings together, I began to notice how Emily would casually talk about “the other day.” It didn’t take me long to realise that there was something amiss about this statement. When I speak about “the other day,” it usually refers to a day during the past week. When Emily began saying things like “the other day when I went to work in Harare,” I realised it’s been more than a year since she had worked in Harare. So when she would come up with a statement that would start “the other day,” I would have to ask would that be a week, month, six months or a year ago? She’d just grin and announce it was probably a couple of months ago.
Fatmata continued to hold a dual role of cleaning lady and entertainer, mimicing everybody who came through the door. Prior to Emily’s departure she sat on a chair in the hall sobbing, saying that her landlord had brought some prostitutes into the house and when she refused to share a room with them he took her foam (mattress). Now she was sleeping on the floor and it was so cold she couldn’t sleep (it never drops below 24 degrees Centigrade)! When it gets ‘cold’, Fatmata wears lots of layers and yellow woollen knitted hat that looks like a tea cosy sitting on top of her head.
At 29-years and already a grandmother – Fatmata had her first born when she was 11/12 years old. Many girls in Sierra Leone have finished reproducing by the time they reach 18, when most young women in the developed world still feel they have too much to lose if they had children at such a young age. Fatmata’s eldest son would come to visit from the fire station around the corner where he worked. Dressed in his fireman’s outfit with enormous Wellington boots he was brought up the stairs, to be shown off to us.
Fatmata’s mother would come to visit now and again and appeared one day, feeling poorly. She (Fatmata) looked for an advance on her wages so she could send the mother home, otherwise she’d have to feed her for the week if she stayed – it was cheaper to get her home. She greeted me one morning with a huge hug as I walked out the door of my room, telling me I was her mother and father because Emily and I went halves and bought her a new foam. She said she had a wonderful sleep and was delighted to have sweated throughout the night.
Enemies in Big Brother
Emily’s departure changed the dynamics in Big Brother and relations between myself and the others in the house deteriorated rapidly on Emily’s departure. Not long after the departure we came to a position of no return.
There were a number of heated debates with the Bridies over the whole housekeeper thing. I had to fight to ensure Fatmata had a day off on Sunday, pointing out that we were working for a human rights organisation and weren’t doing much in terms of implementing them. The Bridies argued that she liked being in the house on Sundays. However, since she had a new found day off, she found somewhere else to hang out on Sundays. In all fairness, there were days when you ended up doing Fatmata’s job for her because she was skiving off somewhere and totally out of ear-shot. I didn’t mind doing things for myself but I wasn’t going to clean up in the common areas of kitchen and living room.
The Bridies eventually showed their true colours and dispensed with Fatmata’s services because they felt that a contribution of $15 per month, per person was too much to pay as a salary. This happened at a time when I was advotating a salary increase. Not only did Fatmata clean for us, she fetched things from the market, handwashed our clothes and did the ironing.
At around that time I had also decided it was about time to be proactive about doing something for the baby. As time passed Fatmata reported Nasha wasn’t doing too good.
SOS and Sargeant Betty
I discussed the issue with my supervisor in UNIFEM and she advised that I try to get Nasha in to the SOS home for children. The first step was to report the situation to the family support unit at the police station and then to social welfare (whose credentials were dubious with substantive rumours of child trafficing for the babies who came into their care). In countries recovering from a post-conflict trauma, the UN work with the elected government to push forward child protection measures and have been known to put good policies in place.
Our working hours were 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Sierra Leone has a large Muslim population so the official working day on Friday ended at 1 p.m. in order to give the Muslim colleagues an opportunity to visit the mosque for weekly prayers. I managed to leave work early one Friday to head down to the family support unit and Sergeant Betty. I was ushered in to a room and was happy that Segeant Betty knew her stuff and more importantly what was best for Nasha. She wanted to meet the mother and baby, so we drove Sergeant Betty back up to the house and I phoned ahead for Aunty Marie to pick up the child and bring him along.
The difference in the baby was shocking – in a matter of a couple of weeks he had lost so much weight, he just lay there limp in Aunty Marie’s arms. I discovered they were feeding him Magi Cubes (something equivalent to Oxo or Bovril) in his bottle. Magi Cubes are used in cooking in West Africa and are high in monosodium glutamate (the awful flavour enhancer). Anna seemed to have drug and alcohol issues. Far be it from me to cast judgement on some of these women who spent their childhood living through a brutal war and who didn’t know the basics of cooking, let alone coping with children of their own. It’s no wonder that Sierra Leone had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world, where one in four children don’t live past the the age of five.
I believed Nasha had problems – not following light or focusing as he should for his age, but he still smiled and laughed when he was fed, watered and dry. Aunty Marie and I had frequent discussions about this and she insisted that his sight was fine as she poked the child in the eye.
I have to say Sgt. Betty was extremely impressive, although she was trying her best for me to take on the responsibility of the child. She explained everything to the mother; she could have access to Nasha in the SOS home, where he would be well looked after and educated but she wouldn’t have guardianship. We aimed to have the whole affair sorted out in the coming week and the people in SOS to sort out the paperwork necessary for guardianship.
There was always some drama going on in the house. Everyone had gathered to discuss Nasha’s future… Aunty Marie, Sgt. Betty, Nasha and his mother along with Fatmata, myself and a friend who was visiting for the weekend. Out of nowhere, in the middle of the discussions Fatmata burst into tears, howling at the fact that Emily’s replacement, a Ghanaian woman had screeched at her demanding to know what rate she charged to clean the house. Fatmata mimicked her so accurately I had to look twice to see she wasn’t in the room.
Sgt. Betty’s head was in a spin, between trying to come to grips with the story of the baby and the fact that the mother is claiming the father is dead (although Aunty Marie and Fatmata say he’s not dead, just married) and Fatmata’s indignation at being a victim to such bad treatment, it was almost a relief to be taking a plane to Lagos and Abuja the next day just to get a bit of peace and quiet.
I had set everything up for Nasha’s care and it seemed as if everybody concerned was in agreement, so I departed for Nigeria with an easy mind.
Until next time.
Post Script: Emily returned to her beloved family and went back to work in the UN. We hooked up now and again with infrequent phone calls and emails. At one stage she told me she was going to Johannesburg to have her womb removed, they had found cervical cancer. Emily was just 42 when she passed in July 2010. The following year I had an email telling me that her son who was studying in Australia was knocked down by a drunk driver and died. They brought him home to be buried with his Mum. In a way, I was glad Emily wasn’t around to bear witness to such tragedy, it would have broken her heart.
Disclaimer: These are my own opinions and I do not represent any organisation when expressing my views.
Images from the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan
Typhoon Haiyan came in with a bang on 8th November 2013 and for many people in the Philippines, it killed their loved ones, blew away their homes and possessions and destroyed their livelihoods.
In the office we watched the weather systems as it approached, knowing it was going to be a big one and waiting for the disaster assessment teams to arrive from the relatively nearby regional office in Bangkok. It’s a strange thing to prepare for something that’s inevitable and also knowing it’s going to wreak havoc along its path. You imagine that if you started to believe there was a god and if you prayed hard enough, that maybe the storm would take a turn and travel in a different direction. Alas. That didn’t happen.
Lying in bed on the Friday night in the comfort of my Manila apartment and listening to the wind as it howled outside, rattling windows and whistling, as it forced its way through the small gaps in the windows was frightening enough. A couple of hundred kilometres away it was ripping up homes, blowing off roofs and causing mayhem and havoc on the millions of lives it touched.
The assessment team was booked on a flight to arrive before the storm hit. Haiyan was expected at 7 a.m. but arrived a few hours earlier at 4 a.m. so the team flight was cancelled. They were to travel with Government representatives trying to make it down to Tacloban before the storm struck. They didn’t make it and in some ways, I’m glad. Nobody was safe in Tacloban and the team were much more useful being able bodied.
I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of a typhoon of this magnitude that could throw cars into the air and lift roofs off houses, as if they were Lego toys. The wealthier people moved into hotels, while the people who lived in the wooden houses remained or moved to evacuation shelters and prayed.
Back in Manila, phone calls from TV and radio stations around the world started to filter through. Our head of office began taking the calls and when there were so many calls, I had to start doing the interviews as well. David was in one office on to BBC while I was in the other office on the Al Jazeera – it was just a sign of things to come.
One of the first interviews I did, was on Al Jazeera. I’m in the middle of a live news bulletin and could hear the beep-beep of another call trying to come in, distracting me from the task at hand. Thinking it was the BBC calling for another interview, I was trying to cut them off when I cut myself off a live Al Jazeera news bulletin instead. It was very embarrassing I have to say. Two minutes later and this crazy pops up again trying to call. “Can I ask who is calling,” says I. “Ah I just saw you on telly and thought you were nice, I’m working on a oil rig,” comes the reply.
God preserve us from the crazies in this life. My first TV appearance came complete with my first potential stalker. As I wished him a good night (not in such polite words), I hit the blocked button and continued on.
I think I spoke from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning – it was non-stop. We were trying to get information from the field to let the public know what was going on while trying to see what UN agencies had people already in place and how they could assist in the initial stages. Communications were gone and only satellite phones were working and not very well at that.
The tsunami-like surge wave that landed in Tacloban destroyed the town. Tacloban is nestled in a bay with mountains around it so when the wind came in at 300 kph, the town acted like a funnel and forcing the wind into a much smaller, tighter space, multiplying the amount of damage it could cause. Much of the pre-positioned stock to respond to the typhoon such as food and medicines were taken with the storm. The wave, much bigger than anything that came with either the Banda Aceh in Indonesia or Japanese tsunami, caused untoward damage and brought many lives with it.
The OCHA team arrived within 12 hours of the typhoon and found scenes of absolute destruction, the town looked like a rubbish tip with bodies lying tangled and strewn on the streets.
Team leader, Sebastian Rhodes Stampa (SRS for short, or as I call him SMS), told us over a satellite phone how it was like the Indian Ocean Tsunami; boats were tossed around and came inland; roofs were gone from houses; houses were gone; poles and trees were uprooted; they were met with scenes of biblical proportions. The World Health Organization had sent their driver and car before the typhoon struck and the driver watched as another car came careering across the road into the WHO car. The driver was injured with flying glass and went missing in action, left without food and water, as the head of office Julie had search teams out looking for him. The poor man was traumatised and had to return to Manila, when he was eventually found.
When the team arrived, the roads were so blocked they had to take a government heli from the airport to the town centre, a distance of 11 kilometres. Water was contaminated by the surge of water; people had no food and began looting in the first day after the storm.
Within 12 hours the road was partially unblocked but the round trip from the town hall to the airport took six hours by truck, making the delivery of food impossible. The airport closed down to commercial flights and the government delivered food by helicopter. But we were only addressing the needs of one city. This typhoon travelled across thousands of kilometres and we needed to reach the people who were affected to ensure they were okay.
There were no communications, no access via road, no electricity, crops destroyed, housing demolished and airports in the four major cities hit, all closed down. At midday on the Friday, while the storm was still raging, OCHA sent another team out by car to Tacloban and they arrived two days later to set up an office where we could work. The first team that was dispatched ran out of water and were drinking rainwater on the second day after their arrival.
It’s difficult sitting in Manila and reporting on something that you haven’t seen. The Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Baroness Valerie Amos came to Manila on the Tuesday and went to Tacloban. A small entourage went with her, the Humanitarian Coordinator, the head of the OCHA office, our head of security, Valerie’s assistant Nick and myself travelled in a small plane to see the extent of the damage.
Fuel had run out so the rented car couldn’t travel and Nick and myself were left at the airport while the others went to meet government ministers trying to organise the response efforts. Food was not getting through and there was a shortage of water.
I took myself off around the airport speaking to people who were desperate to get out. One woman I met, Sasha carried her baby, one-month old Isabella and was desperate to get assistance. Isabella had diarrhoea and needed medical attention. Elie, 69 was sitting on boxes with his crutches by his side, under an umbrella to protect him from the sun. He lived alone and his son was in Manila, all he wanted to do was to go to his son. Another woman was a university lecturer who had a cut on her hand and was very angry with me and angry with everybody. She was entitled to that, she had just lost her home and all her belongings. I asked her why she didn’t evacuate, as advised, she told me that they get so many storms every year, but nothing could prepare them for a super typhoon, the biggest storm ever to hit landfall.
People were upset that the response was not quick enough. The response teams were equally frustrated tying to get flights in and finding difficulties getting goods into the airport, and out on the other end, with no fuel to transport the life-saving goods and equipment.
The Government had invited the Americans to take over the management of the airport and they closed it down the previous day while they moved in their own equipment and supplies. Thousands gathered at the airport and ports trying to get out to safer havens where their relatives waited. Limited commercial flights were up and running and the Americans were also transporting people out of Tacloban on C130 aircraft.
When we arrived in Tacloban I needed the bathroom, but there was nowhere to go so I held on for the others to return. We had travelled on a small single-engine eight-seater plane, with no facilities. When they arrived back Luiza, the Humanitarian Coordinator also needed the bathroom, so off she marches over the Cebu Airlines who were about to move the steps away from the plane in preparation for take-off. Marches up the steps with herself and requests the use of their powder room. It was hilarious. The air steward radioed up to the captain as we boarded the flight for our ‘urgent request’. It’s amazing what a UN tshirt will do for you! I’m very grateful to the UN tshirt and the crew of Cebu Airways though.
It’s all a bit of a daze for me – days just fused into each other and I left the office at 1 a.m. some mornings, with a 6 a.m. pick up the same day to travel. Valerie Amos went to Government, went to the global TV and radio stations, reported to the Secretary General, went without sleep to help unblock the obstacles that were preventing the delivery of aid. She is a force of epic proportions in her energy and commitment to relieve human-suffering and for that alone I admire her.
We could do a whole blog of Fagan’s bloopers on TV over the first week. On CNN outside the Marriot Hotel I was asked “So why are you doing assessments?” “Well, we get people the life-saving food and water, we need to see their needs. Why, after all, would you provide somebody with an egg cup, when in fact they need an egg,” I replied. Sometimes I wonder what is going on in my tiny little mind to come up with lines like that!
Valerie [Amos] came back for a second time this week and took off travelling across the country, hitching lifts on aircraft to get her back out to see what progress was being made. The Canadians provided an aircraft for us to go to Roxas where we met the Governor of Capiz province. From a population of 75,000 people, 57 died. They had a very different storm from the one experienced in Tacloban, but 98 per cent of the buildings are partially or totally destroyed and most of the 75,000 people are without homes. The future is pretty grim for some.
The Governor Victor Tanco, who met us at the airport and accompanied us along the route, is an incredible man. He went on radio three times a day in the week prior to the storm warning people to go to evacuation centres and get out of their homes. He has the hospitals and schools doing regular drills for evacuations for every occasion all through the year. There was concern when we heard he ordered people to be jailed if they refused to evacuate from their homes, but ultimately Victor Tanco has to be hailed as a hero – he saved many lives.
It was also good to see the Canadian military had set up in Roxas. So many [rescuers] went to Tacloban and with a population of 13 million affected or in terms of population, a country with more citizens than Portugal; focusing the world’s attention on the needs of just one relatively small area seems unfair when others also need assistance.
The typhoon struck on 8th November, so from 6th November we were working flat out. This was the 25th typhoon to make landfall over the Philippines this year. I have lost count of the number that required humanitarian intervention from the international community; there was conflict in Zamboanga and that is now largely forgotten, despite the great needs that remain: a bit of an earthquake that is now consumed by Haiyan ……and on it goes. I thought that after Iraq and Somalia the Philippines would be a quiet life… how wrong could you get?
Yesterday, Saturday 23rd November I had a day off and went for a 2 hour massage, picked up a couple of bottles of wine, dropped them off home, went back out for another massage, returned, cooked dinner, had a glass of wine and went to bed at 9 p.m.
Today the sun is shining and I head to the gym before I go to the office. I have three more weeks left in the Philippines before the end of the contract. I just hope that Haiyan marks the end of the typhoon season and the Filipinos have time to catch their breath, mourn their dead and begin to rebuild their lives, before the next typhoon season takes off next year.
Orla Fagan; Spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Philippines. From Al Jazeera News, VOA, Bloomberg, Financial Times, BBC World, CNN World, ABC Australia to Marian Finucane and Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio 1, Orla has been working around the clock bringing essential updates on one of the world’s greatest disasters – Typhoon Haiyan known locally in the Philippines as ‘Yolanda’, live from the UN / Humanitarian Mission offices in Manila.
Orla Speaking to Sean O’Rourke Monday 11th November 2013
Orla speaking to Marian Finucane Sunday 10th November 2013
Orla speaking to Marian Finucane Saturday 9th November 2013
Click on pic to listen
Dazed survivors of a super typhoon that swept through the central Philippines killing an estimated (unconfirmed) 10,000 possible deaths and millions of people left begging for help and scavenged for food, water and medicine, threatening to overwhelm military and rescue resources. * Death toll could rise once isolated coastal villages are reached. * Roads, airports and bridges destroyed. * U.S. sends Marines and sailors to help. The government has not confirmed officials’ estimates over the weekend of 10,000 deaths, but the toll from Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded, is clearly far higher than the current official count of 2400. The Armed Forces in the central Philippines reported a death toll of 942.
Bodies litter streets as at least 2400 killed by Typhoon Haiyan – latest report say the number dead may increase.
RESCUERS in the central Philippines counted thousands dead and many more injured today, a day after one of the most powerful typhoons on record ripped through the region, wiping away buildings and levelling seaside homes with massive storm surges….. read on…..
The typhoon that struck the Philippines produced an outpouring of emotion on Monday at United Nations talks on a global climate treaty in Warsaw, where delegates were quick to suggest that a warming planet had turned the storm into a lethal monster….read on….
In 2006 while travelling for Trócaire I made a trip to Haiti to report on the work of Trócaire’s partners, mainly working with women’s groups. The difficulty with documenting some of the horror stories of the women’s experiences is that it has to be sanitized enough so it doesn’t cause offence to a first world audience. Documenting stories of rape and violence was no easy task as I set about trying to word it so it was palatable enough for people who know nothing about the developing world or issues of violence against women, to be able to read over their muesli in the morning.
Screwing it up
Haiti is just out on its own. Not exactly your regular tourist destination and it was never on my must seebefore I die places to visit. It’s Africa in the Caribbean – the oldest self ruled black country, gaining autonomy in 1804 – they had 200 plus years to screw it up and they did a good job. It shares the island with the Dominican Republic and when you fly over you can see how there is practically no forest left in Haiti while in neighbouring Dominican Republic is lush and green, as it should be.
At the time I travelled it was estimated that 8 out of every 10 women in Haiti suffer domestic violence and the law only changed in 2005 to make rape within marriage illegal. I know they had a series of despot leaders from Papa Doc, to Baby Doc to Jean-Baptise Astride but that would be only the last 50/60 years. It should be a tropical paradise but instead it’s so dangerous that as a visitor you can’t leave your hotel unaccompanied. It makes Somalia look tame.
They even have their own virtual currency here. I was in the supermarket buying water and couldn’t figure out the change. They had charged dollars but the change in the currency ‘Gourdes’ didn’t add up. Apparently 20 years ago when the US dollar was worth 5 Gourdes, 5 Gouds was referred to as a dollar. Although 39.75 Gourdes is worth 1 US dollar – 5 Gourdes is called 1 $. Confused? Good – because I have never been more confused in my life. It was just as well there was somebody accompanying me the whole time because I felt like some little old lady who couldn’t figure out the ‘new’ money.
I was mainly staying around Port-au-Prince, the capital. As usual, Trócaire had one of their local partner organisations take care of me while I was in the country. Unlike the other countries I visited Trócaire’s local partners were anxious to show me their work so I could say nice things about them when I reported back. This time it was a little different, the man who was charged with my itinerary unceremoniously dumped me back at the hotel at 4 p.m. every day and picked me up the next morning at 8 a.m. Let’s say he didn’t go out of his way to make Haiti any more appealing.
When I arrived, he tried putting me in a convent-type accommodation. In the heat of the day, we must have climbed 50 or 60 steps, with me struggling with my luggage, camera bags and lap top and he frolicked up the steps, arms swinging. I registered at reception and when I was shown to the room with no air conditioning, no ensuite, no internet and no fan, I said “no way” and checked out. It didn’t get a whole lot better when he brought me to another accommodation. The US $65 a night seemed a little steep at the time but at least there was guaranteed air-condition, even if they charged an extra $8 per day for electricity on the bill!!.
Haiti is a very violent society with impunity for many men who commit violent acts and rape on women. I was brought around to meet women in a shelter, who were the victims of violence. Often their stories were so horrific I would sit and cry with them as they would recount to me their experiences. One woman was brave enough to report the rape of her daughter, but when she did so, the perpetrators returned the following evening, murdered her daughter and raped her. Somebody had taken a photo of her dead daughter and she sobbed , she turned to me and asked “Who will take my photo?” It was a horrific story and just one of many I documented on the visit to Haiti.
I did have one trip down the country to a community only about 160 kilometres distance – it took 4.5 hours to travel the 160 kilometres and the 10 kilometres through a few mountains in a 4-wheel drive took up one whole hour. It was a bit of a trek, bouncing around in a car for the whole journey. Most of the roads were covered in pot holes and it felt as if the whole journey was off-road driving.
Mud huts and washrooms
For some reason I thought I would be staying in a bed and breakfast type accommodation. The penny should have dropped when we called to pick up supplies in a local shop. We arrived and I was shown to my accommodation, which was the house of a local woman who had travelled to Port-au-Prince for a few nights. The accommodation was a mud hut, complete with a thatched roof and spotlessly clean. She had obviously gone out of her way to prepare for the visitor she wasn’t going to meet. I was however, a little perturbed not being able to find the bathroom facilities; either shower or toilet.
I travelled with two men from a non-government organisation Trócaire was supporting , we arrived in the late afternoon, so not a lot of opportunity to talk to the community who were busy preparing for supper. While the food we brought was being prepared by some local women, my two carers announced it was time to wash before supper. I quietly mentioned that I had no towel so one of the men kindly provided me with his towel. I was accompanied down to the river as we passed men swimming in one area, we moved upstream to a more secluded part.
There was a young girl sitting on a rock in the middle of the river, with nothing on except a pair of panties, washing. She was like some exoctic sprite and looked at me smiling. There was another large rock beside her and one of the women pointed, indicating that the second rock had my name on it. I was expected to whip off my clothes down to my panties, wade out to the middle of the river and provide the evening’s entertainment with a gang of kids all standing with their mouths hitting the ground. I waved at some of the women who actually waved back at me. I felt as if every women and child in the village had come to watch.
I moved closer to the water, trying to avoid the stones under my feet as they laughed at my feeble efforts to wade barefoot into the river. As expectations were mounting and women and children were vying for space to get a better look, I was determined not to become the topic of conversation for the next month in the village. I stood at the edge, wrapped in a towel and threw water over the visible bits. I simply refused to exhibit my blue-white body to a whole village.
Darkness fell very early in the evening and with no electricity, there was nothing to do except go to the house. I felt as if the whole village was sitting outside watching, so when it began to rain heavily, I was relieved. My bladder was bursting and I needed to pee really badly. I stepped outside the house in the pouring rain and relieved myself. A couple of hours later, a knock came to the door and a young girl handed me a plastic basin. I scratched my head unsure whether it was for washing or using as a potty in the middle of the night. I used it as a potty.
The son of the school teacher in the village was about 5-years old and took such a shine to me. He was the cutest little thing and every time I looked around he was sitting beside me, batting his eyelashes at me. At one stage he sat beside me and tried to put his arms around me as if I was his girlfriend. I could have taken him home and indeed one of the men asked would I not take him home. He (the child) sat and explained in Creole all about the orange trees and how the women collected the avocados and about his dad and the school. He told me all about the woman whose house I was staying and followed me everywhere for the time I was in the village. I would loved to have been able to communicate with him and he was trying so hard.
Every time I looked out of the house, he was either coming down the pathway or sitting on the rocks outside, waiting patiently. When it came time for my departure, he was so upset and no amount of cajoling could get a smile from him. He stood at the gate in floods of tears as I left.
I was glad to have visited the village and experience rural Haiti, where life seemed a little less violent and the community seemed more in hamony with nature and life.
All it took was one phone call on a quiet afternoon at home on a very dodgy line, from a woman in Sierra Leone for me to accept a job offer as a United Nations Volunteer with UNIFEM (the women’s agency). I managed to decipher that the job entailed training aspiring women politicians and I reckoned with my years in Toastmasters, it would be a relatively easy affair. By the time I took up my position, in the usual bureaucratic fashion, the parliamentary elections were all but over, but the local elections were to take place the following year. I couldn’t catch the woman’s name so I wasn’t quite sure whether the offer was kosher or not.
It turned out the offer was genuine and I found myself in Freetown again in July 2007. When I arrived, I had no rows with any drivers at the Freetown end unlike another hair raising experience the previous year and was met by the UN driver at the hovercraft port. I spent the first week in Hotel Mariam, not on any recommended website lists and as my good friend Francesco deducted a long time ago, every crappy hotel you end up in when travelling with the UN has got be owned by a first cousin or brother of the clerk in the travel department. There is no other ungodly reason why you would end up in such dump. I’m at an age where I like a bit of comfort and even if there is no comfort available, then I look for clean.
This was my first position in the UN and for all its bad reputation I felt at the time it wasn’t the worse place I ever worked. I suppose it’s like most large bureaucratic organisations and has buried itself under huge mounds of paper. I never signed so many documents in my life, but at the end of the day, somebody has to shuffle the piece of paper from one desk to another, so I imagine it creates work. I ended up working with a super bright local woman, whose knowledge was quite impressive. No crap and loads of good ideas. We were not allowed use public transport so I was picked up in the mornings by a driver in a four-wheeled drive UN car, although, admittedly it did feel a bit over the top at times. While a mere volunteer and way down the food chain of the very hierarchical UN, you’re still considered staff and on production of a driver’s licence I was entitled to have access to a UN car at the weekends, giving me great freedom to come and go as I please.
Working in a post-conflict environment is challenging. The survivors are scarred, both mentally and physically from war and there’s a lot going on under the surface that can take some time to figure out, especially when you come in as an outsider. Education is one of the first things that suffers because it is not considered life-saving in an emergency situation, so when the teachers leave and it becomes too dangerous to send children to school, the whole infrastructure that supports education breaks down fairly rapidly and sadly can take years to restructure.
In my first week I attended a workshop of ‘would be’ women politicians and discovered their level of knowledge, understanding and education was abysmal. My task was to help them be elected and understand the machinations’ of the political system. Within the first few weeks, I met just a small handful of women who could hold their own in a parliament. I was informed there were a few good women candidates but for the most part, most of the women going forward had not finished secondary school and were unaware of the issues facing their country, which was really worrying.
I went on the highways and byways with some women’s groups in Sierra Leone, although they were like dirt tracks that roads. Part of my ‘mission’ was to conduct some basic communication training with the women prior to the main elections. After the August 11 elections, the focus would shift to assisting the women interested in going forward for local elections the following year.
Violence and elections go hand in hand in countries such as Sierra Leone and there were genuine fears among the communities that elections would turn violent, which would result in fewer women turning out to vote. Some of the nastier politicians (and there are plenty across the continent of Africa) set out to use scare tactics, so people would not go out and exercise their vote.
The women organised a peace train with some of the sisters from Liberia coming over to visit the areas where violence was expected to erupt. The woman who was to look after the logistics went off on a field trip to Guinea and left nobody in charge so there was no bus, no police clearance, no accommodation, no halls books, no speakers booked… diddly, nada, zilch. She came back from Guinea on the Friday and the women were due from Liberia on Sunday. Talk about creating stress – it’s all so unnecessary but it left us like headless chickens for the week prior to the ‘big’ event.
Leymah Gbowee, who subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (pictured here in the right) for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work, led the group from Liberia.
Leymah (pictured here on the left) is certainly a woman who can certainly talk the talk, but her administrative skills were obviously not high on her priorities and as I chased her and the logistics woman for many weeks looking for the receipts of the trip, taking time that could be otherwise used much more productively. Fair play to Irish Aid, who ultimately paid for the women to travel on the peace train.
Fr Joe, with whom I was working the previous January, came down from Makeni and I had lunch with him during my first weeks in ‘Salone’. He’s the local priest who is running the radio station and development studies centre and a good man, just a pity he’s so Catholic. “Good morning Christians” is the morning greeting on the station despite the fact that 60 per cent of the population is Muslim. The last I heard, Fr Joe was still working in Makeni and turning the development studies centre into Makenis’ first university. I’m not so sure of the standards that would be reached in the university though, but you have to start somewhere. I also met up with my friend Emmanuel whom I trained in the Gambia in 2002 and who made life a lot easier for me around Freetown. Having some local knowledge is always good in these situations.
I moved in to a ‘residence’ and shared with some of the Zimbabwean mafia that transferred with the Senior Representative of the Secretary General (SRGS), otherwise known as the boss of the mission, when he moved from Zimbabwe to Salone. The accommodation was located across the road from the main UN mission, the converted Mammy Yoko Hotel, that housed the offices and support for the mission. The offices were formerly bedrooms and frequently the headboards were still on the walls of the office, with each office also having its own bathroom. Mammy Yoko’s is due to open in late 2013 as a Radisson Blu – I wonder how that will work out although the location is fantastic, across the road from Lumley Beach.
You would swear where I was living was all posh and upmarket, but in fact it was typical of a country where standards had dropped because of the war. The floors were tiled with little or no grouting and hand-made bed frames with wooden slats and lumpy mattresses – otherwise, it was a grand place. There was a little kitchen off my bedroom which had a kitchen sink, two shelves and nothing else! The bedroom had a balcony with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and there was a walkway across the road through a gate that leads on to the beach.
I shared with another UNV, a Zimbabwean woman Emily who was good fun and likes her glass of wine in the evening after work. She was also a divorcee volunteer and paying for her 21-year-old son to go to university in Australia, her 14-year-old to go to boarding school, her diabetic mother in Zimbabwe and her brother’s child who was orphaned when both his parents became victims of HIV/AIDS. I had great admiration for Emily who was one of the most optimistic people I think I ever had the pleasure to meet.
Emily worked in the Department of Safety and Security (DSS) and knew everything that was going on – she was like the Oracle! There was never a dull moment around her, she had some great contacts and very much a member of the Zim Mafia that inhabited the UN in Freetown at the time. The Zim Bridies as I nicknamed them, adopted me into their circle. They were a small network of some very lowly workers like myself and some extremely high profile people. I knew more about hairdressing African style and how far apart the lines should be for the braids and how long it takes for black African hair to turn blonde (a very, very long time to have chemicals on your head). I learned more about designers and handbags than I would ever find out in Ireland and dear mother of god they spend hours and hours doing hair and nails. I would sit reading books about post-9/11 terror and female genital mutilation while Emily would sprawl on the couch with her nail polish, glass of wine and girly magazines.
I had never quite come across anyone who could throw about orders the way Emily managed it. Our cleaning lady was Fatimata, a local girl who lived close by. She showed up every morning for work, usually in time to have the washing handed to her before we left the building. When Emily wanted Fatimata’s attention she could be heard in the next compound screeching her name at the top of her voice. Ibrahim, the Senegalese lived in the apartment below us. His brother traded between Senegal and Sierra Leone so Ibrahim was a bit of a caretaker for his brother’s place and did odd jobs like switching on and off our generator when the electric went off. I could never figure out who paid Ibrahim or whether he just came as part of the deal in the rental. A native French speaker, I often thought that his poor English language skills gave the impression he was a small bit slow, but in retrospect I think he just didn’t understand us. There when days I felt sorry for Fatimata and would plead with Emily to lay off shouting orders.
Emily would have grown up with this and knew just how to put the pressure on to get the work out of Fatimata and Ibrahim. I got home from work one evening and there was no sign of either of the pair of them. Reluctant to shout anyone’s name out, I politely stood on the balcony calling for either of them to come, to no avail. I ended up turning on the laptop for light as it was gone 7.30 p.m. and pitch dark. Coming up to 8 o’clock and the sound of a car at the gates saw both Fatimata and Ibrahim falling over each other to make it up the stairs before Emily arrived at the door. Seems like I had no influence on them at all and it only took the thoughts of Emily to make either of them inclined to do anything.
Electricity and repairmen
During the elections we had electricity practically 24/7, which was a real treat. Most of Sierra Leone at the time was not connected to the grid, their system falling apart but we lived in the area with the greatest concentration of important people, so had access to the NPA (National Power Association) when it worked. There were frequent huge surges in power, so a body had to go searching to ensure that plugs were anti-surge. Emily had bought a TV and unfortunately had no anti-surge so the telly blew a fuse one fine evening, not there was much to see except some dreadful Nigerian soap operas, so popular all over the continent.
We had two guys who called to the house and started demanding huge sums of money to open the back of the TV and tell us what was wrong. Emily was having none of it and told them in no uncertain terms to ‘get lost’. I threw in my tuppence worth of course, “Aah, they saw my white skin and the price quadrupled,” and I’m certain that it did. Fatimata then proceeds to take it upon herself to listen in to the negotiation and speak on our behalf, pointing out to the guys that we are in their country to help with the peace and just poor volunteers. We managed to get a 50 per cent reduction, although I should have offered to open the back of the TV myself. It subsequently went off to the workshop with no sign of return many weeks later.
In the subsequent weeks, Fatimata proceeded to take on the role of the TV and provide us with entertainment! She began telling stories of previous tenants and their habits – she just didn’t tell stories, she acted them out, prancing up and down the living room wagging her finger and taking on a different persona. I spent my time trying not to laugh out loud encouraging her further. Fatimata would have made a great comedienne if life had been a little kinder to her.
Auntie Marie became the butt of Fatimata’s play acting. She was the maid for the Senegalese and we would get a blow by blow of Auntie Marie’s love life and the boyfriend who hangs out on the beach and the constant fighting that went on between them. I often wondered what stories Fatmata would eventually tell of myself and Emily and to whom she would tell them.
It rains for six months of the year in Sierra Leone and when I arrived it was weeks before it stopped raining. Luckily Freetown is so hilly, otherwise it would suffer severe frequent flooding. I have no reason to believe it’s any different when the side streets would turn into raging torrents of brown water and I often thought it must be possible to do some brown water rafting (as opposed to white water rafting) in the middle of the downpour, if you had the inclination. The only shoes to wear are flip flops, that way you don’t get upset to see a good pair of leather sandals destroyed . People regularly wade knee deep through the streets and whether you have an umbrella or not it doesn’t make any difference when there’s driving rain. When the sun does shine in Sierra Leone the white strand beaches are stunning and the diaspora flock home during the Christmas season, when the weather there is at its best.
I arrived back to Manila in the middle of a downpour, later to discover it was the start of a slow moving tropical depression making its way across Luzon Island, which eventually whipped itself into a Category 3 typhoon. I didn’t believe I’d see my accommodation that evening as the taxi man manoeuvred his way through puddles, or rather lakes of water with rain so heavy on the windshield you could just barely make out the twinkle of a red light in front to indicate there was another car ahead. The taxi man got a very nice tip as we both exhaled a sigh of relief when he pulled up to the condo and me and my luggage arrived in one piece and more importantly, dry and unscathed.
Manila is a funny city, made up of lots of smaller cities, Quezon, Intramuros, Makati (where I live)….. It’s a modern Asian city and quite sophisticated. It has plenty of skyscrapers and decent footpaths, something not frequently found in other capital cities such as Nairobi and certainly a huge scarcity of them in Amman, where footpaths are the responsibility of the house owner.
Traffic for the most part is crippling, our national staff colleagues often leave home a 4 a.m. to get to work on time when the weather is bad, so my choice to live a five-minute walk from the office makes a lot sense. In Makati, which is the business centre, there are almost no shops at street level, just the Starbucks, McDonalds, 7/11s and a chain drugstore called Mercury (on a par with a typical US drugstore). My closest supermarket is in the basement of a high-rise condo, a 10-minute walk away and for everything else there’s the mall and I mean for everything else.
The mall is in fact about nine malls linked by a skyway (walkway) and begins just a few blocks from where I live. Makati is a fairly sophisticated city in world terms, with no motorcycle taxis to be found although they make up most of the public transport around the remainder of the Philippines.
There are subways for pedestrians to cross major intersections on the main Alaya Avenue, with stairs for the descent to the subway and escalators to take you up. However, to save electricity the escalators are switched off after eight in the evenings and at weekends. The subway itself is closed down about 10 p.m. so it can be a long walk home in an effort to find a set of traffic lights to allow you cross the road.
Brave Men Window Cleaning Skyscrapers
Walking over to the mall on the skyway takes you out of the direct fumes of the traffic for the 10-minute journey to Greenbelt. Greenbelt is linked to Landmark, which in turn is linked to Glorietta Mall. Other than Landmark, one huge fairly cheap department store with a decent supermarket in the basement, the others are marked in sections one to five, each with its own distinctive character, although not necessarily in sequence. There are sections where you can find speciality shops and almost all the hairdressers, material shops, computer shops, jewellers, electric shops are in their own little section.
Greenbelt has a beautiful garden in its centre, much of which is a water garden, populated with fish and exotic plants and comes complete with a Catholic church – not part of the water feature obviously. On one side of this green area, there there are shop fronts, while on the far side you can find fairly decent up-market restaurants with a choice of indoor or outdoor seating.
If you go to the mall on a Friday night for a bite to eat, you can have your glass of wine, dinner and have Mass thrown in as a bonus. It’s quite a unique experience. The church has a huge imposing roof but no walls, so it is not unlike the smoking areas in the pubs in Ireland, except a good deal bigger. Mass goers rather than standing at the back of the church during Mass as they would in Ireland years’ ago, prop themselves outside the shop front windows and the loudspeakers blast the hymns and prayers throughout the open area.
The fifth floor of Landmark apparently has a church (not that I have investigated) and they hang big posters around the store advertising healing priests and visiting cardinals. On weekends at the entrance to the supermarket in Landmark they have karaoke sessions and even a brass band at times. Like most Asian countries Filipinos are in love with karaoke and do not possess even the slightest modicum of a gene in their physiology to tell them they can’t actually sing. The music of the 70’s and 80’s is very popular so you get to hear many off-key Lionel Richies’ and John Denvers’ as you try and beat your way to the escalator to get to the relatively silent safety of the basement supermarket. Taxi drivers are not immune to the bit of karaoke either and I frequently take taxis where I wished I had brought my earplugs for protection. There is no sign of embarrassment as they wail along to songs on the radio.
At the centre of most of the mall sections there is an entertainment stage and some massive speakers. You never know what you’re going to find there – it could be some company doing a promotion or a few karaoke singers, but whatever it is, I never hang around to find out. Most weekends there are hundreds of chairs lined up and a full-blown concert belting out while you’re trying to buy a bottle of nail polish or a wine aerator in a shop. I find myself frequently shouting over the racket that’s going on inside the shop while the cacophony of what’s going on outside, seeps through the closed shop door.
For the most part I have stopped shopping in the mall, except for essentials at the weekend. There are a mixture of reasons; one is the obvious assault on the senses and the second is the ‘good morning Mam’ phenomena. Some friends reckon I’m a ‘good morning Mam’ magnet. I can’t seem to put my foot out on the street without complete strangers greeting me with ‘good morning Mam’. I wandered in to the hardware store one day and there seemed to be shop assistants jumping out from behind every aisle shouting ‘good morning Mam’ at me. Try stopping to look at something you may wish to buy in a store and five people stand around you. Staring. Waiting.
When you bring your goods to the sales counter one person rings in the purchase, another packs the bag, a third checked off the purchases against the receipt and yet a fourth confirms due process has taken place. It certainly seems a cultural thing, but not anything I have found it in other Southeast Asian cultures. The Mam, Sir thing (and it’s Mamsir if you happened to be in male company; ‘good morning Mamsir’), is a throwback to the American occupation during World War II. Certainly in terms of sport, every village in the Philippines has a basketball court and it’s the main sport in the country, shown on all the sports channels. The other main legacy left by the Americans is the ready availability of guns in the Philippines. Manila is too big for me to know my way around all its sub-cities, but certainly in Davao City when I would go to the Marco Polo Hotel for a Sunday swim, we went by taxi through an area where four out of five shops were gun shops. There are as many guns as people in the country.
Back in Makati and Friday night in Greenbelt is where the young and the beautiful hangout. Every restaurant and bar heaves with locals and expatriates till the small hours of the morning. Sex tourism and ‘romance’ is alive and well in Manila and the numbers of older, dare I say ugly white men, with young Filipino woman never ceases to amaze me. Around Makati young Filipino men and women are very particular about their looks although I wonder sometimes about their sense of dress. I frequently see people in the UN office, whose dress wouldn’t cost me a second thought if I met them on a beach in the same clothes. Coming out of the bathroom in work at lunchtime, it’s always difficult to find space at the washbasin as the women comb their hair, brush their teeth and fix their make up.
I have an extension on my contract until Christmas, so it’s good to know I’ll be gainfully employed until then. In less than a week after the typhoon, we had the Southwest Monsoons and it rained for four days non-stop. Buckets of the stuff fell out of the sky and 60 per cent of Manila was under water while hundreds of thousands evacuated their homes.
The stock exchange closed down for two days and Makati was like a ghost town with empty streets, as most people couldn’t make their way into the city to work. My wellington boots, carried all the way from Dublin, were eventually taken out of the wardrobe and put to use.
Manila wasn’t the only place to experience flooding and a colleague and myself went out to visit the evacuation centres in Laguna (an hour South of Manila) to see the response and take some photos for the record. The flooding is caused by water flowing in to low-lying areas, but exacerbated when people dump into the lakes, leaving no absorption and the drains are also totally blocked with rubbish.
We went out to see what was happening on the third day when heavy flooding on highways had cleared and people began moving back to their homes. In one way it was good to get out of Makati and see the real Philippines again, where people don’t live in high-rise condos and there are real shops along the streets selling bread and vegetables and repairing electrical items; where motorcycle taxis are lined up in ranks waiting for customers, the church is the centre of the village and there is community. It is easy to forget that outside the bubble of Makati/Manila real life happens.
The rains have settled down again and we get a good downpour almost every day with hair-raising claps of thunder and fantastic lightening displays. It’s all over in a couple of hours and you can almost seeing the streets visibly drying off. For the past two years, weather systems caused havoc in the Philippines. Global climate change sees typhoons in areas where there were never typhoons before and too many Filipinos die as a result, while many are left without any income as the typhoons cause damage to infrastructure and wipe out agriculture.
The effects of climate change, unfortunately, can be felt long after the typhoon has dissipated or moved off towards another area. It just seems that no matter what preparations are put in place, it’s never quite enough. Perhaps government investment in an education campaign on dumping would help reduce the damage and more attention to deforestation wouldn’t go astray either…. but that’s another episode.