Philippines: Joel’s Story

After a successful first distribution last April, the OML Philippines team is expanding to new areas to give thousands of lights with help from Energizer.

Untouched Paradise – at first sight, these two words perfectly describe Joel’s home. The village is surrounded by lush greenery. The mountain air is cool and refreshing.  A few steps into the forest, one finds a clear, flowing river filled with fish. It is truly nature at its finest.

However, the lives of people like Joel are far from paradise. Joel, 43, is a typical breadwinner in Dugui Too, a village on the island-province of Catanduanes in Eastern Philippines. Home to around 300 families (roughly 1,500 people), Barangay Dugui Too is isolated from the rest of civilization. To reach Virac, the town proper, one has to criss-cross a meandering river about ten to twenty times, depending on the season. A long, colorful jeepney, a jeep used for public transit known for its flamboyant decoration and crowded seating,  is what ferries people and their produce into town every morning. It passes bumps down rugged roads and returns in the afternoon.

But this regimen is dependent on the temperament of nature. The island of Catanduanes, also known as the Land of the Howling Winds, is completely exposed on its Eastern side to the Pacific Ocean and is regularly battered by storms. Thus, when nature’s wrath abounds, land transport stops because the river swells up by torrential rains. If there are medical emergencies during this time, the injured or the sick have to be brought in by banca, a small boat. This banca has to be hoisted up and carried across the river banks. What would usually be an hour-long trip, can take four hours.

Through the trials of violent weather and unpredictable connection to neighboring towns, Joel tries to make the most out of his life. Every Monday, Joel, together with his cousin, takes a one-and-a half hour trek up a nearby mountain to get to the government-owned plantation of abaca, a native Philippine species of banana, two kilometers away. They bring with them enough provisions to last until Saturday: 8 kilos of uncooked rice, 500 grams of tuyo or dried fish, and coffee. They get their vegetables along the way, usually hopi or taro leaves, to be cooked in coconut milk and chili, or whatever else they can find.

For five days, they hack down abaca plants and strip off their fibers, replanting the small shoots growing around the cut plants to ensure their harvest next year. Abaca is the primary source of income of the people of Dugui Too. These plants are a great source of fiber, used for rope, paper products, and cloth. They are also one of the few plants that can survive the winds and rain of Catanduanes. In a good week Joel and his cousin can each bring down 44 kilos of abaca (worth $34). They immediately take them to the buyers in town, hoisting the bundled fibers onto their backs.

Joel’s motivation for this hard work is his family. Being the only breadwinner, he must provide for his family of six. His wife, Lea, 28, stays at home to take care of their 5 children, ages 11 to 1.  Eldest son Jemar is already in high school in the nearby Buyo Integrated School. Every day, Jemar has to hitch a ride on a motorcycle, paying P20 (45 cents/day).  The other children, Leanne, Lea and Roseanne are studying at the nearby Dugui Too Elementary School.

With a big family to support, Joel takes on many tasks in order to generate income. He raises carabaos or Philippine water buffalo, which he sells when there are emergency needs. Once, he had to sell his carabao when his daughter Leanne had to be hospitalized in Manila. Aside from carabaos, he also raises pigs and chickens for food, and occasionally harvests coconuts for copra, from which oil is extracted for various manufacturing purposes.

Joel’s life is hard. More often than not, he comes home exhausted. However, Joel never complains. When he feels depressed, he thinks of the bright future he is building for his children. With high school as his highest educational attainment, Joel hopes to send all his children to college. He hopes that perhaps someday they will become teachers or government workers so that they would never have to experience the hard labor he has to endure every day. Maybe then, their lives will finally be paradise.

Donate to One Million Lights Philippines.

$15 will provide one solar-powered lantern for a family.