Squeezing in the vehicle as we bump across the roads on our way back home from a meeting with Nueva Vizcaya State University (NVSU), I can’t stop fidgeting. I feel the uneasiness and confusion about where our project is heading. Everything that we have been facing tirelessly since we arrived builds up and comes to light in an avalanche of factors to consider, ethical dilemmas and riddles to solve. The crash between our purpose and the expectations of the local engineers; the complexity of the water scarcity problem that goes far beyond the intrinsic engineering understanding; or the perplexity of capturing the role of each stakeholder, in an attempt to comprehend their interests and perspectives. The puzzle seems to have lowered my batteries to alarming bright red levels.
Although I know that we will find a viable path to make a positive impact in the lives of the families in Aritao, the spin of moody feelings shaking my head with every bump in the road is inevitable. Regardless of my precarious state of mind, I know with painful certainty that the crowd of energetic kids will be waiting at our door anxious to play. I honestly feel like sitting down once again to work with my team on this intricate puzzle, re-scoping our project and defining clearly a timeline of steps and goals to achieve. Well. That, and maybe laying in bed for 10 silent, calm and peaceful minutes…
Contrary to these wishes, if there is something I have learned during these past few days living with the community, is that an Engineering problem starts with the people and ends with the people – and has endless calculations, data collections and technical issues in between. To lead a meaningful project, you need to understand the needs of the people, their values, concerns and desires; to comprehend their way of living and what their priorities are. This is not like the rainfall data you can manage to get access to by talking to a few people. It is not the kind of information you would find online, there is no Wikipedia for what the preferred access to water is in Aritao or how the families feel about having a rainwater harvesting systems. Nevertheless, it will determine whether the project succeeds or not. It would make no sense to spend hours at the desk designing the showiest model possible if the community wouldn’t feel comfortable using it, if they wouldn’t be willing to spend the required time on cleaning and maintenance or if they have more important priorities where they would rather spend those funds on.
“It is essential to build a strong relationship with the community, to create bonds and inspire trust. This comes before sitting down to decide on where project is heading, or before laying in bed for 10 minutes.” – I reflect internally as we approach the door with the awaiting kids. “Like in any relationship, constructing this takes time, effort and dedication.” – are the last minute thoughts that make me exchange my project-work and bed-time wishes, for depleting every remaining spark of energy bonding with the youth of Aritao. I head out to the community multipurpose room, grabbing the powerful speakers and yelling “DANCE TIME!”. The children that excitedly follow, echoing the news out loud and bringing more and more friends along. It takes less than a Shakira song to gather everybody together for a full dance session.
Starting off with Shakira, followed by Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, Prince and many others, I dance and dance with them, screaming “5,6,7,8!” to the top of my voice and clapping to the beats as I teach the avalanche of energetic kids basic dance steps, aiming to have fun with them and challenge them with coordination and rhythm. Streaming our imaginary guitars, rolling our head and shoulders to kick bull changes, turning around while singing “woh wooh woh wooh” to the beats of “Treasure” by Bruno Mars… we lead into learning the short choreography I created yesterday in comic pair of square meters that separate the kitchen from the toilet.
Sweat drops already dripping through my face and body, I abruptly couldn’t feel more alive. I feel the flow that gives sense and scent to the world around you. I feel the fascinating sensation of finding HOME in the amidst of the unknown. In the middle of the blur, of a perplexing project to understand, of a place where it’s challenging to feel safe… of a turbulence of thoughts, of intrinsic decisions to make, of challenges outlying my comfort zone… in the Philippines, in this very right moment, dancing full out with theses kids I feel alive! I feel the flow! I feel at home! Dance is my home. It’s so powerful to be able to share my strongest passion with them.
There are no turbulent worries, thoughts or concerns now. Dancing along with the kids, soon the president of the community joins us, my team mates follow without hesitation too, and the kaptibayahans (community members) stare with faces of approval and delight. What started with a couple dance moves turned into a formidable bonding moment of our EWB-UCL team with the GK Ari-tau village. We have moved a step forward improving the relationship with the community, gaining their approval to our presence at their homes and building trust for our project inputs in their daily life.
The dance session ends with handling candy to the children and them praising us with herds of heartening hugs. But soon the roles swop and it becomes their turn to share their talents. We observe rubric cube races in which 9-year-old kids align the baffling colours in a matter of hurried minutes. We listen astonished to the youth playing guitar and singing their repertoire of music. Even though I find their music taste to be quite appalling – with Justin Bieber featuring the concert – their talent is impressive. Again it leaves us thinking on the incredible potential the youth on these communities have if they were given just the slimmest chance.
“Coming from such a privileged background, you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with kids whose only aspiration in life is to sift through other people’s trash. Spending time regularly with them, year upon year, you then see what even the poorest kids can become when given just the slightest opportunity. It makes a big impact on how you see the world, and what you want to do about it.” The Genius of the Poor – A Journey with Gawad Kalinga, by Thomas Graham.
Other Moments with the Community that Will Be Hard to Forget…
“A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.” ― Tim Cahill
1) Jogging with the GK youth at 6am! Finally Rhoy got to convince us to get outside the village to run. Enjoyed the incredible views… and had fun counting the number of dumb dead frogs on the road!
2) That moment when you’re giving your Thank You cards to every family, it starts to rain and the kids run to you immediately with the biggest “umbrella” they can find…
3) Celebrating the success of the first model for rainwater harvesting system with our #1 fans! Always there to support us 🙂
4) You know you’ve gained their trust when they try to scare you with this… (and we thought the wide range of insects was bad enough!)
5) Playing basketball in the village’s rundown court up in the mountain on the first day… and realising there is something else we could leave behind here for the community. Fast forward three weeks and this was the result!!
6) The moment when you go to take measurements of the houses and the kids come along filling you up with flowers…
When we came they greeted us by taking our hands and gently placing it in their foreheads as they tilted their heads down as a sign of respect. Now they hug us, they call us “ate” (elder sister) and “kuya” (elder brother), ask for personalised high fives or even grip onto our legs without letting go!
COMMUNITY BONDING, YES!!
 Rainwater harvesting system is the technique to collect water from the rain and store it in tanks or reservoirs.