Survivors: A review of book title

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Saturday, December 14, 2013


THE moment of this volume’s publication a year after Sendong and days after Pablo, both destructive typhoons that ravaged Cagayan de Oro City in the past year, brings to the fore both the academic and policy relevance of this work.

There is indeed a need to document these painful human experiences not just for posterity but more importantly to allow us fellow victims and scholars to sift through the nuances of the event in order to draw out its various dimensions, and cull lessons accordingly.

This volume is particularly indispensable to this task as it provides us a rare opportunity to listen to the voices of the voiceless, the marginalized, as they struggle to come to terms with the experience of disaster.

Neglected demographic

It is academically satisfying already that in this volume are the voices of a unique but often neglected demographic – the voices of children. However, this compilation of stories become even more crucial because they emanate from a sector that represents the future of this city or any other City in the developing world given their common political economic trajectory – the young urban poor.

From the standpoint of a critical social science, some relevant questions are raised: how do the young and marginalized in these parts participate and construct their experience of disaster? What are their sources of strengths and weaknesses/sources of resilience and vulnerabilities? How do these all shape our shared future living in perilous and cramped urban centers in constant risk of disasters because of political economic conditions and/or climate change affecting rural-urban geographies? Such loaded academic concerns may not have been the objective of this project, but the narratives point out some preliminary answers to these important questions as well as surface even more questions.

Children play important roles

For instance, what is common among these children as the narratives bear are the important roles they play in the family. At the onset, these children already display strength as productive members of their respective families. With both parents working or taking on odd jobs at odd hours, they are assigned roles as surrogate parents to their siblings on top dealing with the demands of their education. Some of them participate in the economic reproduction of their families even at very young ages. Jessa Mae, 12 years old, from Macasandig, gathers plastic to be sold to junkshops to help in providing for the needs of the family.

At the height of the flooding, many of these children played pivotal roles in keeping themselves and their family members safe. They were the ones who tore through the roofs and carried younger siblings to keep their family members safe. Gwendolyn, 8 years old, from Consolacion, probably saved the life of her father by pleading against his desire to help neighbors carried away by the rampaging floods.

What these observations present to us is the inherent capacity of children especially of the underprivileged to assume greater responsibilities in times of disaster.

Interventions

Interventions in disaster preparedness should account for this vital role of children instead of treating them constantly as helpless victims.

In this volume are complete narratives that also prove that the young are capable of making sense of their experience. They can recall, verbalize, and stress the important aspects of their experience making each of the 14 stories here poignant and unique.

Graemme, 10, from Balulang, recalled that as he cried for help on the rooftop, he was not heard because the strong winds blew his cries away. Mary Rose, 11 years old from Cala-Cala, detailed her ordeal being washed away from Macasandig to the open sea before being rescued by fishermen close to Camiguin while losing her mother and younger sibling as the raging waters drifted them along the way.

These young people are also keenly aware of the trauma they are going through. Romryn Jun, 12 years old from Consolacion, points to “Sendong” as the entity/event that destroyed the family home, and took away his mother and siblings. He vows not to forget while he recognizes his personal loss by admitting that he misses them. Princess, 12 years old, shared that she could not stand seeing or hearing people crying and feels panic every time it rains. Rey Mark, 8, from Cala-Cala, prefers to forget and vows to move on in order to achieve his dreams.

Strength and resilience

All these point to a sensitivity that portrays strength and resilience.

This strength is further proven by how these young minds try to wrap their heads around a senseless event. Mary Rose, after being rescued in the open sea and not seeing her mother and sibling with them on the boat, challenged God’s omniscience. “If God is indeed all powerful, why didn’t He/She let his mother and younger sibling survive,” she asked. A point she will later on take back.

That is the same with Rona, 8 years old, from Macasandig who trusts that the “Lord has a better plan for all.”Or Jack Lord, 10, from Cala-Cala, who has a different take. According to him, God is not at fault but men “who throw garbage everywhere, cut trees” and ultimately fail in being good stewards of nature.

What these children are actually doing in their attempt to make sense of their experience is choosing hope over despair.

In the narratives, they shared their hopes: for an education, a concrete house away from the river, a complete and healthy family in the future – the very things that Sendong (and their underprivileged condition) tried to take away from them.

Thus, what these stories represent are narratives of hope over despair – an incontrovertible proof that these children, by all accounts, are and will continue to be survivors, Pablo notwithstanding. Pablo is the typhoon that followed Sendong almost a year that brought stronger winds and inundated the same urban poor areas and most probably victimized these children and their families again.

‘Economic underdevelopment’

By all indications, Sendong and Pablo won’t be the last storms, neither are these two the first two storms that victimized these children and their families. As members of the urban poor, they have long been survivors of an even more pervasive and treacherous storm – economic underdevelopment.

These narratives lead us to contemplate upon a point made by a Marxist geographer about how we should view the political economy of disasters: “…the contours of disaster and the difference of who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.” To paraphrase Neil Smith, the contours of disaster and their varying conditions for survival is to a greater or lesser extent determined by their social and economic status.

While we celebrate the bravery of these survivors as they hope against despair again and again, a serious question needs to be asked: Is it a sign of a healthy and progressive society if it demands from its young and underprivileged to be constant survivors?

*****

(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 15, 2013.

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