If seeing were believing, then envisioning the possibility of a healthier Culajao in the coming months only excites me all the more to go back and believe in the power of positive transformation.
I clearly remember the first time I met Team Uswag Culajao during the Iloilo Live Screening. Never having encountered the terms “Uswag” and “Culajao” in my life, I easily assumed it was an indigenous reference and expected the team to don tribal attire to the venue. To my surprise (and slight dismay), the team was clad in ironed business suits when they shyly entered the room to register. “Anong ibig sabihin ng Uswag Culajao?” I asked. With their doe eyes and palpable nervousness, they looked at each other and started to mumble, “Uswag means to move forward, while Culajao is the beautiful barangay we want to help move forward.” After a series of exchanges, I learned that their community was situated along the banks of the river Culajao, and practiced open defecation. This was causing several problems like diarrhea, ringworms, athlete’s foot and other water-borne illnesses. Seeing photos of their homes, it was hard for me to believe their situation – instead of toilets, there were holes that led directly the river; and instead of showers, children bathed in the contaminated river. “You have to see Brgy. Cualajao to believe it, ma’am!” were the team’s parting words to me that day.
Six months, 46 teams screened, and a 3-day Boot Camp later, I found myself visiting Brgy. Culajao in Roxas City, Capiz, to see and believe. The team, composed of Valerie Ballos, Patrick Martinez, Cesar Ocson, Julie Humbas, Marlo Astrolabio and mentor Bonymer Albor, introduced us to their community. The residents’ homes on stilts were made from very light materials that could be easily blown away by a storm; the river where they harvest clams and fish for food and livelihood and had both human and hog wastes floating in it. But in contrast to their dire situation, the residents, mothers and children all had welcoming smiles.
“Not many residents understand the need to properly dispose their wastes. Parents today have practiced open defecation since they were children and will be passing on this habit to their kids, too,” says Valerie, the team leader. This mindset is what Team Uswag Culajao chose to remedy as they address the lack of toilet facilities, lack of awareness on hygiene and sanitation, and proliferation of gastrointestinal problems in Brgy. Culajao through their project, Mobile Home Latrines. With the provision of a mobile cart toilet system, residents will learn how to reduce waste disposal into their river and will be able to transport the wastes into a compost pit.
Adelfa Estonina, a mother and a BHW in the community, shared that many families have become immune to the effects of the contaminated river. She tells us that many don’t realize that their children have parasitic infections, not because they are unable to understand, but because they are not aware. Johna Portelleso, a mother of five, is a perfect example. She expresses to us that there is nothing wrong with their makeshift toilet with the river serving as the sewage system, but that it would be nice to have a real toilet.
There are several health issues that silently plague many of our waterside communities; they may be grave, but they are curable, especially if people work together. Team Uswag Culajao partners with Barangay Captain Noel Alcasarin to start their movement for a healthier Culajao. “Go lang nang go ‘pag may oportunidad na umusog, tutulong ako sa team sa kahit anong paraan para lamang sa Culajao!” he declares, pledging his involvement in the project. With his support and the team’s dedication to mobilize their community, any barriers for the team will only serve as steps towards progress and sources of feedback to implement their project better.
“Kapag pumupunta ako sa Culajao, nare-realize ko kung gaano ako kaswerte. Minsan, inu-underestimate natin ang mga simpleng bagay, katulad na lamang ng toilet. Sino ba naman ang makakaisip na ang toilet na minsan hindi pa natin nililinis ay isang bagay na kailangan ng isang komunidad upang umuswag? Kaya gusto kong ipagpatuloy ang proyekto kahit na nagtatrabaho na kami o kahit bakasyon kami… gusto naming tumulong dahil tinutulungan din nila kaming maging mas mabuting tao,” says an emotional Valerie. With their will to help and their community’s support, the team will be finally distributing mobile latrines to Brgy. Culajao residents in the next few weeks, supplemented with several awareness seminars.
Visiting Culajao did not only make me believe the reality of the community’s situation, it also redefined “uswag” for me. More than moving forward for a healthier Culajao, it has become a concrete step towards real progress. If seeing were believing, then envisioning the possibility of a healthier Culajao in the coming months only excites me all the more to go back and believe in the power of positive transformation.
Bea Arellano is a project officer for Ideas Positive, and Unilab Foundation's resident Baymax. With big dreams and even a bigger heart, she helps Ideas Positive teams turn their idea into reality. This article is part of the #IdeasPositiveRun5 series, which documents the transformation of 14 communities through innovative ideas of 14 youth teams. Follow their story as they build a healthier Philippines, one community at a time! Visit the Ideas Positive official Facebook Page.