Amid shocking international news of 3,976 people dead, 18,175 others missing and sickening images of buildings shattered in the wake of super typhoon Haiyan in The Philippines, I chose to end my one week visa run to Singapore and return not only to continue with my Gap Year but also to help my colleagues and their relatives rebuild.
Convincing my family in Kenya not to terminate my Gap Year was a challenge. Even as I got assurance from ISOS insurance that the situation in The Philippines was relatively calm and I boarded the first flight I could get a seat on, concerns from my worried relatives and friends still echoed in my mind. A few minutes after take off, I closed the window and remained seated with seatbelt fastened in company of worried Filipinos who were desperate to see their families. I sat in deep prayers frightened of flight turbulence as I persistently assured myself that, “Everything is gonna be alright”.
After the great relief of seeing my colleagues, who came to pick me up at the airport at 4.00am, the tone of conversation changed during our 5.00am breakfast and the taxi ride to my apartment as they narrated to me the sorrowful story how the world’s strongest typhoon wrecked havoc in The Philippines. As their words pierced me, ideas swiftly ran in my mind, and together we made a one-week plan to solicit for relief goods from donors both locally and internationally.
The response was overwhelming but after four days, our one-week plan was cut short when local media featured a story of an 88 year-old man who died waiting for relief food and we knew we needed to act to distribute immediately.
After a quick staff meeting, we rushed to the already under stocked malls to grab the available over priced canned food, water, noodles and bags of rice. At sunset, we had already brought the items to our centre and we rushed to pack our own bags for our three day trip.
The journey to the devastated coastal islands of Isla Panitugan and Baramgay was long; four hours bus ride to the ferry terminal, two hours ferry ride, jeepney rides and long hours of waiting at congested bus stations. The damage wrought by Haiyan astonished me as the ferry captain navigated his way through the submerged ships and fishing nets floating on the Pacific Ocean.
But what impressed me the most was the happiness and unity among the Filipino people. Hundreds of exceptional people of all ages coming together to pray, donate and even to volunteer. I witnessed identical personality traits with our jeepney driver to our first relief station in Isla Panitugan Island. Even with an empty stomach he drove through the narrow winding road in order to bring help to his community. Along the way we passed several women and children beside the road with hand heart breaking banners pleading for help. Our driver told us, with a big smile, that he was happy not only because he saw relief food or because he survived the typhoon, but because but because they still had the unity and the chance to build a greater foundation. In him, I saw love and hope for greater future in a country prone to natural disasters. This was reflected in many families, even as they waited anxiously outside the house for the clean water that we brought with us to quench their longtime thirst.
As I passed the donations to over 300 villagers, the major reflection that came to my mind was that a few months ago, I was a member of two Global concerns, UCOV and Safuge, helping children in Vietnam and Sierra Leone respectively. This time, I was in a different position volunteering and witnessing the end result of the efforts of hardworking UWCSEA students organizing bake sales and selling drinks at the entrance of student productions. And seeing the difference this makes to the people on the ground. Even as I continued passing the relief gifts and listening to the survivors melodious voices saying “Salamat” (thank you) as I replied “Walay Sapayan” (welcome), a rhythm sweet enough to dance to the tunes of a team work accomplishment, I just needed an opportunity to thank the UWCSEA community and local donors for helping out at the time Filipinos needed them most to rebuild their broken lives. At the end of it all I learnt one most important thing, life is not all about what you want but doing best with what you have.
Wyclife Onyango Omondi
Class of 2013
Wyclife is a Gap Year volunteer at the Lihuk Panaghiusa Inc. in The Philippines, which has close links with UWCSEA. Their feeding and scholar programmes are supported by PACE. Funds from UWCSEA’s relief efforts were directed in part to supporting the relief efforts of Lihuk Panaghiusa.