Ireen, our provincial coordinator and I have ridden up into the hills on an off-road Yamaha motorcycle to meet with a dozen or so loan applicants from Sto. Niño. We have asked the applicants to meet us in the neighbouring barangay as the final portion of the track to Sto. Niño is very rough. Our meeting place is a shaded spot with a couple of benches outside the home of a childhood friend of Winelin’s, our field worker.
Ireen has asked me to do two interviews and the first is with Jeramel. I conduct the interview in the house next door and Winelin is my interpreter. I begin by asking Jeramel to tell me his life story. It transpires that he is the fourth in a family of 11 children. He is married to Jovelyn and they have a 2 month old baby boy by the name of Janrel. Jeramel is a sugarcane labourer earning 130 pesos ($2.60) a day plus a free lunch. He works a six-day week and a working day is 8 hours.
When I ask Jeramel to tell me about the toughest periods in his life, he tells me about his five years working in Manila as a house boy for a Chinese family. When he first arrived in Manila in 2013, his first job was to work in a piggery to pay off his sea journey from Dumaguete to Manila. He spent three months in this job receiving free board and lodging but no salary - just a monthly allowance of 300 pesos ($6). He then worked for a Chinese family, owners of a feeds and school supplies company. He earned 1,000 pesos ($20) a month working and sleeping in the stock room and given just two days off a year. He sent his salary to his mother back home. His job mostly consisted of cleaning and filling sacks with feeds. His only solace in the job was in the camaraderie he had with his co-workers.
In late 2017, Jeramel returned home; it was a 24 hour journey by ship from Manila to Dumaguete and an onward bus ride to Bayawan. His Mum and Dad, two brothers and sister were there to meet him at the bus terminal. It was a joyous reunion.
Jeramel’s story has touched me deeply. I finally ask him about his loan application and he tells me that his wife Jovelyn’s father has given them one hectare of land to cultivate with sugarcane. He will plough the land with his father-in-law’s carabao (water buffalo) and use the loan to buy 20,000 sugarcane points and six sacks of fertiliser. I conclude the interview by asking Jeramel how he feels about the prospect of cultivating his own land with sugarcane and he smiles and tells me he is excited.
My next interview is with Arcilita (51) and her daughter-in-law Mary Phine (31) both residents of Sto. Niño. The two of them are applying for loans to enable them to cultivate land with sugarcane and corn respectively. Their lands are the property of a large landowner whose lands are subject to agrarian reform and therefore free of charge to cultivate. Arcilita will use her loan (15,000 pesos) to rent a carabao (water buffalo) for 30 days to plough one hectare of land and to purchase 10 sacks of fertiliser. Mary Phine will use her loan of 6,000 pesos to rent a carabao to furrow half a hectare of land and to purchase corn seeds and fertiliser.
There will be no need for Arcilita to buy sugarcane points to plant as she will be obtaining a sufficient quantity from her nephew when she helps with the harvesting of his sugarcane in January. It is the practice in these remote places for everyone to help with each other’s harvesting. Indeed most adults living in the hills of Tanjay earn a living from working on sugarcane plantations - the women do the weeding and the men do the cutting and loading of the sugarcane onto trucks. I ask Arcilita and Mary Phine about this work and they tell me that they earn 130 pesos ($2.60) for an 8 hour day with a long break during the heat of the sun. They are covered head to foot to protect themselves from the sharp leaves of the cane which can chafe the skin.
I conclude my interview with Arcilita and Mary Phine by asking them about their lives and the things that make them happy. Both of them speak of the happiest times being when there is enough food for the family. In contrast, the saddest times are when they are sick and cannot go to work as that means no income and no food on the table. I am humbled by these simple admissions and glad that we in the PSHF can be a source of encouragement to people in these these remote parts of Negros Oriental.
After concluding my interviews, I go back to where Ireen is conducting hers. She must have a gathering of 20 people around her. Ireen introduces me to everyone and we exchange greetings before I head back next door. The children have some freshly cut cacao in their hands and they offer me some seeds to taste. They are white with a slippery surface covering a hard pod which is not edible. It is a bit like sucking a sweet. Later, the uncle of the children shows me his arabica coffee beans which he is drying in the sun. I mention how nice the walls of his house are and he points to the Bagakay shrub in the front yard from which they are derived.
I return to the gathering next door and they are winding up. I watch them all clamber on to the motorcycles (3 to 4 on each one) that will take them back to Santo Niño. Winelin’s son, Creswin will drive two of the applicants home on our PSHF motorcycle.
As we wait for Creswin’s return, Ireen chats to the two remaining women who will go home on the last jeepney and I find myself watching two children playing ‘badminton’ with a PET bottle. It is a joy to see children having fun without modern day ‘gadgets’.
Out of curiosity, I walk over to the children’s school which is nearby and admire the view of the hills. It is the Christmas holidays so there is nobody around.
Creswin is back from Santo Niño when I return. His mother will ride back home with him and Ireen and I will return to Bayawan and so ends a productive day in the field.