Bangon Bohol! (Rise Up Bohol!)

“RISE UP BOHOL” is the slogan on t-shirts worn across the Philippine island of Bohol. Why? In October 2013 the Island was devastated by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. Who helped these people? How do they live now?

On Bohol Queen Lizzie resides amongst the rubble. Grit in her teeth, a man’s basketball vest hangs off her skinny frame. Lizzie crouches close to the ground. She uses a broom made of palm leaves to brush away broken glass and soil. Revealing a cracked white tiled floor and the fragments of her warmer memories. Her house a wreck, Lizzie has to live in a make-shift structure of scavenged tin sheets and plywood.

Thousands of Filipinos live like Queen Lizzie. In November 2013, large parts of the Philippines were devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the biggest-ever recorded typhoon. This overshadowed (i.e. shunted aid from) the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that shook Bohol a month earlier.  222 people died, 926 were injured and more than 79,000 homes were destroyed by the earthquake.

‘All Hands Volunteering’ (AHV), a non- profit organisation set up base near the Earthquake’s epicentre. Volunteers of all ages and from all over the world live here communally and provide disaster relief to the people of Bohol. AHV does not charge a fee and volunteers can stay for however long they want. Volunteer Maria Bernabo, from San Francisco, describes the nature of the work done by All Hands.  ‘Bringing down the damaged houses is nerve-wracking. We fashion supports out of wild bamboo. Then, we gut the house. Finally (and this is the fun and crazy part) the team literally pull the frame down.’

After demolishing each house, the brutal labour commences.  All of the recyclable materials are painstakingly salvaged. As Maria points out, ‘sledgehammering rock is a punishment in prison… Every day is a battle between safety and efficiency.’ But Maria, like the other 500 volunteers who have committed themselves to the project, believes that ‘It’s awesome. Its sweaty, smelly, dirty, dangerous fun with a bunch of great people…It’s a great feeling, helping someone get on with their life after such a tragedy.’

But what must it be like for rural Filipino islanders to be helped by AHV?

A group of sweaty volunteers jump off a pickup truck and bound towards Queen Lizzie. Awkwardly clutching shovels, sledgehammers and anti- bacterial gel. Hands on hips, they cluster together. Observing the fragile still chaos, they plan the task ahead.

The chattering of the chickens and goats is overtaken by a strange ensemble of foreign speech. This accompanies the banging of wood and smashing of concrete.  With small gestures, Queen Lizzie silently conducts.

One volunteer rescues a child’s shoe, a colouring book and a frog from the rubble. Lizzie then saves the volunteer from an unpleasant disaster. She shakes her head ferociously to stop the voli from sledgehammering the septic tank.

Maria Bernabo was part of the team working on Queen Lizzie’s house. She remembers that at first Lizzie would secretly move rocks around when the volunteers were on their lunch break. ‘She wanted to help, but maybe was too shy to join in while we were there. I asked her through gestures if she had added the rocks and she nodded. We all laughed and that afternoon Lizzie and I made a huge pile of rocks together.’

Queen Lizzie got her title from the volunteers’ work schedule board. Each worksite is given a descriptive name. These include ‘house falling down the hill’ ‘love school’ and ‘snake pit’. ‘Love school’ because the children of Bohol are bursting with affection. Waving, hooting and giggling everytime they see the truck full of volunteers go by. ‘Snake pit’ refers to the cobra that slithered out to greet a volunteer as she shovelled a pile of rubble.  

One of the longest projects to date is house falling down the hill.  Sharp tin, raw sewage, rotten stilts precariously propping. Slipping. Surprisingly this is a popular site to work on. The homeowner provides a banquet of hog roast, coconuts and sticky rice snacks for the volunteers. The old ladies from the church next door keep the volunteers company all day.

The work schedule for AVH is hard physical labour in the heat from 7am until 4pm six days a week. Volunteers live in tents and use bucket showers. Chiqui Mabanta is from the Philippines and volunteers regularly on the project. She thinks that ‘The best thing about volunteering was that since there was a purpose; I seemed to have all the strength I needed. … Also of course the friends you make. It seems they will be lifelong friends. I’ve since seen 3 volunteers abroad. It feels like we’re “war buddies” because of the experience we shared.’

Chiqui believes that ‘The formula of AVH is great because One: The physical help AHV provides.  Two. The victims are comforted by strangers who care, and feel less hopeless. Three. The experience changes the volunteer for life.’

With the help of AHV, Bohol is rising from the rubble. Now eight months after the earthquake, over 300 homes have been safely deconstructed. Schools and churches are being resurrected. Some houses are already being rebuilt, including Lizzie’s. If you would like to support All Hands Volunteers, visit www.hands.org

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