This title of this article may sound intriguing to some, even cliché among my activist friends but this post was inspired by a recent video blog by Pietro Boselli at IG about the societal roles of a scientist. So today I decided that this week, my kids’ homeschooling activities should center on how science should be used in the service of our people.
I’m not here to paint gold on every scientist you will meet in your lifetime. We are as fallible and as human as anyone. But if you ever meet one who uses his or her expertise to serve the people, he or she deserves your respect. All the years I spent as a geologist for a government agency had given me the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds. Meeting them had taught me so many things about humanity. One of those lessons is that science must, first and foremost, be used in the service of our people.
To understand where I’m coming from, I must tell you a bit about myself and the two important events in my life that changed me forever. When I was in my teens, I was kind of an introvert. I hardly went out with friends who are very few to begin with. I preferred reading my books rather than having conversations with people. I hardly stayed on the phone for more than 2 minutes. When I did hang out with 1 or 2 friends (I couldn’t handle more than 3), I made sure I didn’t stay out too long because dad set a curfew for us – we had to be home by 6 PM. Why? We lived in the slums of Sucat while I was in my teens and as young adult where it was usual to meet shady people. We once lived beside a family who gunned down their neighbor in broad daylight. Anyway, you get the picture. Growing in that environment made me generally suspicious of people. Even in college, I would only hang out with very small circle of friends, most of them were also taking up Geology at that time and thus, I meet on a daily basis. Some were from my choir and school org.
I was like that, anti-people, even after I graduated in 2003. If anything, the school being over had isolated me more than ever from the rest of the world, all comfortable in my own little bubble of existence. In the summer of that year I decided to use the prize money I got for winning the Shahani Award for Best Thesis in Geology, to go on a tour to Mindanao all by myself via a Superferry boat. It was a 3 day-voyage. I stayed with a friend’s family for two months in Davao Oriental. The plan was to find a job in Mindanao while staying with my friend and her family. I also missed her because she left the university too soon hence, the visit. The parents took care of me and treated me like their own child. It was the very first kindness and hospitality I had ever experienced from a family outside of my own. Conversely, it was the first family I have ever allowed myself to immerse with. Sadly, I was not able to find a Geology job in the area so I decided, after two months to go back to Manila to also take up the board exam. I was gonna take another Superferry boat back to Manila from Davao City port but I saw that taking a Philtranco bus was cheaper by more than 500. After hugging my friend goodbye, I boarded the bus that will travel from Mindanao to Visayas, then to Luzon. It was a major island hopping experience for 2 nights and 3 days. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour despite the difficulty in catching sleep on a bus seat. I got distracted from the discomfort by the different rock outcrops and scenery I saw outside my window. Using my knowledge of the country’s geography, I tried my best to locate myself in my head based on famous landmarks, signage, and landscapes. It was, after all, my first time to travel alone on the eastern side of the country.
One of the bus’ stops was at a terminal in the outskirt of Tacloban City, Leyte. I remember getting off the bus to reload my old Nokia phone so I could tell the family I left behind in Mindanao my whereabouts. The store was only about 20 (maybe 50) meters away from the bus terminal but it took a while (~10 minutes) to buy my load because of the long queue of customers. By the time I was done reloading my sim card, the bus was gone! I panicked. I didn’t know the stop would be short! I looked around, instantly scared out-of-my wits. I didn’t have enough money on me to buy another bus ticket and this place, as far as I was concerned, was in the middle of nowhere. I looked at the few people that remained in the terminal, none of them looked familiar. I realized none of them were my co-passengers. Then one of the young men who caught me looking worried approached me. The “stranger danger” alarm was ringing in my head. He spoke to me in Waray. I knew because I could understand a little Cebuano after two months of exposure to it in Mindanao. His language was stranger to me. Then he broke into a smile and spoke in Tagalog, perhaps realizing that I could not understand him.
“Are you lost? Did you get left behind by the Philtranco bus?”
(Nawawala ka ba? Naiwan ka ng bus ng Philtranco?”)
“Yes. Where am I?”
(“Opo eh. Asan po ba ako?”)
I forgot the name of the barangay but from what I remember, it was in the rural section of Tacloban. This was in 2003, so I don’t remember how far I was from Tacloban City center. I reckoned, I would need to board a jeep to take me back to the city and take a bus from there. I didn’t have enough money on me so that was hardly a choice. Sensing my despair, a few women and men flocked around me to ask where I came from and if there was anything they could do to help me. One guy offered to take me to the nearest Philtranco terminal using his jeep. I was close to tears, not only because I was broke and lost, but also because I had not expected strangers to be this kind. After about 15 minutes, the people around me looked towards the sound of incoming bus. It was my bus! It returned for me. The people around me cheered me up and told me that I’ll be fine. I waved at them goodbye while I was boarding my bus, which was something I was NEVER in the habit of doing. I was too happy, I forgot being a snob.
In 2006, in the aftermath of the massive landslide in Guinsaugon that killed more than one thousand people, I became part of the team of geologists sent out to conduct a rapid geohazard assessment of the Leyte island and Biliran. The government wanted to see if a landslide as massive as the one in Guinsaugon would recur. We all visited the coastal and mountainous areas of Leyte and also met with barangay and city officials to give a lecture about geologic hazards. We interviewed locals and told them of the purpose of our reconnaissance and if they could remember of any geologic hazards occurring in their area from years back. We went from one municipality to another looking at mountain sides for signs of impending landslides and mapped layers of clays that could expand if there was heavy downpour which could contribute to landslide. We also did quick estimates of the number of households near high risk areas should any of the hazards occur. We rated each area in terms of susceptibility to any geologic hazard such as flood, landslide, and cave-in. We also visited the coastal areas to check for the susceptibility to coastal floods. I remember how openly receptive the locals were to us. I remember their kindness, hospitality, their offer of food, shelter, and stories. They also thanked us for our visit and for teaching them about geologic hazards.
When Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) hit Leyte and its neighbour islands in November 2013, all I could think of were the people who cheered for me while boarding the Philtranco bus and the ones I talked to during my two-week fieldwork in the island, from its officials to the regular fishermen, farmers, and their families. My heart broke when I saw how the coastal areas within and outside of Tacloban were wiped out. I spent two weeks there, I was familiar with the landscape. All I could think of was that day, we lost so many good and hard working Filipinos, all 6000 plus of them, men, women, and children. On that day, I knew I became a scientist for a reason. I was born to help educate people who has little to no access to proper education, who knows nothing about geologic hazards. The Guinsaugon landslide and Typhoon Yolanda were massive natural disasters that caught us all by surprise. Still, I felt that the massive loss in lives and properties could have been less (or perhaps prevented) if there were enough preparation and full blown information campaigns for our people at risks.
Today, during our home school class, I caught my son struggling with learning about the climate types in the Philippines. I saw how reluctant he was to finish his lesson, perhaps finding the lesson insignificant. So I pulled up the book I kept about Yolanda and showed him pictures that captured the devastation, the body bags, the anguish of people, etc. I told him the story about the kind people I met in Leyte who may have died during that disaster. I told my son that a tiny sacrifice to do his best to learn the climate pattern and weather systems in the country could help his fellow Filipinos in the future – those who have no access to information he has now. I told him that it is the duty of those who has knowledge to share what s/he knows. It is the duty of a scientist to teach the people what he or she knows especially if the information could save people’s lives. I also told him about one meteorologist who stayed in her station during Yolanda who died monitoring the typhoon. That she was a scientist and died a hero.
My son cried with me while I reminisced about the good people of Leyte. He then told me that he will do his best to study his lessons. I think I have just convinced my son to become a scientist someday too. When that happens, I hope he serves his people.