The Light Meant To Be Shared

by Alexandra Estrella

A version of this article was originally published at mata.com.ph

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If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

— Lilla Watson


Back in college, part of our formation program as seniors was to go through an immersion with a marginalized community. I was assigned to an indigenous community in the mountains of Capas, Tarlac. I tried my best to prepare for this experience, having been briefed in the classroom on what to bring and how to behave in the area. We were instructed to pack light, so I tried my best to bring everything I thought I needed in a camping backpack.

We were assigned to different host families once we arrived. I was pampered by my foster parents who invited me to nap after they had welcomed and fed me. As I entered their home, I was embarrassed to see that my backpack for a weekend was almost as much as my entire family of six had safely stored in a carton box. Needless to say, they didn’t have much.

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It was a particularly eye-opening experience to live as simply as they did. During one meal, my foster mother fed me vegetables and rice. I saw how the viand was not enough for us all yet she gave me a hefty serving, while she then fed her youngest child with only a sparse amount of salt. When her child asked for more salt, she added only a little, telling her she had to save the rest for other meals. This greatly moved me. I realized that they didn’t have much to give, but they are more than willing to share all they had.

I left my foster family feeling grateful, humbled and disturbed. We were told that this was the point of the immersion — to leave feeling a little bit disturbed, hoping that this experience would move us to act.

Later on, I decided talked to my formator and asked him what we could do for Sitio Bilad, the name of the community we had encountered. He told me that the community we lived with already had a specific request, and this was to have light to use. I was left baffled with that unexpected request. I thought, "How can I bring light to an Aeta village living off the grid?"

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Five Watts to Make a Change

Having hiked up mountains, I didn’t think it was possible to connect them to the electrical lines. I was told that a small team of students had already begun fundraising to put up communal solar PV panels in hopes of electrifying this community. After continuous discussion, we found that this might be the best solution since renewable energy is best suited for their needs and the cheapest to maintain. In the end, five watts was all it would take to greatly impact an entire family. Having said that, the race to fundraise for this legacy project began as we were finishing up our final semester.

The process of starting this major project entailed a strong relationship with the community — it is made up of constant communication with the community leaders. We conducted focus group discussions to discuss how they planned to care for and maintain the technology. We also discussed the planning of the project - how to execute the project and get everyone involved.

Through our constant communication, we learned that their landscape is something they hold dear, so we decided to do the electrical wiring underground. Moreover, our team wanted the community to feel that this project was also theirs - that we are working together to make their dream of having light in their homes possible.

Once we completed the installation, it brought us joy to hear the holistic positive impact the project had brought to families. There were more engaged students in school because they had time to read at night. There was better overall hygiene because plates were washed after dinner. There was more time with loved ones after a day of school or farming. Lastly, there was less exposure to health risks because the villagers were not inhaling fumes from kerosene lamps.

The project, as we had hoped, did not only improve their quality of life, but also added hours to their day.

Nowadays, most of us talk about how there aren’t enough hours in a day, even when we have the luxury of being productive or socializing in the evening. Meanwhile, when the sun sets for them, it is truly the end of the day. By six or seven in the evening, their day would come to an end.

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A Light That Gives Back Hope and Dignity

Before entering this partnership, we had to ask ourselves if we were imposing our beliefs on this indigenous community. Who said that they needed light to feel empowered? Our realization was the request and initiative first came from them. We noticed that giving them light helped them feel more dignified - all the while they believed that they were lesser than those living in the cities, and that this is was why they were left to live without light.

Furthermore, we knew that light was not a foreign concept to the indigenous. They were already making use of battery operated flashlights and kerosene lamps to light up their homes, only that this was either too expensive for them to maintain or not a very safe alternative for them. Thus, darkness was never part of their culture, if anything, it was a detour that they were forced to take.

As Project Liwanag PH, the greatest gift we believe we could give the indigenous is not just light, but the access to basic resources, leaving them to feel more included. This is why we later on decided to dedicated ourselves to these communities, turning this legacy project into an non-profit organization.

Through our talks with them we learned that the indigenous believed that light was only for those in the lowlands, adding to their feeling of inferiority and neglect. We wanted to enter into this partnership in order to develop their sense of belongingness and empowerment—to assure them that they too deserved this very basic need, and that we were here to partner up in order to achieve that goal. After all, light was made for all; and if you have it, it is meant to be shared.

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At VESTI, we aim to be partners with our beloved indigenous communities by supporting local weaving and artisanal heritage. Know more about our brand and the community we foster at www.vestifashion.com

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