Journey to Talim Island

I awoke to the shrill horn-blast of an on-coming boat. Traffic of all sorts exists in the Philippines: even out in the water en route to a lake island at 5:46 in the morning. I shook myself to a semi-conscious state and discovered that the world around me had already been wide-awake a long time ago. Bankas, Filipino bamboo boats, charged across the waters carrying students to school, merchants splayed their wares across their ponderous boats, a few elderly men sat by the shores fishing, with a pyramid of silvery fish by their sides as trophies. A surprising jolt of energy and busyness coursed through the blanket of lethargic humidity. Everything was at once familiar and unfamiliar.

I had volunteered to do community outreach before: building gers in the outback of Mongolia, whitewashing village sheds in rural India, teaching English to underprivileged children in the unsavory neighbourhoods of Hong Kong. Despite the compassionate thought behind each volunteer expedition, something about them made me feel deeply uncomfortable.  It was as if there was not enough empathy or humanity in each intervening country that they had to ship someone thousands of miles away just to provide this innocuous service, usually something I completely had no expertise in. The emphasis was always on what they lacked rather than what they already had.

On this excursion to Talim Island, we were not the great saviors of poor fishing villages, rather, we were there to introduce a new feature in the micro-financial services that Grameen Foundation and its affiliates provided. We were reaching out to two barangays (villages), Kayome and Malakaban, as part of our Community Agent Network program. Once the banka was anchored, we scrambled out onto land, unwieldy in our steps, to an insulated basketball court and boisterous sari-sari stores: sari-sari meaning ‘variety-variety’ in Tagalog. As I discovered, the sari-sari store was a vibrant little store that sold knickknacks, bronze tins of sardines and spam, phone card load and soda pop bulbous and transparent like jellyfish.

These convenient stores were the social and mercantile cornerstones of the barangay, and under a partnership with Grameen Foundation, they fulfilled a noble, but nonetheless mercantile purpose in providing financial services to thousands of isolated villagers. By using a mobile app or a mobile device created by Grameen and its partners, these storeowners empower villagers to pay for their rent, water and electric supply, gain access to credit and even micro-insurance. Sari-sari stores are doing something that many financial institutions in the Philippines have not been able to accomplish. Since the Philippines is geographically made-up of 7,107 islands, the long distance and difficulty in laying out infrastructure hindered the provision of financial services to 36% of municipalities in the Philippines. Scattered across thousands of islands in their stained white tank-tops and flimsy flip-flops, sari-sari owners have provided an alternative so effective that nine in ten municipalities now have freedom to credit.

In the tepid basketball court, a makeshift community center is erected out of tarp, boxes of free food, chairs and volunteers. Children sway to the bass line of Despacito booming from the ubiquitous Filipino karaoke machine. A lady in line talks about building a new house with a loan. A teenager carrying her baby finally has the time and money to restart her education. A young man no longer has to travel three hours by jeepney, boat, then jeepney again to pay his bills.

A line from the great Amartya Sen pops into my head – development in part, is the freedom of opportunity. It is the unerring hope that tomorrow the roof above my head, torn by rain and wind, will one day be replaced by brick and concrete. That with deft hands, a steady head and given a chance to shine, I may make the most of what I already have, and more.

---Boris But (BwB Volunteer)

Boris is a BwB volunteer supporting Grameen Foundation's work in the Philippines through a summer internship.