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On their feet, with their hands

How these Yolanda survivors are rebuilding their future

Using the rib of an old umbrella as needle, Manang Rosie weaves strands of dyed buri palm leaves into a plain-looking tikog mat, embellishing it with vibrantly colored geometric shapes and floral designs. Once in a while, she glances at the abstract patterns on a wrinkled paper as her fingers work across the rectangular weave with a surgeon’s precision. Not far from her, a group of women collaborates to complete a larger piece of banig (sleeping mat) on the floor, their bodies bent forward and legs stretched for several hours.

  • One of Nick Guarino's dedicated workers.

    One of Nick Guarino's dedicated workers.

  • The Festrivali Designs and Concepts store

    The Festrivali Designs and Concepts store

  • bolero made by Nick Guarino

    bolero made by Nick Guarino

  • Maria Pangilinan of MO Enterprises and her pandan-made products

    Maria Pangilinan
    of MO Enterprises and her pandan-made products

  • Lina Rama of Rainbow Tikog Industry

    Lina Rama of Rainbow Tikog Industry

  • Nick Guarino, who survived the aftermath of Yolanda because of his fantastical creations.

    Nick Guarino, who survived the aftermath of Yolanda because of his fantastical creations.

  • A tikog maker traces a pattern in the mat, the first step to creating this colorful weaved banig bag Leyte is famous for.

    A tikog maker traces a pattern in the mat, the first step to creating this colorful weaved banig bag Leyte is famous for.

  • The tikog bags created by the survivors of Yolanda

    The tikog bags created by the survivors of Yolanda

  • colorful accessories for sale at the Festrivali Designs and Concepts

    colorful accessories for sale at the Festrivali Designs and Concepts

  • a turtle display made of coconut shells; and Renilda Kuizon of Lolo Bobby’s Handicrafts

    a turtle display made of coconut shells; and Renilda Kuizon of Lolo Bobby’s Handicrafts

  • Renilda Kuizon of Lolo Bobby’s Handicrafts, which specializes in home decor, kitchen ware, and novelty items

    Renilda Kuizon of Lolo Bobby’s Handicrafts, which specializes in home decor, kitchen ware, and novelty items

It is easy to overlook the amount of hard work in making sleeping mats. Interweaved around the same fate, Manang Rosie and the mothers in her village get by each day by making colorful handicrafts out of dull dried tikog leaves. A long, tedious process, weaving is a skill they have learned during childhood and will share to their children. The women do the dirty work themselves. First, they gather tikog, a grass that grows profusely near rice fields and swampy areas. The harvested grass will then be exposed under the sunlight for two days to dry. Once all dried up, they are bundled and cut together so they’ll have the same length. The tikog strands are then dyed, sun-dried once again, and pounded with a bamboo stick since they are easier to weave when flattened. “It could take one whole day to weave a single banig,” says Manang Rosie, her voice so soft I have to lean in to hear her. A piece would get sold only for P150. “That’s why during summer vacation, I ask my daughters to help me make more mats for extra income,” she continues, not losing the shy smile on her face.

Manang Rosie vividly recalls her family’s struggles after Super Typhoon Yolanda, with maximum sustained winds of 315 kilometers per hour, tore through Samar and Leyte that dreadful morning in November of 2013. Due to absence of health facilities, her mother succumbed to a respiratory illness only days after the catastrophe. “My husband and I rummaged through the rubble and filth to collect wood for my mother’s coffin. It was anybody’s worst nightmare,” she says. “We also thought we would never weave again. All the tikog plants and palm trees were washed out.” Although help came gradually, it was a daily struggle to find food and materials to rebuild their home. Months later, as the remaining trees bloomed, fresh leaves and the tikog grasses would flourish again in the swamps and the women would start weaving back the strands of their shattered lives.

“We are fortunate to have generous clients. After the typhoon, they were willing to buy whatever craft we produced,” says Lina Rama of Rainbow Tikog Industry, one of the major producers of tikog-made handicrafts in Tacloban City. “We had tons of deliverables prior to Yolanda. Thankfully, our clients in Manila waited until we were back on our feet.”

For Tacloban-based artist Nick Guarino, whom Yolanda also stripped off of every material possession, his talent was the sole thing he needed to survive. He lost his home and handicraft businesses, which fed not only his family but also groups of women and out-of-school youth he commissioned to do beadwork. “My passion for art saved my life,” he declares. He knew he couldn’t just sit down like a helpless victim amid the debris and bloated, mud-covered corpses. Armed only with a pot of wet, smelly rice and canned sardines, he and his team fought for the remaining seats of a Philtranco bus bound for Manila and found their way to Pampanga for a decorating gig at a national travel fair. Days later, he bagged another deal to decorate a mansion in Cebu City. The first thing he bought with his earnings? A generator, so he could start rebuilding his house and livelihood back home. While at the Mactan City airport in Cebu, he saw souvenir shops selling “Bangon Leyte” T-shirts. This prompted him to produce shirts with the same tagline back in Tacloban City, where throngs of rescue volunteers and workers lined up to get one. Today, Nick is completely back in his element. He has a brand new store called Festivali Designs and Concepts, where some of his eye-popping creations are exhibited. One is guaranteed to gawk with amazement at his intricately crafted banig festival gowns, costumes, and elaborate headdresses, all heavily adorned with colorful beads, feathers, and accessories made from indigenous materials. Some of them have already won accolades in national beauty pageants. “As an artist, I always innovate. The banig, for example, is something I don’t want to use solely for sleeping,” he says. True enough, he has created quite a long list of things out of the lowly banig, like dresses, boleros, trophies, accessories, medallions, bags, and souvenir items. He travels often to look for new materials he could incorporate to his craft. He usually gets his supply of tikog mats from Basey, Samar and romblon mats from Baybay, Leyte.

It also took a while for the weavers in Baybay City on the western coast of Leyte to get back on their feet. “We couldn’t find pandan leaves anywhere, even in Himucilan Island in Inopacan, where we usually got them. We had to wait for the leaves to grow again,” says Maria Pangilinan of MO Enterprises, a producer of pandan-made products in the city. During the hiatus, she sought help from the Department of Trade and Industry to train more women in Baybay to make handicrafts since most of them have lost their coconut farms to the typhoon. Today in the village of Plaridel, the women are back in business. Here, they use pandan as a weaving material for handicraft items such as baskets, mats, banig, slippers, tablemats, picture frames, and wall decors. Pandan is a salt-tolerant palm-like plant that readily grows along shorelines, uplands, and backyards. Because the leaves are more fibrous than tikog, they are first boiled, and then removed of the razor-sharp spines along the margins and midrib. The strands are later on dyed, sorted, and smoothened prior to the weaving process. “Many of our clients prefer pandan-made bags and sleeping mats because they’re more durable,” says Maria, who is currently attending seminars on new designs and looking forward to attending a handful of regional trade shows this year.

With plenty of competition in the handicraft business, Renilda Kuizon of Lolo Bobby’s Handicrafts in Bato, Leyte decided to stand out with her unique accessories, functional home decors, kitchenware, and novelty items fashioned from water buffalo horns and bones. Renilda started out with coconut shell products in 2007, but when she ran out of raw materials after the typhoon, she focused on improving her carabao crafts. The next thing she knew, her products were selling out at trade fairs around the country. “It’s quite overwhelming. Who knew these products made from discarded items would have a high demand,” she says. She currently exports her products to Guam and, after joining the Manila Furnishings and Apparel Manufacture’s trade show, she is looking forward to a deal in Norway. Lolo Bobby’s handicrafts can also be bought at various souvenir shops in Manila, Tacloban, Davao, Bohol, Vigan, and Palawan.

What does it take to rebuild one’s life after losing everything in a catastrophe? More than two years later, the handcrafters of Leyte prove to be among the most resilient. Every native bag or banig they make is a story of hope and survival.