By Maria Mutauta, Intern for Nonviolent Peaceforce in the Philippines
Maria is a recent graduate of the University of Nairobi in Kenya where she studied law and worked with an NGO that addressed health and sanitation issues in low-income urban areas. Following the political situation in Burundi that resulted in displacement and insecurity for civilians, Maria decided to focus on conflict transformation and improving security for civilians on a non-partisan platform. Maria's internship with Nonviolent Peaceforce in the Philippines is the next step in this goal. It is also an opportunity to gain an understanding of the theory and practical application of unarmed civilian protection. Maria's experience with Nonviolent Peaceforce is a gateway for her future studies and career in conflict transformation and civilian protection.
Many of you reading this are likely well versed in Nonviolent Peaceforce’s mandate and the different projects conducted in NP’s country programs. However, perhaps you are not fully tuned-in to the dynamic entity that is the NP field team. As the newest addition to NP Philippines, I want to share my revelations about daily life and work in the field with the South Central Mindanao Team (SCMT).
I arrived at the SCMT field site in Datu Piang, Mindanao, not knowing what to expect. My knowledge of Mindanao prior to arriving was limited, but I knew the area is prone to tensions and outbreaks of violence ̶ related to protracted conflict in the region. I’d already experienced the hospitality of the Filipino people, but anxiety got the best of me during my orientation. Needless to say my worries quickly proved unfounded. The members of my team accepted me as one of their own from day one and gave me great advice on how to handle culture shock. I also received a warm welcome from the many communities I visited with the team. In fact, after only a couple of weeks, the armed actors I had initially deemed unapproachable no longer intimidated me.
One of the first aspects I came to understand clearly about working with a field team is the level of planning and coordination required to effectively conduct fieldwork. From sketching out a monthly plan to fine tuning activities with a weekly plan, everything was discussed in depth and all avenues for facilitation explored. Through this, I witnessed the team's ability to adapt to different situations in the area of responsibility. The flexibility and vast knowledge of NP’s Civilian Protection Monitors inspired me immensely. The team, consisting of National Civilian Protection Monitors (NCPMs) and International Civilian Protection Monitors (ICPMs), seemed to work in perfect harmony. Everyone brings something different to the table and all the experience, skills and personalities combine to create a well-oiled machine.
Coordination, internally and externally, is fundamental to the success of all NP activities as well as overall security. Coordination begins long before the team heads out on an activity. Text messages and phone calls are exchanged with NP’s networks of local partners and stakeholders to organise activities and meetings. Once activities are confirmed and the team heads out, coordination of another type begins – coordinating movements of the team in the field. Via a security text to the main office the security coordinator is informed about the details of who is heading where and when.
Mindanao’s beauty took my breath away. The humongous hills and the comforting coastline are picture perfect. The fact that I am in the midst of an area that has been in conflict for forty years slips my mind once I stare out the window. During monitoring patrols and visits to surrounding communities, I often find I lose myself in the landscape. The team has a large area of responsibility and activities might be in the next Barangay (village) over, and require many hours of travel or an overnight stay to access. Sometimes, the journey requires us to venture off the national highway and onto roads that seem better suited for Carabaos (domesticated water buffalos) and tractors. At one point, the NP vehicle had to cross a sizeable river to visit an area recently affected by fire fights. The road trips are often filled with laughter and karaoke, which emits positivity and good energy into everyone in the car. Car rides were also used to help me continue learning about the context of the monitoring patrol or activities planned. The team members were more than willing to explain to me all the details and even taught me a couple of Tagalog phrases with which to introduce myself upon arrival.
NP meets with all kinds of actors (armed actors, civil society, religious leaders, government and ceasefire mechanisms) – these meetings are central to NPs role in successfully implementing activities and receiving crucial information on security concerns on the ground. Even when I met with Commanders and Mayors, I noticed one thing - seniority does not necessarily mean scary! Everyone I met was polite and supportive, and made me feel comfortable in my experience as an NP intern. I’ve witnessed the excellent relationships and acceptance NP has in the communities. I've also seen how these relationships translate into receiving and sharing information that contribute to achieving NP’s mandate.
I feel very happy to be a part of NP's family. I immediately felt the strong family bond that each employee feels towards each other. Within my first two weeks, I felt I had brothers and sisters in the Philippines. The field site office doubles as the staff house, meaning we work and live under the same roof. Everyone has their own room but meals are communal. Meal times ensured I didn’t miss home cooking too much – we all eat as a family and share the day’s experiences as we discuss our progress. Some of the national staff stay over during the week and commute back home to their families come weekend. Though the day’s activities outside the field site are done, evenings were dedicated to writing reports on these activities and on incidents that happened in the area of responsibility. I especially enjoyed this time of day; while I wrote the report, I smiled to myself as I played out the productiveness of the day in my head.