I have been wary at times to call my line of work “development” related because I don’t meet communities regularly and most of my days are spent sitting on a desk, in the company of my laptop and books that have to be read for work. During weekends, I opt to stand and wield a piece of chalk, trading ideas with my undergrads. It’s a busy week but sometimes I get away and when I do, it’s clearest to me, what development really is.
On the road, I try to see as much as possible and wander off with all sorts of people whom I’m sure have lots to teach me. Once, while on a three-week workshop in Quezon, I traded in my accommodations to accept the invitation of some farmers. I accepted on the condition that they give me work and so they did–we planted vegetables, harvested rice and went to their monthly village meeting. I asked them about how the land was prepared for planting and how vegetables are arranged on farms. They were a small, self-sustaining community that put up incentives so all of their neighbors would practice organic farming.
On another trip, we were scaling a mountain in search of a mumbaki. He’s a priest in the tradition of the Cordilleras. When we met him, it was close to dark. He fed us chicken–one that was still alive when we arrived–that was dressed, thrown atop a fire then placed in a pot of boiling water, seasoned with salt. We sat around a fire eating with our hands and I asked him about this house of his and why it had to be so high up a mountain. On the way down, our original route had become too dangerous to tread so we forged another path.
On yet another adventure, I woke before dawn and headed toward a pier. The fishermen recognized me from the day before. I waved in excitement and heard the roar of the engine. An outstretched hand ushered me into the boat and before I could sit, we were moving out to sea to catch the sunrise. To my surprise, the fishermen prepared a simple breakfast of coffee and bread. We sat together, whispering at first, talking about what kinds of fish they caught and whether they sold them or ate them. As soon as the sun properly rose, we were silent–at home in the calmness of the sea at dawn.
These are but few of the people I have met along the road who have helped me discover the meaning of development–a word I’ve often tried to come to terms with. Regardless of the cause we choose to advocate, what’s clear is that the practice of development is very much like engaging in an ongoing conversation. We listen and speak to one another–not only to be heard but also to understand better who we all are.
But where is the youth in all of this and what role could we possibly play in this conversation? Well, I can say from experience that being young has been about having more questions than answers. At no point in my life have I ever felt so small, not inadequate or insignificant, but tiny in the face of an infinite world that contains so many wonderful places and people. My curiosity has brought me to places I never thought I would see. It has helped me live through the experiences of others. What I’ve found is that most of our problems are the same: food security, poverty, joblessness, the continuous pressure placed on resuscitating heritage and culture–yet, the ways in which we solve these are different. That’s when development becomes exciting–it’s a wellspring of creativity.
Young people drive development because we’re the ones that ask questions. We live them, as the German poet Rainer Rilke once advised his student to do, and in the process our curiosity fuels creative problem-solving that’s not just about doing away with what’s wrong but is about understanding people, listening to them and continuing a conversation as equals.