As featured in the on November 14, 2015

THAT their disreputable address is now considered a nice neighborhood, even by—or especially among—themselves, still makes Charita P. Guatche shake her head in disbelief.
Ate Cha, as she prefers to be called, is president of the homeowners’ association called the Samahang Urban ng Maralitang Mamamayan, better known as SUMaMa, an acronym that means “join.”

The association has members spanning the three contiguous districts of Villaluna, Sto. Niño, and Plantanians in Zone 1, Barangay Poblacion at the fishing town of Estancia in Iloilo province.

Strategic neighborhood

This is a strategic neighborhood. Plantanians, after all, refers to the lone ice plant that provided the cold-chain requirements of the town’s fishing industry. Plantanians is the area at the back of the old ice plant. This is where the SUMaMa neighborhood begins, up a steep slope from the highway and then creeping through a spider web of pathways and alleys and side streets and dead ends.
This hillock teemed with migrants, many of them from the nearby Visayan islands of Masbate and Bantayan. They were lured by the economic dynamism of Estancia, the fish port that regularly supplies fresh and dried seafood to the discriminating hotels and restaurants on Boracay island, and the vibrant wet markets in the cities of Roxas, Cebu, Bacolod and Manila, among other places.

‘Little Alaska’

“Estancia is called Little Alaska because the fish catch is plentiful and varied,” said Ate Cha. “We’re talking of all kinds of fish, small fish, big fish. And all kinds of shells, seaweeds, everything. The men would return from their daily fishing trips with at least 10 kilos of everything.”

She continued: “When I first arrived here from my hometown in Leyte, the women here would be very busy while their husbands went out to the sea.”

They would process dried fish—slicing the fish and flat-drying them under the sun on a sea of kapil, or nito mats. The women were so enterprising they also made use of the otherwise throwaway fish insides and sold them as dayok, an exotic delicacy, for P50 per bottle. They would gather fish eggs, too, and offer them P20 per fistful.”

She was emphatic: “And to think that the cost of living was such that you could have a meal consisting of mixed vegetables soup, fried fish and sour-stewed fish, with rice, for only P50.”

Riot of sheds

You can just imagine the packs of migrants finding their way into the SUMaMa hillock. The place became a riot of sheds and outbuildings. Every available space became some kind of dwelling.

There was hardly elbow room even for footpaths. Wherever you went, you bumped right smack into someone’s private, if makeshift, quarters.

There was, in truth, no privacy at all. Everybody heard, saw and smelled what everyone else was doing. The place was one festering brew of packed humanity. The trick was to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. It was this ethic, if it could be called such, that allowed criminals and outlaws to live among them. Fear became the community’s currency.

When Iloilo People’s Habitat Foundation organized the community so that it could be enrolled into the Community Mortgage Program of what was then known as the National Mortgage Corp., the precursor of the Social Housing Finance Corp., the community members went along without question, afraid to be driven away by the authorities.

But then they realized they could actually afford the 25-year monthly payment of P308.38. “We dutifully gave P310 each month and did not bother with the loose change,” Ate Cha said.

As it turned out, this was the best decision the SUMaMa homeowners made.

Direct path

Estancia lay in the direct path of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” The residential enclave of SUMaMa, a perfect hit due to its elevation facing the bay, was badly battered.

“We were left with knee-deep layer upon layer of wood planks, crumpled GI sheets, no-longer-usable household items, felled electric posts and uprooted trees. We lost our homes, our things, our trees such as tamarind, star apples, atis (custard apples) and tisa fruit. I got dizzy facing such devastation,” said Divinia Bactasolo, SUMaMa’s treasurer. “We thought God had unleashed the apocalypse.”

Safer homes project

UN Habitat included SUMaMa in its game-changing Post-Yolanda Support for Safer Homes and Settlements project. “It is a collective endeavor using the people’s process that seeks to facilitate shelter recovery and rehabilitation in Haiyan-affected communities in Capiz and Iloilo,” said Christopher E. Rollo, UN Habitat’s country program manager for the Philippines.

A partnership with the governments of Japan and the Philippines, through the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the project succeeded in building 660 resilient and permanent housing units in 28 communities.

But the houses are just one aspect of the project’s multidimensional success.


Today, even SUMaMa members are amazed at the transformation of their community.

Said Ate Cha: “Before, this was very congested, smelly, muddy, with itchy grass having the run of the place. There were no streets. We just walked through doorways and kitchens and tiptoed in between cottages. At night, it was scary to venture out. We were imprisoned by our fear.

“But now, we have honest-to-goodness homes. We can sleep soundly. We are no longer scared when the rain comes. We have concrete roads, too. There has been regravelling of the inner alleys. A drainage system is being finished.”


For UN Habitat’s Rollo, the most important transformation lies within each of the community people. He said, “They were empowered by the people’s process. The SUMaMa association members found their strength and policed their ranks.”

Recalled Ate Cha, “We dismantled houses that were in the way of our development plans.”

Today, the spanking new concrete road that goes up the SUMaMa community is wide and sturdy enough for even dump trucks and fire trucks to maneuver about.

“We are thankful because we have been blessed with a new lease on life,” Ate Cha said.

“Now we are busy sending our children to school. And they come home bringing their classmates with them. It amuses us that they are showing off their new homes. It means that they are proud of where they live.”

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