On Negros Island, at the end of a long winding path past busy huts, green rice fields and a few banana trees, you’ll find something very special: The Bamboo Earth Homes Project, short: BERTH. If you’re here to learn about a sustainable building method, you’ve surely come to the right place. But it won’t take you long to realise that physical homes are by far not the only thing that is being built here.
Michael Dindo Pillora – or Sir Mike, as they call him – is a seasoned expert builder, both of homes and of community. As such, he knows of the importance of sound building material. Long before he figured out the details of the right soil mixtures, he invested much thought and prayer into crafting BERTH’s twelve core values. They are the most important building materials, and out of them the project’s real foundation is being made. Twelve words full of radical meaning in a world that claims greed and selfishness are your only means to get what you need. Twelve words whose initials spell it out twice: CHRIST. Because really, it is his love lived out when these twelve core values are practiced.
The local volunteers working with BERTH all know them by heart, and as I speak with some of them, they tell me how these twelve words have taken on meaning in the project for them:
May May – commitment and compassion
She smiles brightly as she shows me her extensive vegetable garden on the project grounds. The young mother of seven and grandmother of one knows it takes more than time to grow nourishment. “Commitment brings goodness to people”, she says, plucking bean pods off their stalks. May May has diligently cared for this garden, and her commitment has been turned into baskets full of food to prepare for the project volunteers, including her children.
But despite her commitment, she hasn’t always been able to provide food to others, let alone medicine to her children. A past employer once didn’t pay her for fifteen days of hard work in his rice fields. This resulted in severe trouble for her and her family, as she couldn’t feed her own children or care adequately for a daughter who fell ill. Her face darkens as she recalls these heavy memories. “But here at BERTH, the experience of compassion has been a reality. The project has brought joy to my family – we have food! We learn new skills and I have hope for my children, because the activities in the project help them to not get carried away by other things that are bad for them. Here, they can learn that commitment and compassion will produce good fruit.”
Rehjean – honesty
One of the young people in the project, Rehjean has learned that honesty benefits all. “If you are dishonest, if you steal or cheat, you will lose respect. And there will be limits to the good things you can access. But it doesn’t just affect the dishonest person: The entire group will be affected. So we need to rely on each other to be honest.”
Cyra Norca – humility
There is meekness in humility, but Cyra Norca knows that being humble has nothing to do with accepting bullying. “We need to speak up confidently against injustice. And at the same time, we need to be humble. To me, that means not being boastful or greedy. If we are humble, we actually erase the causes of fighting and bullying.” Asked how humility can be learnt, she adds: “We learn from one another. We understand that humility is an important value, and we try to live it out and observe.”
JK – respect and responsibility
As any young teenager, JK is in a phase of life that will shape him for adulthood. At BERTH, Michael has observed him seizing the opportunity to learn about respect and responsibility. “Even if I don’t tell him to, JK often puts in an extra effort to find out how things work so that he can take over more responsibility – and I will gladly give it to him because I know he respects the others in the project. The other day I asked Roland, one of the older volunteers, to go and turn off the water pump. I saw JK go along and learn. He obviously feels responsible.”
JK visibly enjoys being given more responsibility, and carries out his tasks calmly and diligently. Though he is young, he is esteemed by the other volunteers as a member of the team. “I can sense respect here”, he tells me. “It helps me be respectful myself, and to look after the tasks I have been assigned.”
Geneve – integrity and initiative
There’s no two ways about it for Geneve: “Whatever you have said you would do, you need to do. You need to keep your word.” It may be as simple as sweeping the floor before dinner as she had promised and nearly forgot. “I was really tired when I remembered, but I did it anyways. I think if we don’t have integrity and don’t keep our promises, we will have people complaining and quarreling. There’s a saying here, that even if we are poor, as long as we have integrity we are rich. I believe that that is true, because I have seen many times what happens without integrity.”
Geneve’s cheerful resolve extends beyond promises. As some of the men are working on a piece of wall, she observes one of them cutting the thorns off a bamboo twig. Seeing a suitable tool, she pics it up and joins in, freeing twig after twig from its thorns and turning them into useful material to be worked into a mesh. It doesn’t take long for her friend to join in.
Though it seems like a minor matter to take initiative in assisting others, Geneve’s continuity in doing so is an impactful example to other youngsters. “With her actions, she teaches others that we all benefit when everyone chips in. Because at BERTH, we make sure we celebrate our progress. The better progress we make, the better the celebrations”, says Michael as we are setting up for an evening of dinner and a movie projected onto a bedsheet. The kids scurry around in giddy anticipation.
Camille – servanthood
But there is more to helping out than ensuring personal benefits. Camille thoroughly enjoys BERTH’s youth group activities which in some ways are rewards for contributions. Still, she chose “servanthood” as her favourite core value. “To me it means helping without expecting anything in return. Just like Jesus! If we have this attitude of servanthood, we are freed from the idea of not doing anything because we get nothing in return. We are freed to change our culture and just do what is good.”
Nezeil - simplicity
Like any school kid, Nezeil knows the elbow-mentality of those who want to show they’re better than others. “Lots of people think life is a contest. But if you have an attitude of simplicity, you can be content with whatever you have. Here in the project, I have observed that there’s no culture of boasting and no favouritism. I really like that.”
Rolen – transparency
Gambling and alcoholism are rampant in the area. As a young father, Rolen doesn’t have many good examples to look up to, and knows it is common for workers to lie about their working hours. “I want to set a good example. That is why I keep a notebook with a record of my tasks in the project. BERTH is only going to be a good project if we all really live out the core values, and I thought this idea could help us be purposeful.”
Michael – trust
The “black gold” in Michael’s hand doesn’t exactly glitter, but it nevertheless holds great value. The potent fertiliser also known as vermicasting was freshly produced by hundreds and hundreds of worms Michael and his team feed with readily available compost and manure. “The young people here have no prospects. But with a small vermicasting production, they can earn their school fees by selling the fertiliser locally and actually get an education.”
It seems like an impossible idea to be financing anything with the help of worms. But Michael knows that what happens below the surface can powerfully impact and shape the realities above. Just like the worms’ work below the surface enables strong growth above, so does trust among the project members enable visible growth in the BERTH project. It may be the last core value on the list, but it really is the starting point and the fertiliser that will help them grow together and flesh out the core values.
“I think BERTH can be a really strong statement to the people around us. Living out these core values is in so many ways counter-cultural – here and probably anywhere. But I believe that these values are also the only way to actually make things better.”
Interviews and article by Marianne Pfaffinger
October 2015 / August 2016