I have a favourite necklace. Tiny colourful baubles hang off a silver chain. I love the weight of it. It’s nice and heavy, but not too heavy – and the sound it makes when I hold it. That swooshy sound I like. What I love the most is the story that it can tell – stories I should say. If you consider each bauble has its own; and then there is the team who made it. I roll each bauble between my fingers and I think about it often.
Starting as a juice box, brought by someone…who? A thirsty child on their way home from school? Perhaps. Discarded, left to pollute and choke a waterway. Hands reach down and find the empty vessel and suddenly it has a new purpose, a new life. Washed, cut up and crafted into something useful once more, something beautiful. It is symbolic I think, of a lot of stories you hear in places like the Philippines. The child born into poverty, discarded, who finds opportunity and turns their life around. It happens.
But this story today is the story of the KILUS Foundation
KILUS stands for ‘Kababaihang Iisa ang Layuning Umunlad ang Sambayanan’. This translates as ‘women united in one goal to promote/develop a better society.
It is a foundation set up back in 1997 that was put in place to clean up the waterways in the Barangay of Ugong in Pasig, Manila. It was run by five hundred women who lived in the area. In 1999 after being awarded for its efforts KILUS started to focus on how it could create livelihood projects for its members through a recycling program. Households were encouraged to separate their waste and the foundation workers would collect the recyclable products and pay a small amount as encouragement.
After some research the people of KILUS looked at how they could turn the materials into usable objects and the use of the doy juice containers was developed. These juice packs are one of the most accessible artificial drinks here in the Philippines and they are a major source of pollution because they do not decompose. Soon families started working for KILUS scouring waterways to collect the juice packs, as a way to earn an income, and women were trained in the skill of turning the waste into products.
I took the children and my Driver D-Bug for a visit to the workshop of KILUS Foundation recently. It is just down the road from home and it is right next to the children’s school. We drove along narrow streets that were the cleanest I’d seen in Manila – actually, anywhere in The Philippines to be honest. There was pride here. The houses were crammed together but well kept and painted bright colours. Flower pots added pops of greenery and fun to the area. Street signs were clear and decorative and murals showing Pinoy pride and love of the environment were painted on walls.
We walked into the building which is down a driveway, out the back of a family home. The room is an open space with nooks here and there set up for different aspects of the business. It had wooden floors and large dirty windows on each wall. The windows at the far end facing out towards Pasig River let filtered sunlight through but it was still dark and so electric lights hung from the ceiling. Workers had desk lamps too, giving them that extra focused light they needed for very intricate work. The small shopfront was at the entrance, showcasing everything from bags and vases to shoes.
We were welcomed with broad smiles and as I walked around to look at the workshop I learnt that the items used were not restricted to just the juice box products. Excess fabrics are used to make bags and old magazines are used to make beautiful colourful beads. These beads are sold by the boxful to France and the earrings made here are also in high demand overseas. I met Lydia who had been working at KILUS for ten years. She had been a maid before that but found an opportunity here and was trained up. Now she makes these gorgeous beads that are sold all around the world. As Lydia spoke to me about the jewelry and beads she makes, her eyes were sparkling and she was smiling. There was comfort, happiness and pride in her words. Lydia handed me the necklace I came home with.
KILUS was started by women, and it is run by women. It has evolved through the years however and you will now find a few men busy at work. Four young men were sitting at an L-shaped table. The table was covered in a cloth made from flattened juice packs sewn together and the edges were worn, but not yet broken. Reymat, just 25 years old started working here three years ago. I watched as he took the narrow strips of juice boxes carefully cut up by his mate next to him, and he used his fingers, the palm of his hand and the edge of the table to perfectly fold the strip into three, then in half to make a bias strip. Stacks of these strips were piled, bound together, waiting for use. These young men showed me how they wove the colourful pieces together to make bags, baskets and a range of other products.
At the end of the table sat another young lad. ‘Are you kidding me? Is that really your name?’ I laughed after he introduced himself. Stifled giggles emanated from these four young men sitting side by side. ‘Yes’ he said as his friend held up his ID badge to show me. Sure enough I had just met ‘Bon Jovi’. His special job was using the press to stamp O rings into the tops of bags to have handles threaded through.
We walked around a bit further. There was a bright and coulourful corner on the river side of this room, for the sewing. The streams of light filtering through the dirty windows fell across large spiels of cotton, colourful bags and the sewers busy at work. Another lady sat at her desk with a flame, burning off the excess cotton and tidying up the finished products ready for sale.
We were very lucky to be allowed to walk through and talk with the workers on this day. This is not something everyone should expect on a visit. Once we had looked around we got busy in the shop buying up a range of colourful products. Promising to be back soon, we thanked the team and then left carrying new purses and jewelry.
Back at home soon after our visit, I was dressing to go out one night. My necklace was bright against a white shirt and the colour from the tiny beads of the earrings in my ears bounced off my flaming red hair. We live along the Pasig River and I remember looking out at it, at the rubbish floating down. As I drove through the streets I looked out at the small huts, the shanty housing and the children on the streets happily playing. I rolled the colourful beads around my neck between my fingers, feeling their smooth ridges; and I wondered, how many stories it had to tell.