These shores

Girl and fishing boatI was on my last leg of community research, down to just two villages. We had begun the countdown earlier as a fun way to keep track of our increasingly blurred days as well as to keep our energy levels up. On this day after having set up a makeshift meeting place – at the beach – and while waiting for every one of the discussion participants to arrive I went off to the shore for a walk. It was one of those picturesque summer mornings by the sea with a bit of kindly wind. 

I haven’t gone far when I heard construction sounds from a coven of trees and turning I made out a boat being built. A huge boat. The kind that’s taken far out to sea. I’ve seen small boats built, bancas, but not the big ones. I got very excited. I felt like a child who’d glimpsed a giant gingerbread house and coveted it and caused a fit if withheld. But, much as I wanted I couldn’t just go to it on my own. There was in these villages, still, the unwritten rule of Christians not “crossing the border” to the Muslims side and vice versa. There’s a protocol to follow if either side wants to talk or visit the other. I wasn’t sure whose side that coven of trees was on. But, fine. I’m too smart to risk a bullet flying in from nowhere to my precious leg. I immediately walked back and sought out the head of my host organization. I asked if he could accompany me to the construction site. He laughed and then obliged.

I think I flew rather than walked to the site and so reached it way ahead of my companion. “Hello,” I said by way of general greeting to the men. They were migrante (Visayas), meaning, they were, according to their weird system of identification, on this side. I projected my warmest of smiles. Peace! The man nearest me, who’d looked surprised at my sudden and albeit unexpected appearance – a midget next to the hull – paused from sanding the boat. “Hello,” he said back. Then his friendly eyes averted to my companion who was now at my side. The head of my host organization in his usual affable manner greeted the men in the Bisaya dialect. The usual pleasantries ensued. Then I whispered to him to ask things about the boat– the wood, size, how do they ever make it float, is boat building their trade, how long have they been building boats, etcetera.

By the time my companion and I walked back, my curiosity satiated, I looked like a Christmas tree brightly lit from within. It felt like I’d just gotten back from a time travel only that this was real or remnants of when these parts were known in the region for their maritime prowess. Like, did we know that there was the Kingdom of Uranen peopled by the Iranun, one of the Moro tribes, who were primarily seafarers?

The ‘Filipino nation’ is comprised of distinct ethnic and cultural groups each one having contributed toward the formation of the whole. But the Moro people hindi sila nabanggit o napagusapan nang husto in Philippine history books and as a result wala sila ngayon sa ating collective consciousness. These “lost” people are the missing link in the story of Filipino nationhood. Their story is what’s missing in the pages of Philippine history. Same for the many other “cultural minorities” in the country. Their stories, if there are, like those of the Igorots of the Cordilleras, are told only in passing (like Lapu Lapu’s) and belatedly outside of Philippine history books  

Hence the misconceptions about these people. The Maranaos, for example, whose pride or maratabat is generally perceived by others as a negative trait. Where or how did that perception come about? Because is there ever a self-respecting person without pride? Also, think, what if it’s the British royal family that were made irrelevant by the British public how would the family members feel? What they’d feel is the same for the Moro royal houses or families who once upon a time in this Islands were independent rulers of kingdoms.

Maratabat then wells up from something much deeper and far back, to centuries of debasement, having been betrayed, ignored, effaced, forgotten. What sort of people are formed from such experiences? one wonders. Imagine the married couple who woke up one morning and fought over a tube of toothpaste that one of them has forgotten to cap the night before, with the fight ending in divorce. Was it about the toothpaste? Obviously not. The toothpaste was just the opening, the final crack from which years of unresolved issues and repression exploded in one violent burst.

We need to re-engineer the way we narrate about the Filipino nation; who make up the Filipino nation; whose voice gets heard; whose story is told.

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The real horror story

I think the reason why Halloween, at least it’s commercialized version, is not a somber affair (isn’t it, reminiscing your dead especially when they went out like Horacio Castillo III?) is because of what comes afterward the much anticipated Christmas time. Businesses would not want to spoil the momentum of the holiday spirit which in the Philippines starts as early as the first day of September and thanks to broadcast media’s synchronized Countdown to Christmas people are cheered on toward the finish line that is spending (and funny that while buyers spend, media people acquire). Children, why them, are dressed up in fancy costumes that get fancier and fancier by the year and sent trick-or-treat-ing at doors. Yes, why children? Why don’t the adults who like in the case of Atio Castillo are complicit and deserving of doors going slam! at their faces– no trick nor treat for you! Children because of their vulnerabilities and limitations are much more easily dismissed hence end up the most hurt. Or, dead. This institutionalized behavior, of not really understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing, is the real horror, much more horrific than what some of us relate the term with ie. ghosts and supernatural beings. 

The New York Times recently ran a story on the institutionalized children of Tuam (pronounced Chewm) in Ireland who went missing and found though it was much later and only due to serendipitious events. While it looks like justice is finally served the children, their collective story of deprived and destroyed childhoods is so stunning that there simply is no word to describe what overzealous adults, believing they’re in the service of good, are capable of.

Given the misogyny, morality, and economics that informed the public debate of the time — when a pregnancy out of wedlock could threaten a family’s plans for land inheritance, and even confer dishonor upon a local pastor — imagine that naïve young woman from the country: impregnated by a man, sometimes a relative, who would assume little of the shame and none of the responsibility. She might flee to England, or pretend that the newborn was a married sister’s — or be shipped to the dreaded Tuam home, run by a religious order with French roots called the Congregation of Sisters of Bon Secours.

the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, a massive building the color of storm clouds, a way station for 50 single mothers and 125 children born out of wedlock… The building opened in 1846 as a workhouse, but almost immediately it began receiving victims of the Great Hunger… The government repurposed the building to be among the institutions intended as ports of salvation where disgraced women might be redeemed. These state-financed homes were invariably managed by a Catholic order, in keeping with the hand-in-glove relationship between the dominant church and the fledgling state.

The years passed. Galway County moved forward with plans to demolish the home and build subsidized housing. And the memories of hobnailed pitter-patter faded, replaced by the faint sounds of children outracing the home baby ghosts that inhabited the property at night.

Catherine still wonders what led her to the story of the mother and baby home. Chance, perhaps, or distant memories of the little girl she once teased. Despite her bone-deep modesty, there are even times when she feels chosen.

One day she copied a modern map of Tuam on tracing paper and placed it over a town map from 1890.

And there it was, in the cartographic details from another time: A tank for the home’s old septic system sat precisely where the two boys had made their ghastly discovery. It was part of the Victorian-era system’s warren of tunnels and chambers, all of which had been disconnected in the late 1930s.

Did this mean, then, that the two lads had stumbled upon the bones of home babies? Buried in an old sewage area?

“I couldn’t understand it,” Catherine said. “The horror of the idea.”

She kept digging, eventually paying for another spreadsheet that listed the names, ages, and death dates of all the “illegitimate” children who had died in the home during its 36-year existence.

The sobering final tally: 796.

The Lost Children of Tuam, Dan Barry, The New York Times

The blinding belief that gave way to such horror ie. you do not conform therefore you are evil and therefore will be reformed into my view of good has been carried over to present times and underpins much of human suffering today. Terrorism. Physical dislocation. Social, economic, and political displacement. And it goes both ways ie. majority on the minority, minority on the majority, as well as, within either the majority or minority.

This century saw the rise of minorities who like the restless ghosts of the children of Tuam have had enough of being talked down, labelled, ostracized, hidden, regulated, threatened, exterminated on the first opportunity. It’s not guns or regulations that would settle the situation, as we have repeatedly seen, but rather, basic human respect manifested for example by consistently delivering on promises and allowing the other to also work at the chance of a happy and satisfying life. The other choice is to remain living from horror to horror in a suspended bubble of forever Halloween.

Unpack

Child separated from familyOne of the more frequently-pronounced words among development workers is the term ‘unpack’ as in “we need to unpack the human rights normative framework” or “we need to unpack the right to development for various groups”. The term came to mind as I spoke to more and more displaced persons of Marawi City. I had put my research work on hold for a few days in order to help my host organization, needing all the extra hands it can get, in emergency response work. My task was to document the whole humanitarian response activities. This entailed doing a sample of interviews with beneficiaries.

Listening to their stories, women and older children especially, I realized that the label ‘IDP’ or ‘evacuee’ bakwit is a very much generalized description much like saying ‘human’ which supposes that what is said of one human or what is true for one, whatever the gender and circumstance, is true for all (hence prompting for the one-size-fits-all solution). This is a hugely mistaken view.

What image do most people see on hearing ‘evacuee’ or ‘IDP’? I would guess fleeing persons. Yes, that. What about the image of family members getting separated as they are fleeing? That I don’t suppose is something readily-perceived by most people. Most people only see in their minds say a boat full of people on the run, after all that’s what most people see on telly, each person in the boat subsumed into only one face: refugee, IDP, evacuee, bakwit. Collective terms like ‘victims’, ‘survivors’, and ‘IDPs’ do not latch on to human imagination as instantly or deeply perhaps because since these are groups they’re perceived as relatively strong down to individual members. Only when effort is taken to get individual stories or experiences of victimhood or displacement that we see the gaping wounds of pain and loss that got squashed beneath the weight and mass of the collective.

I learned that many children that fled Marawi City in May got separated from their parents but managed to cling to one of their grandparents usually the grandmother who also left together with them. Many children who fled with their primary families ended up with only one of their parents, the mother in most cases. And many women escaped the City with very young children in tow, one of them usually an infant or newly-born.

Marawi displacement response ©thecolorofred

Part of the documentation task was to get photos (with their consent after I’d informed them of the implications of course, and I got jittery every time I approached afraid I’d get acid on my face, but I was surprised and grateful every body said yes. I guess they knew how these things go), to be taken in a positive frame, of beneficiaries. The human story is also one of hope, after all. That is what we want to hold on to and for donors to contribute toward. In one village, the children who’d immediately become my friends helped me with this task. They went and called their mothers and grandmothers who had already gone inside the center after having lined up long in order to get the goods. “Come,” one boy called to me, “we’ve already gathered them. They’re waiting for you.” I’d not anticipated the gesture and was very happy about it. I immediately went after him. Half-way down, the other children came to meet us. I praised each of them. Then they walked with me and introduced me to the waiting women.

“Do I need my husband with me? Do I need to call him?” asked one of the women.

“No need. What do we need men for?” I joked, and then shit did I just say that? Did I offend? I waited for, maybe, boulders landing on my face. Then I recalled the Muslim community is in fact matriarchal.

The women burst out in laughter. I relaxed. Their expressions said damn right. Right there was their positive moment. So, click, click, click.

I was chatting with the women, my children-friends in a protective circle around us, when one of the village leaders found me. In my haste, earlier, I didn’t tell them where I’d be.

As we walked back to the main area, I realized then the limitations of humanitarian aid. Response has been standardized in the form of food, shelter, water, psychosocial activities of drawing, playing, etc. — essentially physical and visible things — but a lot of human needs in times of crises or disasters remain intangible, occuring within each heart and mind, personal reactions to personal pain and loss that could only be healed by allowing oneself and others to grieve. What is it that’s said about grief? It’s as individual as an individual’s fingerprints, and that it’s one of those walks that individuals need to take alone. I look at psychosocial activities done to children and women and I can’t help wonder if everybody’s just willingly playing a game of pretend.

Grief is like living two lives: one is where you pretend everything is alright; the other is where your heart silently screams in pain.

While it helps to talk about or deal with pain and loss together with others, responders need to be sensitive to the fact that not everybody is experiencing it in the same way at the same time. Grieving people especially require solitude or time alone to figure things out on their own and deal with powerful and often conflicting emotions. It’s the only way for individuals, and then, families, and ultimately communities to truly move on.

So, yes, unpack needs. There is so much more to displacement, conflict, emergency, or disaster than what’s captured on current needs assessment forms and reports.

Rethinking red

classic red woman illustrationAmong the few indulgences – security blanket really – I brought with me to the field were my heavy-duty ankle boots (that doubled up for self-defense considering travelers including girls and women aren’t allowed even their Swiss camping knife set which is ridiculously funny given that the real enemy is running around free and fully armed) and liquid tattoo lip color in red. The lip color became a kind of statement in the time I was speaking with community groups.

On the morning that was my first into the communities, before heading to the first village in our planner, we made a side trip to the residence of a community leader. We needed to finalize the next day’s venue arrangements. The leader wasn’t home however, but the wife and kin were there to receive us. On meeting, I caught the reaction on their faces. It told me they had not expected a Jacintha Magsaysay (minus the ghoulishness) to appear on their horizon. Ha!

Red lips was more for personal convenience. I was to facilitate discussions at a rate of two groups a day everyday one each in villages that were miles apart. It wasn’t as if I travelled like a madam. We hied from one village to the other on trikes one of the two (the other is motorcycle) available local transportation. We were practically in the field our entire waking hours. And there was the challenge on my part to connect on limited time with people who I’d be meeting the first time and probably the last. I needed something to help me maintain my energy level and red is that something. I would’ve said coffee but seeing there was none prepared I didn’t have the face to ask. Above all, these are poor communities- our venue was more or less a shack, no toilet (I had to go to the nearest house to ask if I could use theirs which isn’t necessarily what you might call a standard toilet. Luckily for my hosts I’m capable of putting up with temporary inconveniences. There was this female foreigner-volunteer though, whom a local official told me about, who was shown the toilet when she asked to use one. Unfortunately for her the nearest available was the indigenous hole-in-the-ground type. She had looked ill after seeing it. She asked if there were others and was told there was one at the school but they’d have to hike up the hill. She said she didn’t mind and could still control her bladder until then. So a-hiking they went), no wash corner or room, no running water. In other words, there was no facility that a woman could do her touch up in private. I learned from my British teacher in kindergarten that it was not good manners to powder in public (hence the powder room). That stuck with me growing up although I also won’t be caught looking washed-out like a white lady and a distraction to people. Therefore, whatever I put on myself at home in the morning had to be long lasting. The lip color brand promised to last 24 hours and thankfully it delivered.

I also didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a type. Consultants, researchers and evaluators are typecast. Researchers especially are perceived as either nerd- or weird-types. I’m neither. So are I/NGO or development workers. Male or female workers always have a scarf around their necks which they use as head scarf or shoulder wrap when they’re in the field, why is that I don’t know but I loathe the sight. Most of the women also don’t put on make-up or do their hair or grow it long perhaps afraid they’d be perceived as “dumb blondes” if they did. But isn’t that hiding?

In one research village, men dominated the discussion group. A number of women showed up who I tried to get to talk in the open but I guess their role in the community has long been prescribed– as listening sages. Cool. I will not rock that boat. Anyway in the past days women were the dominant participants. I also wanted to get the side of the men. So there we were at the ungodly hour of just after noon talking about probably the most sleep-inducing topic at that time: community resilience. I tried to inject humor, also to help me manage my nervousness at being in a hall teeming with poker-faced manly men, but apparently the men whose faces are weighed down by…conflict? instability?…would not be humored. That is, until we came to the question to which they responded with a standard reply that confirmed their religious conviction. But I already knew that. It’s old news. I or should I say the research needed more than a standard reply.

My red lips probed. “Would you say that’s a good thing or a bad thing? Because something may be good for you but destructive for others. In what instances would you say that it’s a good thing? When is it bad? Remember, there’s always two sides to a coin.” The men stared at me and then each turned to speak to the other. The hall had turned into a marketplace. Then I heard somebody said “ah, she’s good, she’s good.” I wanted to laugh. Shit, did they mean that in a good way? More had come into the venue, men, some of them ulema, done with their midday prayers at the nearby mosque. They had caught my query and were consulting the others for what had prompted the questions. I gave them some time to discuss among themselves. I obviously had ventured into a no-questions-asked zone. If they insist on that I hoped they’d at least do it kindly. They did better. They enlightened me with an honest answer.

People will see through you. They might have doubts on initially seeing lips that are perhaps more appropriately seen on the runway or in glam events but eventually they will see past that to your more essential characteristics- personality, attitude, deeds, and words. If you’re true, kind, respectful, and sensible then people will think “oh, red lips don’t necessarily mean Cruella De Vil“. Women need to reverse stereotype-thinking in others.

The many sides of ourselves

What do you do with long nights by your lonesome in the Muslim South? At first, I listened and nothing else. I listened to the night, it’s shadows, it’s silence, it’s movements, it’s peculiar sounds. But, mostly, I heard the whirr of my desk fan (despite urging from my hosts, I chose not to request airconditioning from my agency. “How will you be able to focus? You look dead from this heat.” I knew I did. But “I feel that when I have airconditioning, I’ll be worlds apart from community people. I want to feel the heat like how they feel it. And how could I face them and say “I understand” when I really don’t?” “But you have to understand you are not them,” the head of my host organization told me. It took me almost three months to adjust to the heat. I developed a cough that got worse as temperatures rose. At one point I panicked and thought I had TB but of course I hadn’t. Then, when I changed my mind and about to draft my request for airconditioning, I had to go and help in emergency relief for Marawi IDPs. At an evacuation center, we learned that a young woman had unexpectedly given birth there the previous week, her baby suddenly going out of her and dropping on the bare cement. While the others were busy at the registration table, I went and sought out the woman. The condition of her and her baby’s “living quarters” made me want to weep. I’m a mother too. I can see that it was no place for a woman who’d just given birth to recuperate. And poor baby, how unfortunate to have come into this world under present circumstances. I recalled a celebrated Christian scene every year in December. Yet this family is Muslim. I spent almost an hour with them – her young son, her sister, her father. Her husband, she said, has stayed behind in Marawi to look after their house. Finally returning to the company of my team, after having gone round the center and tried to know each family, I informed the head of my host organization of my devision. “Having no airconditioning is little sacrifice compared to these people’s. I can live with just a fan. That’s my final decision.” He laughed. “I know what you mean. If you can do that, then good.”).

pink eye shadow

If not the sound of my desk fan, I listened to my imagination which is the worst of all. It made up noises when there really were not. Seemingly endless nights went like this in the first weeks. Until I decided I didn’t want to end up as among the casualties. Then, I remembered I had 24/7 internet access. That’s when the nights were a time I looked forward to. I studied make up online. I experimented with colors. I learned that pink is in.

I tried to do pink shadow under the eyes that extended just above the cheekbones. I did this on a day I didn’t know I’d be speaking to Moro leaders. I could see during the conversation that they’d go back to looking at my eye part. Unless I’ve overdone it which I honestly didn’t think so perhaps they were trying to reconcile in themselves the me with the pink eye shadow and the me who spoke to them seriously. It’s both. They’re both me.

Mercado experience Part 2: Moro Exchange

What’s usually mentioned in Philippine history books or lectured in classes is the Galleon Trade during the time of the Spaniards. But did you know that in the time of the Americans there was the Moro Exchange? And that, in 1908, four years into these successful Exchanges, in the Annual Report of the Governor of the Moro Province, Cotabato was hailed as the most peaceful district?

“The market place is a time-honored institution the world over,” reported The Mindanao Herald enthusiastically, “and in no people does it appeal more strongly than to the Moro. It is to him the ancient forum where commercial and social interests mingle.”…

Responding to the supposed “natural” Moro inclinations toward trade and commerce, on 3 September 1904 the military regime opened the first “Moro Exchange” in Zamboanga…

Originally the brainchild of John Finley, a district governor in Moro Province, the Moro Exchanges consisted of several primary structures specifically designed for commerce, as well as a number of other buildings intended for lodging travelers and storing various commodities. These markets were designed to engender feelings of safety, fairneds, entrepreneurial opportunity, and accommodation for Filipino Muslims and various hill tribes that wished to trade. Anxious to provide a welcoming atmosphere to Moros in particular, colonial administrators made every effort to “give due consideration to the Moslem faith of the Moros” and to “exhibit a fair measure of respect for their religion and their customs” by maintaining “sanitary” facilities and even access to halal foods for devout Muslims. 

By providing a level playing field and impartial means of exchange, colonial authorities proposed to break cycles of class tyranny and eliminate the causes of debt and slavery. “The market had been built for the use of the non-Christian people of the District of Zamboanga,” reported The Mindanao Herald on opening day, “to sell their products at fair prices, which they would be permitted to enjoy themselves, and ‘no Sultan, nor datto, nor panglima, nor person of any sort, will be permitted to interfere with…the enjoyment of…legitimate rights.'”…”Heretofore the inhabitants of the interior of the island have been at the mercy of the Chinese trader for a market for their goods and these, when sold, were seldom paid for except in merchandise at many times its real value,” concluded one article.

Much to the delight of colonial officials, Moro Exchanges received broadly enthusiastic support from Filipino Muslims… Reporting on five distinguished headmen from the Lanao District, The Mindanao Herald stated, “The Moro Exchange seems to have claimed their attention to the exclusion of all else, and they have petitioned the government to establish one at Marahui (sic).”… Probably no governmental policy since the American occupation of the islands has produced such prompt and beneficial results to the native people as the Moro Exchange system,” praised The Mindanao Herald in 1906 while contemplating the great social and economic changes occurring among the Moros…

Established markets in perennially disruptive areas such as Jolo, for example, reported an outpouring of participation and support for the colonial program. “The Sulu Moros are pleased with the Exchange,” acknowledged one American colonialist. “They know that they can come to the Exchange and sell their products for what they are worth.”…

“A very valuable trade has sprung up between Zamboanga and Jolo through the agency of the Moro market in this city,” reported an American from Jolo, and “excellent prices (are) being paid the Joloanos who come laden to our shores with fruits, pearl shells, and other articles too numerous to mention, carrying back to their homes in lieu thereof good coin of the realm.”…in 1913 General Pershing responded to Moro cries for financial institutions by allowing The Bank of the Philippines to open a branch in Jolo. During its first month in operation the institution took in over 60,000 pesos in deposits from anxious Moros.

Making Moros, Michael C. Hawkins

Mercado experience

Woman carrying milkfishOne of the first things my hosts acquainted me with was market day. There the farmers market or merkado as what locals call it (palengke among Tagalogs in Luzon) is still a thing, a central part of community life. The word merkado alone transports you to another age and time. Here, it still held that old charm. I had easy access to two merkado. One is located right in my village, in my neighborhood in fact and not ten minutes walk from my apartment. The other bigger one which I almost visited is in the next town around five minutes away by trike.

Living alone and without help, I had to do my own food purchases and since I had no fridge (impractical given my anticipated short stay) I had to make frequent runs to the merkado. I could for an entire day thrive on coffee and bananaor –kamote que (hawked fresh on my street) and so to motivate myself I imagined I was this chef who has to have fresh ingredients on a daily basis. Otherwise, I regarded the runs as much-needed exercise.

I loved the buzz and fusion of colors at the merkado on market days. Almost all the goods one needs are in there- meat, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, rootcrops, beans, fruits, rice, spices, canned food, cooking ingredients, cleaning materials, slippers, toiletries, and so much more. And, of course, the unbelievably cheap fresh food which will undoubtedly put you off super and hypermarkets where the same are sold by as much as 1000% mark up.

One day, lunching with my hosts and other local volunteers on grilled whole tuna and unlimited stir-fried prawns bought at source, I told them how lucky they are to have access to cheap fresh protein-rich food everyday. “Back home,” I said, “these foods at these servings are usually only served occasionally. Tuna is around PHP400 a kilo. Prawns go by more or less the same. That’s the price at the market. A dish in the restos costs more. And they’re not like they’re caught off the sea one minute and sold the next. They’re shipped most probably from your place. So forgive me if I’m eating like a shark.”

Tulingan ©thecolorofred

My first venture in my neighborhood merkado, I went with a staff from my host organization. Their accompanying me to this very public place was part of my “introduction” to the community. My hosts are already known by locals and to be seen with them would allay any suspicion that I’m a spy or something. “Fish?” the staff offered. I turned her way. I’d been looking at prawns and shells and… For the life of me I was overwhelmed with the array of choices. I also didn’t have anything specific on my menu and when my companion said fish? she’d caught me blank and I said yes without thinking. “One kilo?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied unsure what ‘one kilo’ would amount to. When I’d gotten back to my place and had put away the dry purchases, I went to the sink and stared at the fishes. I didn’t know that a kilo of tulingan is good for a week’s supply for one person. What’s the best way to cook fish in one go given there’s no fridge? Earlier, my hosts had offered the use of their ref but the office is a good three blocks away. I wanted to take them on their offer but the thought of going back and forth in the officious heat turned me off the idea. I ended up frying the whole lot. I had one each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days straight. I’m off tulingan, for the rest of the year.

It takes skill to estimate purchases of fresh food good for just one person. At first, much of what I bought ended up as garbage. Over time, I got better at estimating ingredients for a day’s cooking. But there were I discovered certain foods that were not available at the merkado. Like, organic or native eggs. I needed them one time to make cauter a local concoction of freshly-made coconut wine, eggs, and evaporated milk that is said to combat anemia. I made the rounds of all the stalls but nada. I was told I could get them at source by which they meant, the farms. Swell. The nearest one I know was almost an hour ride away but it wasn’t like I could just up and go off by myself. Going that distance on my own was a breach of security. I had no choice but make do with what’s at hand. Then there were times I had cravings, like, for Korean food preferably ready to eat but nada. So one weekend, when my craving wouldn’t go away, I went and scoured the market for bibimbap ingredients. I found no watercress, soybean sprouts, or kimchi but whatever I had to eat bibimbap or die. Another time, I was supposed to go to the municipal merkado in the next town. I’d planned to go look for plants for the rock garden project I’d been wanting to do, one way to channel stress, but a work-related concern unexpectedly came up. My trip had to be postponed until… before I knew it it was time for me to leave.
Mondays at my host organization office, staff would ask me, “how’s your weekend? made a trip somewhere?” and I’d reply “yeah, to our favorite place in all the world” in a tone like I’d just gotten back from Paree. My travel options were extremely limited and to make up for the lack, I made a point of having fun with even the littlest of errands. I dressed up going to the market (though far from those seen on, say, the Star Magic Ball red carpet) which earned me the community’s observation the woman who dressed pormal. I’d worn slippers to the market just once but they were Yeezy and only because I had my toenails done. Even then folks spoke formally to me and only when I spoke to them which was what I wanted. I didn’t want on my days off to be randomly approached on the street. Not in the time of martial law.

At the market one afternoon, though, at the height of folks fleeing Marawi City, I passed by a parked vehicle with it’s door slid open and glimpsed ulamas inside. I’d earlier seen a couple of similarly-clad males going around the stalls buying. They’d also seen me. I made my way around the car to the fruit stall across it. While making my purchase I felt eyes boring on my back. It prompted me to recite these repeatedly in my head- oh, just go away, go away, go away which my rational side shrugged off- really? it’s a goddamn market what do you expect? I nonetheless made my purchase hastily before walking past them again. I almost collided into one of their companions returning to their car with his purchases. He was about to open his mouth probably to say sorry but I’d already taken off.

Conflict does this to you, I later realized. You terrorize your own self which then spills over outside of yourself. I recalled that avoidance of the ‘other’ based on fears were cited by locals as among the building blocks of community conflict. How did I allow it to work it’s way in me? In the convent, we were lectured on the dangers of attachment or getting attached to things (including people) (attachment is actually a sin at least among religious) as this leads away from authenticity. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. The more you’re involved with say a community, the easier it is until it becomes a habit to think and act as what the Romans think and do which precisely is what constricts your thoughts and actions. A paradox.

Whither the books?

Woman reading books

I should’ve brought with me more books. I packed just one, Michael C. Hawkins’ Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines Muslim South (it’s Moro, by the way, singular or plural, this from the Moro people themselves who corrected me, the reason being Moros has taken on a deregatory term during colonial rule) but, for the sake of delicadeza, I didn’t let it out of my apartment. For community folks to see me flipping pages of a book in order to get to know them would be, I thought, an insult to them, like, hello, we’re right here, why don’t you ask us? I didn’t want to make the wrong impression or hurt their feelings. I needed the communities to trust me. Plus, I was reeling from shock and disbelief having learned there was not, in the towns, a public library, bookstore or books being sold, or newspaper stand or newspapers. Not a shadow of any of these in the public space at all. Don’t these places have recordings of their history? Reading from the real pages of books is like air to me, but apparently there are communities that have thrived without the staple. Why? How? I was burning with curiousity but then I also needed to be smart with my questions and statements. I chose not to rock this boat.

But it made learning about these parts extra challenging. I needed distilled information. Though I had access to oral history I still needed to fill in the gaps with facts, data, and strategic information. I turned to the worldwide web. It became my library where I was both librarian (ie. selecting, sourcing, classifying literature) and learner-user. The entire task was time consuming. Still, literature out there specific to these places are limited. It was frustrating.

I had texted an acquaintance about my surprise and he said, “but there’s wifi?” I laughed. I missed to make that connection. But then, there’s not many households with wifi connection or access to the internet as many locations are not covered by the networks. Facebook, perhaps, but it’s not meant as a learning platform.

In one of my exchanges with the head of my host organization, I eagerly talked about the written work on the Moro people but petered out when I saw he didn’t share my enthusiasm. “That’s what the book says. There’s a lot of wrong information out there,” he said. Hurt and surprise overwhelmed me. “What a lot of books say matter. This is distilled information, by a Fulbright scholar,” I countered. What I left unsaid was, did you think I’d not be able to decipher truth from propaganda? “Then that’s good,” he said. I nodded, though still anxious that he looked unconvinced. But, I didn’t push it otherwise we’d end up unnecessarily spoiling a bright summer day arguing over what a book says. Returning to that episode afterward, I thought about the natives’ apparent distrust of written works of their community. Was that why there’s not a single book or literature around? But, what a drastic response!

Some time after the initial discovery, I enlisted two youth volunteers, college graduates, from the communities to assist me in the workshops (I preferred young people, because they don’t have baggage that adults have thus are more teachable, more open and honest (what you see is what you get), more enthusiastic, and I wanted to open doors for them something which mentors in my youth did for me that I’ve since emulated out of gratefulness). I lent them my copy of a report that would help them become more familiar about the research and so could better assist me with the work. I sent it through a male relative of theirs also a volunteer.

Afterward, when I had time to think, I realized I had “introduced” a reading material to a community. I tortured myself wondering whether or not they saw me as a “bad influence” for sending the material, if the report was first scrutinized, and was cleared by community leaders. My rational side chided me, what? it’s just a goddamn report. When I met the two volunteers again, three weeks after sending them the material, I saw that it’s pages showed added wear than last. My gut told me that several others had went through it as well. The two didn’t elaborate beyond the insights they both gained from reading it and I didn’t ask. I just hoped all those who perused the report learned there’s nothing but goodwill in there.

Whatever the reason(s) for this odd absence of literature for the public, a republican local government is duty-bound to protect and fulfill development of the people by putting up in the least a public library, a repository of the history, geography, curated writings, as well as, reference materials; to stimulate private investments to bookshops; to support adult literacy classes.

How to manage fear according to Mindanaoans

working by the night light

Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. This was the advice from the head of my host organization when we first met on location. It was my first week in Mindanao. The Marawi crisis was yet to explode around us, a month away. I laughed on hearing it said to me. I hadn’t thought of the words that way before. To me, they were just lyrics of the OPM song Oras Na. He had said it after one of my briefings with his team and after he kind of assessed me with a look and pronounced “no, you’re not kidnap-able.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking or he just didn’t want to frighten me.

I had thought about the risk of kidnapping although only vaguely, like how persons in their twenties do about death- it’s what happen to old folks not to young people. But, the risk, among other assessed ones, was more openly and seriously discussed in a pre-departure orientation-workshop with officers from my agency. After that, as I was travelling to my area, I mulled over the words that were emphasized back in the airconditioned ultra-modern hall: “it is the policy of the agency not to deal out ransom payment”. It’s not my first time to hear the statement but back when I first did I realized they’re polite words for “lose your head and you’re on your own”. Undiluted human response to that would be ” you’ve got to be kidding! why, are we not there on official business?” but thanks to evolution humans learned civilized or politically correct responses, in this case, a placid nod.

Luckily, my host organization and I were able to find me a home away from home that had not one but two gates- outer and inner (solid steel, top to bottom) with ultra-secure lock system too. In all, two gates plus one front door with two locks. My pocket always jangled with the heavy-duty keys. To unlock and relock the one on the outer gate it has taken me an entire half hour every time. In the first weeks after I moved in, I felt eyes, passers-by on the street, boring hotly into my back as if maybe I was an intruder. Sometimes, returning from the field grimy, exhausted, and impatient to get inside I was liable to lose my sanity more quickly. I had actually cursed the lock roundly. I dared curious passers-by to challenge my actions, but of course no one did. They already knew I was that alien who couldn’t open her own gate. At other times, walking home alone after dining out, I’d think what if somebody was after me and I still hadn’t been able to open the gate? I imagined myself scaling the wall like I had spidey webs only to be pulled down and murdered right by my own gate. That’s not even close to kidnapping. This frustration with my front gate gave me little incentive to step out once I was already inside my apartment. A deterrent. People like me who’ve known all their lives relatively free and peaceful environments will resist such a setup that on the one hand locals perceive as safety. Otherwise I found the whole setup funny. I imagined my place resembling a Victorian chastity petticoat of the mechanical kind something like what’s under Queen Victoria’s voluminous skirt in The Pirates Band of Misfits.

Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. The second time I heard it, I was outside my assignment area, in another province. Maranao teachers from Marawi City had sung the entire song at the close of a training session. Tayo na sa liwanag, ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. Fighting in Marawi City had been going on almost a month; two months since I first walked in these parts of Mindanao. I had come to understand the meaning of the lyrics.

I had taken the initiative to monitor goings-on around me. I was merely doing what I must- keeping my head. Early May, I heard the broadcast of the President’s speech to the PNP in Maguindanao. He spoke about his dwindling faith in the peace process and the parties involved in it ie. MNLF, MILF, CPP-NDF. When the President talks like that at a crucial time when he should be rallying behind the process, people should become extra alert. What was he really saying? I was sure it was an oblique way of communicating to the nation that something big was afoot. For those keeping tab on the region, they’d have pinpointed from the continuing conflict there particularly the military offensives in Butig throughout 2016 (FebruaryNovember), the bombing of Davao City night market in September, the history in those parts of rido or inter-clan vendetta akin to a civil war, and the undeniable presence of opportunists waiting with the patience of Time on the sides could at anytime trigger an all-out violent conflict. My gut told me martial law was inevitable, when and how would depend on I surmised certain events that only the President and his men were privy to.

At the time, my employer-agency in another continent was insistent that in the name of community participation and relationship-building I should spread out my research activities with the communities over the next two months. “You don’t want to be seen as somebody going in on a parachute and taking off in a ‘copter.” The proposed method I sent them, after a scoping study of the areas and with input from my host organization, was to complete the primary discussions with community groups one after the other in a week (after that, secondary individual interviews on a more relaxed schedule following interviewees’ availability). I understood my employer’s concern, but then they weren’t in the area, with me, experiencing things first hand. I typed up a long-ish email to shed light on why the initial schedule was best, a most challenging task considering the “threat” of martial law is based on this researcher’s “expert reading” of local events. In the end, after a flurry of communications going back and forth, they agreed. I informed my host organization this as well as my gut feel of the President’s speech in Maguindanao. They stared at me. I mean, weren’t they supposed to be the one telling me about it? For a moment there I was suddenly like, shit did I misread the situation and so misled my employer?

When precipitating events worsened and martial law did happen, I was the one calling and waking people in the dead of night for what to my hearing were human feet on the prowl but were really just those of an obese cat dancing the night away on nearby tin roofs.

Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang. I came to understand why residents in these places will not, if they can help it, allow fear and it’s offsprings panic and paranoia inside their heads. In those places reason is superior to fear. It’s the only way people there have been able to maintain, over time, sanity and live “normally”. I feared that if I stayed long, like them, I’d go down the same path. Then, again, I asked myself if that isn’t what’s criticized as a pretend life. By believing that prejudices and a culture of conflict don’t exist, won’t that perpetuate the same prejudices and conflict? But, then, if that is what enables people to live there happy isn’t that choice of belief their right? A complex and contrary situation.

So how did you manage? I was asked in a debriefing at the close of my assignment. Work, I said promptly. I had deadlines left and right that there simply was no time left to think about anything more or linger on my observations of my environment. Weekends were mainly for catching up on sleep, house cleaning, and laundry. Work them to death apparently is beneficial in certain situations. But if somebody had asked me then, during my first month there, what would prompt me to walk away from the place I’d have said my leather jacket. The terrible heat, more than anything else, was my enemy. I ate ice-cream almost everyday usually early evenings before dinner. Then, once, a guy told me in an indirect way that my favorite food is ice cream. I laughed. And then that made me think, fuck! wait, what? was he…following me? I continued laughing. Ang takot ay nasa isip lamang.

Nestle pistachio & cashew ice cream

woman by the sea

To cleanse me from prejudices about people and places; my fears, unfounded ones. To cleanse me from thoughts of superiority. To cleanse me from whatever’s keeping me from seeing and hearing. To cleanse me from untruths. I didn’t ask for this baptism rite, but thank you. What I needed. An early Christmas gift, I think.

At home exercise

I’m not allowed to go out alone before 7 AM and should be already home by 7 PM. So dawn runs are out (a friend said I should instead jog in place inside my room which made me laugh). My lack of exercise has me worried. But yes thank goodness for Youtube. I’m doing this simple yoga routine every other day. The rest of the days- jogging in place while trying hard not to pity myself.

On my current K-drama series playlist

K-drama series on Viu are my companion these days. I can now put a tick on Goblin: The Lonely and Great God. Done. The story reverberates with truly unique characters – the Goblin, of course, and, a departure from grim reapers of old, the uncannily handsome and domestic Grim Reaper – that are smoothly threaded in to the world of humans. Living among humans day after day meant that human vulnerabilities would gradually rub off on them, and it did. By opening themselves to the human experience, it made them a whole lot better in the end. Better deities. As for the humans…ah, well, love is a destiny.

As I’ve just gotten into watching K-drama, I don’t know many Korean actors, and deciding which series to watch next is based mainly on the actors from previously-watched dramas. The actor Lee Dong Wook was the reason I watched Goblin, because he was the actor of My Girl the first ever K-drama I saw and liked. So, after Goblin I decided to go for dramas in which the actor Kim Go Eun starred in. Hence, Cheese in the Trap.

The drama is a poignant portrayal of university life, youthful romance, and issues affecting young people such as family, mental health, and self-direction. There are also plenty of quotable quotes in there that especially convey what young people are going through:

Baek In Ho: Who studies on the subway? What do you want to become?

Seol:  I just want a job. I don’t want to be unemployed.

Baek In Ho:  What are you worried about? You’re a college student.

Seol:  That’s what I thought, too. When I was in high school I thought I could be anything when I went to college. Now that I’m in college there are many difficult questions. I envy those people the most (gestures toward a couple of men in business suits).

Baek In Ho:  What’s the envy? They look like corpses.

The close of the series brought to mind David Foster’s Just For A Moment (theme song from St. Elmo’s Fire) which floated in my head. I did shed a tear or two. Good news though! There’s a movie adaptation coming out this year! Plus there’s a webtoon of the series which it turns out is the original material.

Afterward, I decided to branch out to dramas of the actor Park Hae Jin, the male lead in Cheese, which led me to Doctor Stranger. I’m now currently watching Episode 9. Incredibly good so far. The story has most everything- spying (North and South Korea), geopolitics, professional rivalry, romance, that involve, well, doctors. But most especially the operating room scenes look very real!

In between, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m also watching Bride of Ha Baek (The Bride of the Water God) originally a manga series of the same title. I’ve seen the male lead Nam Joo Hyuk in Cheese in the Trap and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo that I watched in February. After the first three episodes, I already liked Bride of Ha Baek because Shin Se Kyung‘s female lead’s story arc is so relatable. She has lots of things going on in her personal life, meaning, she’s not as happy, which keeps her, she’s a psychiatrist, from being fully present with her clients until… the series is now on Episode 8. The queer identities that have suddenly popped up in her life are starting to show who or what they really are.

 

What’s your ‘treat yourself’ wine?

tuba or coconut wine
Tuba (4-hour fermented coco wine). It’s brown-ish color is natural dye from the mangrove tree.

My host organization said I should join them in their team-building event, to take a break even if for a day from an incredible month of hyperactivity not to mention, of late, anxiety. They have done an extraordinary job of facilitating my work so far as well as my security in the areas. Of the latter, I know they’re trying to hold in their worries and desire to guard over me 24/7. As for myself, apart from dealing with work pressure, I’ve lately been bombarded with new experiences almost on a daily basis that there’s no time for me to reflect and understand how they benefit my own life. Also, out there in the areas, there’s such a wealth of information and lessons that it’s made it extraordinarily challenging for me to sift through and obtain what’s just needed for the work I’m doing. Then, the usual pressure from family and friends- wtf are you still there for? When they say that…I start to have doubts- yeah, how the hell did I end up here? which I don’t like. Sometimes when I’m in this mood I imagine I’m in one of my favorite places to be…only that I’m fully clothed you know in case my folks decided to forcibly fly in through the roof and get me by the ears, clothed or not. Is why bombs are loathed- they’re like our parents in hyperwar mode.

 

But seriously by joining my host organization in their activity I wanted to convey my appreciation and gratitude. They’re my second family here, and since my entry into their lives their days have become uncharacteristically hectic. I so owe them some slack.

The event took place by the wonderful sea, in an open community training center maintained by their partner-organization. When we arrived, the distinct smell of goat meat (it’s halal) wafted in the air. We were told there’ll be papaitan and kaldereta on the table- yum! This reminded me of similar gatherings in my areas of assignment when I was younger, also the reunions at my grandparents’ during my childhood. The men did most of the cooking.

I’m already acquainted with the individuals there so I went around and joined in the conversation. Crowds is really a struggle for me although I can put a handle on this when it becomes a duty ie. work requires me to work the crowd. I could do it so well that people think I’m a go-getter. Ha! Besides, when you’re with village people, they scrutinize you with beetle eyes- they will right away pack off snobs or outsiders with no sense of humor. Once, I woke up in a depleted mood and no amount of self pep talk could elevate my mood. This showed through when I was facilitating a discussion with village women. Their faces reflected my mood. But I didn’t care. Then somebody said “no sense of humor” in reply to my question of what makes an effective volunteer. The body language of the other women screamed, oh my goodness. They were all looking at me like how children stare up at their parents when they knew they’ve crossed a no-no line, waiting for a punishment to come or not. The mental image tickled me and I laughed. The women’s bodies eased up a bit. Sense of humor is key to working well with villagers.

Then I moved into the hut where the men were cooking. Somebody asked if I wanted tuba. I said, yes sure. He handed me a cupful. And, it was unbelievably delicious- just the right sweetness and fermentation. The coconut juice had been collected very early that morning and fermented a few hours (it gets stronger the longer it’s fermented however 2-3 days would turn the juice to vinegar). Plus, I was told the container had been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, which explained why it tasted clean. I had two cups (which kind of alarmed them but I assured them that I have a high tolerance for alcohol). Then while watching them do their thing, we talked about local wines and drinks. This scene reminds me of my childhood during reunions, when I was usually with the men – my uncles and their cousins – watching whatever they were doing and listening to their talk. I have a few photos of those times (come to think of it, I haven’t asked who took the shots). So, growing up, I don’t know but I naturally gravitate toward the company of male friends and acquaintances. Their kind of talk is what I’m familiar with. But also because I find I can be my naturally straightforward self with them and nobody would take overt offense. Ha ha!

tuba and freshly caught prawns

We also had prawns, freshly caught and (for me) unbelievably cheap at just 150 a kilo! About seafood, all my life I’ve reacted after digesting it or at times even from merely touching it hence avoided it. But my host organization upon learning this were horrified. The areas teemed with seafood. So we experimented (anyway, I brought my meds). First, pusit small and large ones. And what do you know- no reaction at all not even a hint of an itch. I thought about it. Then it dawned on me. Could it be the preservatives (applied along the supply chain as it makes it’s way to, for instance, Baguio City) and not the seafood? I told my host organization this which excited them some more about our experiment. Next, crabs. I had no reaction after the first. Wow! So I ate another one. Nada. Then, the prawns. No reaction. Amazing! I really am sure now my allergic reactions were due to preservatives. Goodness, how much nutrients did I lose from avoiding seafood?

How did the team-building go? It turned out that was just a bluff. The event was actually a “formal” welcome to me. Soon as the dishes were cooked and laid out, one of the organization’s staff called everyone inside the center, and after the usual how are you all feeling today? talk she then announced the real reason for the gathering. Ha! You thought I was a birthday girl, too stunned at first to react. But, really, it was such a gift.