World Tsunami Awareness Day
via unisdr

That morning I got to see a big boat built, I also got floored by villagers’, now in their sixties, incredible accounts of survival during the tsunami in 1976. 

A few minutes after midnight on 17 August 1976, a violent earthquake (magnitude 8.2) originating beneath Moro Gulf spawned a tsunami that affected 700 km of coastline bordering Moro Gulf. Residents in those areas experienced what seemed to be the longest thirty minutes of their lives.

Source: The 1976 August 16, Mindanao, Philippine Earthquake–evidence for a subduction zone south of Mindanao, Stewart and Cohn, California Institute of Technology

…common observation was a loud roaring that preceded the arrival of the waves, a loud sound that kept getting closer… While it is clear that the sound was coming from the incoming waves, it was not clear what was specifically causing the sound.

“It seemed like the sea was moaning. It was frightening, but we didn’t know why until it was too late,” recalled one woman.

Estimates of wave heights had to be based on qualitative descriptions of the waves being as tall as a coconut tree, a two storey house, twice a man’s height, etc. or had to be deduced from photographs of damaged structures.

“Then we saw this wave…it came up way above our house,” one villager said.

The sequence of events then was as follows. A shock violent enough to awaken coastal residents and make standing or walking difficult. A strong, approaching sound different from familiar sea sounds, a frightening sound variedly described as cascading rain, rumbling of many trucks, etc. Arrival of waves within minutes, preceded by an unusually deep recession of the sea. Two or three waves following the first.

A description of the waves would be incomplete without the listing of their effects… A bore rushing up a river in Pagadian damaged a bridge… Inland fishponds were either flooded or emptied of water. Partially concrete houses, schools, public building, factories, etc. were reduced to a few concrete slabs, wooden stumps, and twisted steel… Against such fury what chance did frail makeshift homes have?

Deaths were caused by drowning. With the collapse of their homes around midnight, the victims found themselves in dark, turbulent waters. Those who survived managed to do so because their grip on something firm prevented their being swept out to the open seas… One father had clung to a tree and his children in turn clung to him. When the waved receded, he was all alone. This was a tale that was repeated many times over. While swimming may be as natural as breathing to sea dwellers, in Pagadian the tsunami had churned the waters and slum sediments into a batter of mud that choked victims.

“Just seconds before the wave slammed toward land, my mother realized it was a tidal wave and shouted at us to hold onto anything firm,” said another woman who was a teenager back then. She recalled holding to a tree. She and her family were among the lucky ones who went under the waters of the tsunami and survived with only cuts and bruises. Their house, like the others on the coast, which was a typical hut put up by artisanal fisherfolks was destroyed though and their belongings taken by the sea.

They remembered the first wave of the tsunami going inland as far as the present-day main road which if I were to walk to it from the beach on my normal pace would take me around forty-five minutes. “That far. Wow,” said the head of my host organization. They too didn’t know about this story. After the meeting, we stopped by the intersection to the main road to see the marker. The 1976 event, according to reports, left 80,000 dead or missing, 10,000 injured, and 90,000 homeless. The first ever recorded earthquake in the area was in 1897, and thereafter with roughly 16 year interval up to 1976. 

The hairs on my arms stood on ends. If I were to put on a special pair of looking glasses, like night vision goggles, how many dead people roaming would I see in our midst? Or, are they like Mad Hatter and his friends, after playing a joke on Time, locked in a forever tea time? forever tsunami?

The next day in the adjoining village, a similar story was recounted, although said event happened much recently. Apparently typhoon Sendong/Washi in 2011 had also spawned a tsunami that threw native boats inland as far as onto the hills on the village border, destroyed the village water system, rice fields, and fishponds. It took a couple of days for sea water to recede. At the time, however, much thanks to broadcast media, the nation was riveted to Cagayan de Oro where it seemed the only place in Mindanao adversely affected by the storm. It was only after three days that aid, the first and last, came to the village. 

“So what did you do in those three days?” I asked.

“Nagtulungan kami,” they said. “Kung anong meron ang bawat isa. Bigas, rootcrops, biscuits. Pinagamit sa tao ang may-ari ng tubig ang kanilang bombahan.”

UN Volunteers just recently launched it’s #VolunteersActFirstHereEverywhere campaign in time for the International Day of Volunteers on December 5. According to the campaign, in the time government and other agencies are getting their acts together, volunteers, within or outside the village or community, are often, if not always, the first ones to respond in times of crisis and emergencies. A neighbor sharing food as what happened in that isolated village falls within the UNV definition of volunteer. While there’s no exact Filipino native word for volunteer which is a relatively modern introduction in the country bayanihan would be it’s nearest equivalent.

Volunteers and volunteerism is the reason communities make it through the crucial period in times of crises until outside help gets through. Neighbors helping neighbors, with food, first aid in the form of indigenous knowledge, water ration from a privately-owned source, tools to clear away debris, etc. What’s amazing is that the instinct to preserve life doesn’t stop with oneself and kin but extends to members of the community.

Duty-bearers nonetheless are accountable and responsible in the continuing education of tsunami-prone communities. I couldn’t help comment during my visit on the placement of the tsunami warning board. It says a lot about the residents’ knowledge hence attitude toward the hazard relative to their villages: the concern is put on the back burner.

Tsunami warning sign board ©thecolorofred

Late last month, DSWD reported on Big Waves due to ITCZ and LPA in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi that affected seven villages and displacement of hundreds. How big were the big waves wasn’t in the report, a crucial information needed by responders in order to act appropriately. Let’s tell things as they are especially with natural disasters.

Next, have a plan of risk reduction measures. Then, fund the plan. Localities usually have plans that mostly remain plans accumulating dust and molds on shelves simply because they’re not funded. In this age of crowd-funding and bitcoins, localities need to go beyond the IRA mindset into that of the successful salesman or woman and “sell” the plans to donors and investors out there. Tailor fit the sell. If the plan is for an early warning system ie. communication equipment, monitoring tools like drones, and such then sell the plan to people or companies who are into funding that sort of schemes. If the plan is to relocate families on protected coastlines then do some research about it and recommend policy changes to convince land managers and owners with. The bottomline is, that tsunami-warning sign board will not in itself reduce the risks. Community education will. A well-backed plan will. Community action will. 

Quoted texts, source: Moro Gulf Tsunami of 17 August 1976, Badillo, Victor L., S.J. & Astilla, Zinnia C., 1978, Manila Observatory



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 3:  “The bazaar in the Islamic City”

For centuries, people around the world have gathered to trade, buy, and sell goods in their communal and commercial centers. These marketplaces often served as an integral part of the community and were called by many names, with meanings specific to their respective cultures.

The word bazaar has roots in Middle Persian (wazar) and Armenian (vačar). In the course of economic interactions, the word spread to Arab countries, Ottoman Turkey, Europe, India, and even China. ‘Bazaar’ has acquired three different meanings: the market as a whole, a market day, and the marketplace. It could also refer to one part of the bazaar, such as a street belonging to a specific guild. Borrowing from the Aramaic word shuka, bazaar equates with the Arabic word ‘suq,’ which denotes the commercial exchange of goods or services as well as the place in which this exchange is normally conducted.

The bazaar has played a key role in the economic, cultural, and even political transformation of cities throughout the Islamic world… The historical role of bazaars in international trade had a major effect on the international role of cities in the entire Islamic world. Because of the bazaar’s key role in Near Eastern cities, its study is of interest to scholars in a variety of fields; and yet, despite its significance in the study of urbanism and architecture, the concept of the bazaar in the Islamic world has not yet received a comprehensive analysis.

Although the bazaar existed as a concept in Roman and Parthian cities, it was further developed by Muslims to accommodate trade in secured Islamic lands, which within a few centuries of the death of the Prophet Muhammad extended from China to Spain.

Markets in the Islamic world have traditionally been considered peaceful places. This is probably because the bazaar defines a cultural or even psychological territory which is to be protected and respected by city residents. It may have to do with the fact that jeopardizing commerce in any fashion would threaten the entire society and its fundamental principles, which are based on survival. Contemporary examples of ‘peace markets’ can be seen on Israeli borders. These temporary outdoor markets serve as mechanisms that allow for the trading of surplus goods among Jews and Muslims. In these markets, merchants and customers behave as if in a sanctuary, which allows cooperation between historical enemies. In these markets, the norms of the larger society are not operative because the market becomes the manifestation of peace. The market defines a community with its own rules and regulations.

Due to its social dynamic, the bazaar was considered the best place to learn about people, their lives, public culture, and cultural interactions. There is a story that a Qazvini went to Tehran to seek employment. Answering a question concerning his education, he referred to the “Grand School of Qazvin.” In response to the prospective employer, who asked him about the location of this school, he clarified “It is indeed the Grand Bazaar!”

Modernity also threatened the significance of the bazaar and diminished its centrality and concentration in terms of form. The old narrow alleys of bazaars gave way to new, wide streets to accommodate motor vehicles. Supermarkets and commercial malls were constructed in close proximity to bazaars, threatening their monopoly. The new shopping malls, however, were completely different in nature from old bazaars. Shopping malls gathered a great number of shops under one roof, whereas bazaars possessed an institutionalized status and had more to offer, like carnivals and nurseries.

After the 1960s, several shopping malls were constructed beyond the conventional suq territories, resulting in decentralized trade in cities.

The formation of these modern malls and shopping centers, especially in the last two decades, has allowed people to purchase clothing, furniture, and other items without any need to go to the traditional bazaar. It has also resulted in the creation of a new and different commercial culture, which gradually affected the cultural context of the bazaar… The process of Europeanization resulted not only in decentralizing the bazaar, but also in changing the traditional trade culture and providing a social space for the new generation, which did not culturally connect to the bazaar for socializing. Malls have not only begun to reshape these cities, but also play an influential role as the setting for stories and narratives in contemporary literature and cinema.

However, many people of middle- and upper-class status still prefer traditional shops where their families have longstanding relationships. In the age of e-commerce (‘dot-com markets’), bazaars will continue to survive, especially in small cities and towns, because of the inaccessibility of high-end malls to the lower classes of society and also because of the social bonds that have been shaped during centuries.

– The Bazaar in the Islamic City: Design, Culture and History  / Mohammad Gharipour.—Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012

grand bazaar istanbulIt’s why I suppose even at the height of the Marawi City diaspora, despite our unspoken alarm at witnessing truckloads of evacuees and agency vehicles propped with white flags passing through, conduct of business in the marketplaces where I was went on as usual. I thought, this was what they call occupying and living two contradictory worlds at the same time, one peaceful-normal and the other not. Pwede din pala. But I suppose it’s a strain. The only glitches in the local market I observed were the panic buying in the two grocery stores on the day martial law was declared (the next day and after, things normalized as suddenly); the other was early closure of business in most shops at 5 PM. With the former, customer behavior I suppose benefited the stores as all their stocks including those nearing expiration were wiped off of the shelves without effort on their part. With the latter, it mostly inconvenienced shoppers like me who were at work. What I did was I chucked out to the grocery during my afternoon snack break at 3 PM. Since I only had at most ten minutes to do my buying, I learned to shop only for what was on my list and not dilly-dally on the aisles getting distracted by new products and potentially putting them into my basket unnecessarily. Martial law actually helped me save up. Ha!

I guess the message here is as long as “terrorists” are not bombing marketplaces right off the map, hope remains. Hope that people are not absolutely unreasonable; that there remains a space in which differences, comparative advantages, are recognized as necessity and valued accordingly. Leaders should take care to do well to further this opening.

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.

Back from the land of promise

night flight with PALIt was a dramatic night when I left Mindanao. There was rain and the wind threatened to carry off the airline’s umbrellas. There was turbulence several minutes into the air. When our pilot spoke, we were pleasantly surprised that it’s a she. In Manila, fellow passengers looked at me as I was taking photos of the flooring of the connecting door to our plane. I didn’t care. I was honoring the ground. All I could think of was, it’s a miracle to be returning in one piece, safe and sound. And, hello civilization!

A friend who I haven’t seen in months had flown in an hour ahead from another part of Mindanao and waited for me at the airport. He helped me with my luggage one of which weighed almost 30 kilos. I mentioned that the unfamiliar luggage was actually a donation from my landlord.

travel luggageI had planned to go to the City, a four-hour commute, to buy a bigger carrier. It was the day before my flight. As I was bolting my door, my landlord came into my front yard (he was supervising the ongoing construction at the apartment complex). I informed him of my travel plan to which he said, “no, you don’t need to go. You don’t have to carry that stuff all the way to here. I’ll give you one of the bags at home. We’re not using them anyway.”

I was, “Really? Totoo po? Then thank you! Thank you so much!”

That is how my stay in Mindanao could be summed up. Magical, if that is at all comprehensible. The head of my host organization told me “mahal ka pa rin ng Diyos” to describe the smooth-sailing nature of all my activities. I don’t think it’s all because of me. I believe it’s largely because of good people who’ve been praying for my safety.

Like, the sun would always come out even when it had been raining the entire night which made our travels and activities in the communities a pleasant experience for everybody. Another time, I had planned to visit Marawi City because having a background in urban management I wanted to go around and see the Islamic architecture and such. But then the war happened. It was a good thing it happened before my travel otherwise I’d have been one of those trapped inside although that means I’d never be able to see the City’s original design as it’s now mostly rubble. Then again to my surprise in another place and venue I got to be with scholars and educators from Marawi City and in the short time with them I was able to gain a bit of insight into the Muslim or Islamic culture. And many other “saved by the bell” instances.

But, most of all, goodbye to checkpoints and the discomfort that they give. The only times I had fun at these was seeing now and then tall, handsome, and virile men opening our vehicle doors and, if I could call it that, checking us out. I wanted to wave and say hi but they looked so serious. But I do smile. Once, we arrived in one of the cities past the curfew at night. Our taxi was customarily stopped on the road by two heavily armed soldiers. It was a good thing my companion was able to show her identification quickly and a good thing as well that they were OK with that, because in my sleepy and exhausted state I almost turned in what looked to me like my police clearance but on inspection was actually an ad that says 50% off on clearance sale that a promo girl handed out at the mall and which I stashed into my handbag. That jolted my sleepy brain. If the soldier had instead reached for it and read it he’d think we were poking fun at him and goodness knows where my companion and I could’ve ended up that night.

military checkpoint mindanao

And, goodbye to the word bakwit. I’ve not taken to it even if for locals it’s just a word. But words carry weight. Mindanao natives especially the Moro Muslim masses and Lumads should not be made bakwits in their own land.

bakwit evacuation center mindanao

When I got home though the first thing I noticed in myself was that I didn’t anymore had the feeling that I’m being watched (I had that feeling all the time there which caused me to be tense and on guard 24/7). It was a significant weight off my mind and body and the effect was that I slept through two days. On fully waking, my family welcomed me back with a hearty lunch treat of dishes I missed. Looking at the array of food and my family around the table, I silently promised that I will never again take things for granted.

I went back to Manila to wrap up my placement and attend debriefings. In one session, I was met with laughter when I said “I still need time to process what happened to me there.”

The real chili sauce

Tried this artisan pinutos sa kanto. A teeny drop is all it takes. Truly “extra hot spicy”! ” So where’d the chilies come from?” I asked the guy at the counter. He just grinned. I imagined they’re picked from the native chili tree that’s maybe by the gate, growin’ wild and bloomin’ free and unnoticed. Until somebody got a bright idea.

pinutos sa kanto chili sauce

Made in Basilan

It’s not all fighting in this island. I learned that the Moro, though not so the younger generation, love coffee which Bisaya people here find strange as they’re not coffee drinkers. Or, should I say coffee is a staple for these natives- not the instant kind but the real brew. A typical family stores the drink in a flask or thermos to keep it hot throughout the day. They like it strong and sweet. Reminds me of Moroccan coffee.

coffee #madeinBasilan

Home color palette inspiration: gray, green, brown, and a dash of yellow

This is exactly the color palette of my place out here which I’m loving, especially the wood (my bed for instance is solid teak or something, I can’t move it by myself). I guess it was just plain luck that the first rental place my hosts brought me to see is newly-built (the first renter was a female nurse and obviously took good care of the place) and came with a modern design. I immediately said yes to the caretaker (and worried about how to justify my yes to my agency only after).

home color inspiration

Native delicacies: dodol

Dodol is a toffee-like delicacy made of rice flour, coconut milk, and palm sugar. The ones I saw hanging from a road-side store while on a stop-over on my way to Cotabato City were wrapped in corn husks. The sweet treat is purportedly found all over Southeast Asia, but it was my first to see and taste one then. It was Ramadan at the time.