Saturday, June 11, 2005

Youngblood: The price of hope

by Gideon Lasco
Inquirer News Service

(Note: This was originally published under the "Youngblood" column of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 111, 2005)

THIS is a true story. And I am writing this because I want to open other people’s eyes to the plight of some of our countrymen. I write this to fulfill the request of an elderly man of the Manobo tribe who said to me: “Tell them how much we suffer.”

Trying to escape the scorching heat of the sun and eager to try a novel adventure, I decided to spend a week of my summer vacation in Southern Mindanao. I have a classmate there who belongs to the T’boli tribe. His parents are doctors who have ceaselessly worked for the uplift of the tribes. So I flew there (it was my first travel alone) and found myself in the far-flung areas of Sultan Kudarat, villages where electricity is a luxury and cell phone signals are non-existent.

The roads were narrow and rough, the houses wooden and small. We had no mattresses for us; we slept in beds made of bamboo. We took our baths in the “poso” [artisan well] in front of the house, and our meals consisted of the wandering hens and the vegetables planted around houses. Talk about culture shock!

Four languages are spoken there: Cebuano, Ilonggo, T’boli and Manobo. For a time I felt out of place, but soon I could already understand Cebuano, and gradually I got used to their way of life.

Every day we would ride the “habal-habal,” a motorcycle that can carry six persons, to even more remote places where the Manobos live. Even after the ride, which could rival Enchanted Kingdom’s scariest offerings, we still had to hike for an hour to reach the villages. We walked through banana plantations, cornfields and muddy footpaths littered with horse dung.

“Doctora” [lady doctor] Dagang, my classmate’s mother, had started a literacy program in the Manobo villages and we were able to attend their graduation. When we arrived at one village, they were already in their “school” which was actually just a “nipa” frond hut. The smell of bodies that had gone without bathing for some time permeated the air. Some women were clad in costumes — beaded necklaces and belts — but their clothes were tattered and old.

“People here are lucky to have two sets of clothes,” the missionary working there told me. I could see what he meant: the kids didn’t even have shorts or undergarments, leaving their genitals exposed. Their bellies bulged, infested by worms.

They were illiterate, yet they could understand what a smile meant. I played with the kids who were fascinated with my digital camera, something that’s commonplace in Manila but magical in this village.

One kid stared at me with great curiosity, and when I looked at him I saw such pitiful eyes. “What will become of this kid?” I asked myself. With barely enough money to feed themselves and buy medicine, going to school was out of the question.

I wanted to do something. I asked how much schooling costs in the public school.

“Thirty pesos per year,” I was told.

And they couldn’t afford even that?

“They don’t even have enough money for food!” came the answer.

I wanted to support the kid, even with my own allowance.

“Not here,” I was advised. “This place is too far-off. No one will monitor how the funds are spent.”

But I insisted. If I did nothing, I would condemn the child to a miserable life, something that could be averted.

Doctora Dagang took up my cause and asked for the boy. His name was Eldon, and he was 5 years old.

We approached the missionary and asked him if he could help us help the boy. He agreed, saying that the Manobos needed every little help that could be given to them.

We went to Eldon’s house, and I was moved by what I saw. His was a family of eight living in a hut no larger than our bathroom. Delia, the mother, with her five kids and her parents (her husband was already dead). She herself had no means of livelihood.

Through interpreters and gestures we communicated to each other. I was speaking out of compassion and they were speaking of hope. I will send money to them so that Eldon and his siblings can study.

Thirty pesos — less than the cost of three soft drinks — can educate a child, I kept telling myself. Later I can gather used clothes, books, canned goods and soap for the family.

In the meantime, Doctora Dagang said she would send Delia, as well as other villagers, to attend literacy and livelihood programs. And I knew the little help I was offering paled in comparison to what she was doing for them. Still I promised to do whatever I could.

We left the village amid a chorus of grateful voices. We had given them hope of a better life, a better future. The missionary later told us that there was weeping that night. But they were tears of joy from a people who have suffered for so long and who have been forsaken.

Thirty pesos is the price of hope. It is a small price to pay for progress. And I hope there will be many others who will shell it out.

Gideon Lasco, 19, is a medicine freshman at the University of the Philippines – Philippine General Hospital in Manila.