On the morning of 16th December 2015, a group of students headed out in search of treasure.
After a thirty-minute ride from Kabacan to Pikit, North Cotabato, they took a turn by Ladtingan Elementary School and proceeded to another thirty-minute ride from the municipal terminal. There they arrived at a place called Paidu Pulangi, which roughly translates as “little river”. But the river in front of them was not little. It was wide and deep – a boundary that divides part of North Cotabato and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Their journey’s end lay on the other side. So they rode pump boats to cross the river, each carrying about twenty students. All in all there were five boats that made the crossing.
By the riverbank there stood a single row of coconut trees, and below them fields of corn. On the background was the bright blue sky, spills of thin white clouds, and occasional spots of thick cottony ones. A number of balyat, instruments used to catch fish, were placed on the shallow side of the river. With the boats cutting their way through muddy brown waters, the ride lasted no more than 6 minutes.
On the other side there were tiny hovels with walls made of dilapidated rice sacks, each one about ten meters apart from the next. They floated at the edge of the river. This was where the local residents answered the call of nature. Their wastes would go straight to the water for the current to carry downstream.
Another 5-minute trek and they’ve finally reached their destination: Kabalukanen Elementary School, Brgy. Dasawao, Shariff Saidona Mustapha, Maguindanao. Behind it stands the famous Palao sa Kabalukan, the subject and setting of a good number of Dindikan, a genre of Maguindanaon songs telling tales of war and anguish. And as the name implies, this place is home to a once distinct Maguindanaon tribe called Kabalukanen. Here, electricity is unavailable. The households rely on small solar panels, no more than one and a half square feet in size.
By the school gates, several pandalas were put up to welcome the visitors. The small stage was decorated with colored fabrics. Its edge was adorned with elaborately sequinedlikus, and in the center a golden ululhung. On the left side of the stage the Philippine flag waved, hoisted on a pole made of old bamboo. By the school grounds, the pupils watched and beamed as their guests entered the gate.
This is what they came for. This is what they went all this way to see.
These students came to bring small gifts for those children, who realized perfectly well that this fuss was all for them. Their eyes went bright with bliss at the sight of cameras, and seeing brand new slippers some jumped with joy.
“Endaw guna siya e laki?” (I wonder which one is mine), asked one sprightly little girl as she went through the slippers laid out on the field. “Laki aden matinangin” (Mine’s the sparkly one), says another. And one by one each child came to choose his own pair.
The program started and their barangay captain spoke. He thanked the visitors for coming, for going past many schools and choosing one so remote that they had to cross the river. Then a selected group of children performed intermission numbers. A little boy in kindergarten delivered his poem, another group sang bahay kubo, and the last group, wearing bangles and skirts fashioned out of tin foil, danced to Angelina.
They were told to go back to their classrooms to be fed. They played games and earned their prizes: small bags of candies and lollipops. Each classroom filled with laughter and cheer as their ates and kuyas did their best to keep them amused. Then out they went and played once more, each little ball of energy jumping along for another batch of sweets.
While they were out, there was time to check the place. On the left most side stood the “classrooms” for grades four to six, except they looked nothing like classrooms. Frankly, they were more like large pens or crude cages. There were no floors. There was only the naked ground. The walls were mere thin slabs of wooden scraps placed a few inches apart, and the roof was a bunch of run-down nipa straws. There were large holes in them, meaning that these “classrooms”, if one could even call them that, offered no shelter from rain. On the chalkboard, the following words were written:
The only ones with “real” classrooms were those from kindergarten to grade three, and even these were very old and had broken windows. There were very few chairs, and the ones they had have given way to layers of rust accommodated over the years. Many of them bore the name of Hon. Zacaria Candao, first regional governor of the ARMM, giving away their age.
There was a new building on the right corner of the school. But it was intended for high school students only. Farther right were classrooms for grades eight and nine. They were old, but far betterthan the run-down chicken coops for grades four to six.
And then it hit me. Here we are, all choked up at the thought of regional integration and K to 12 and being at par with our ASEAN neighbors. But somewhere along the way we may have forgotten that some of our very own children spend school days in rickety hutches where the Singaporeans would probably not even dare to house their livestock. By the way it looks, our only hope now is for this Southeast Asian cooperation scheme to have a ripple effect that would actually trickle down to the grassroots level. If not, then perhaps it’s safe to say that we have to rethink our priorities.
Some of the children live far away. There are those from the other side of Mount Kabalukan, those who live beyond the corn fields, and others from the other side of the river. Every day, they would walk to school before daybreak while the rest crossed the pulangi in small dinghies.
Before long, it was time to give away their school supplies. Each one consisted of a notebook, a pen, pencil and sharpener all placed in a transparent plastic envelope. The kindergarteners got a couple of things extra: a set of crayons and a pad of paper.
It was no surprise that like the first small tokens, they smiled at receiving each one. What came as a surprise to many was that upon receiving the envelopes, they took their new slippers and slid them carefully inside. Still wearing their old flip flops, it was as if they thought it a shame to make the new slippers touch the ground. As if every pair was precious. For such small children to put so much value on such an ordinary object brings a little sting to the heart.
These children have been through a lot. They’ve been through heavy rains and floods. And each time, the entire school grounds would be knee-deep in the water. Each time, classes would be suspended. But that’s not all. They’ve also seen combat and slept to echoing gunshots many times before. The latter they would do with no trouble at all. They would watch the men exchange fire from a safe distance as if watching a movie. And with each resonating blast they could tell what caliber was used.
When things went for the worse they would pack their things, carrying all that could be spared. They would come back later to the sight of their homes destroyed and used as cover for foxholes. But before that they would march to the nearest evacuation center. In such desperate situations we’d expect people to be grief-stricken. But expectations don’t always reflect realities, for the only tears shed were that of infants and toddlers. They were not tears of distress or grief, but rather of hunger or thirst or heat.
They would march from their homes, each family keeping an eye on one of its own while the others looked for their lost children, hoping to reunite with them at the EC. Together with their goats and cattle, they would make their way like a parade. They would talk and joke to each other. Many of the adults would be laughing, drawing humor from the very frantic nature of their situation. The jests would be followed by chuckles tinged with sarcasm, hate, weariness and fear disguised as comic relief. Yet even in such troubled times there is never a sense of defeat. They would march along and expect to come back, wounded but alive in a whole new way, fueled by a spirit so unwavering that it refuses to die.
Any feeling heart would bleed for them, wondering why they refuse to shed tears. Wondering what kind of horrors they have faced before that has made such a thing a common occurrence. Wondering what kind of experiences would be so profound as to make their tear glands dry up, as if they’ve given up sorrow and have instead chosen to drown their hearts to survive.
This is the kind of environment they would grow up in. And seeing their smiles at the simple joys of life, one could not help but wish that the world would become better for their sake.
I was one of those students who came to Dasawao that day. And as we left the school and boarded the pump boats once more, we looked to several children walking beyond the cornfields comparing the contents of their plastic envelopes. Then we turned and looked to the rest with their backs to us as they made their way to the other side of the mountain. Then the engines turned on and we were on our way.
Two minutes after, we saw a group of fivekids. They were from grade two. Each one of them no older than nine, they came down from one side of the river onto a small bangka. Being careful not to dip their envelopes into the water, they looked to us, beamed and waved goodbye. And as the smallest girl shouted “Balik po kayo”, I tried hard to hold back the tears. At least she knows how to speak the national language. Who wouldn’t want the world to become better for their sake? To pray that if there’s no hope for this generation, that we could create hope for theirs? They are the children of Dasawao. They are the world. They are the future. And regardless of ethnicity or creed or political opinion, I believe everyone would agree that they all deserve better than what we have given them.