Thursday, December 29, 2011

'The man who planted trees'

I wrote the piece below for this space 20 years ago, in 1991 (with a different title). I share this again to honor those who have been guarding our forests with their lives, in memory of the thousands (almost 2,000 dead and some 1,000 still missing) who perished in the Dec. 16 flash floods, landslides and log slides that roared into parts of Northern Mindanao and the Visayas, and in solidarity with the grieving, hungry, homeless and hopeless.

Tropical Storm “Sendong” is not entirely to blame. Earth watchers have been crying out in the wilderness, subsisting on the proverbial locusts and wild honey, unheeded in their own woebegone country.

While re-working this piece I was listening to the Enya album, “The Memory of Trees” and thinking of all the real Christmas trees out there that have protected us. I pray for brightness on the road ahead, “charged with the grandeur of God.”
                                                                * * *
When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understood that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction. —from “The Man Who Planted Trees”

A story I read as a little girl and which I remember very well to this day (in fact the copy is still preserved at home in the province) is that of Johnny Appleseed. I remember his saucepan of a cap, his bright eyes and the fistful of apple seeds he strew around wherever he went.
Children keep things in their hearts and remember even when they become adults. After these many years I still remember how good I felt reading that picture story in the Junior Classics Illustrated. How Johnny Appleseed made the bare fields bloom and when he was old, how he marveled at the work of his hands and how he died a happy man and how the birds in the apple trees chirped his name long after he was gone.
I remember as I go over this warm little book which my friend, a farmer, lent to me. The book, “The Man Who Planted Trees,” comes with audio (text and music) which can be played while one is reading the book. Listening and reading—slowly, meditatively—takes 40 minutes. (This is now on YouTube!) The story is by Jean Giono, the illustrations (such exquisite wood engravings) by Michael McCurdy. A noted French writer, Giono has written more than 30 novels. He died in 1970 at 75.

The name of the man who planted trees is Elzeard Bouffier. Giono said the purpose of his story “was to make people love the tree, or more precisely, to make them love planting trees.” Through Giono, we first meet Elzeard Bouffier before the outbreak of the First World War, then when the war is over, then again before the outbreak of the Second World War and finally at the end of it.

Giono, the storyteller, describes where he first met Bouffier: “About 40 years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights quite unknown to tourists, in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence. All this, at the time I embarked upon my long walk through these deserted regions, was barren colorless land. Nothing grew there but wild lavender.”

In this god-forsaken land lived Bouffier, “a man of great simplicity and determination.” Bouffier, who had lost his wife and children, resettled in this desolate place in Southern France. With only his dog and sheep for company, he started his monumental work—planting a hundred acorns every day of his life.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Season of immense grieving, immense giving

Storm “Sendong” struck in the wee hours when most people were asleep. Weather experts and forecasters were stunned upon beholding the aftermath of Sendong’s force and fury. But it was not Sendong’s wrath from the sky alone that caused the destruction. Elements on the ground conspired—silted rivers and congested riverbanks, poor urban drainage systems, denuded forests. It was not all Sendong’s fault. There surely will be a time for fault-finding. It didn’t have to be as bad as this.

And yes, this had been predicted three years ago, foretold, if you may, not by armchair doomsday soothsayers, but by individuals and groups that have been working on the ground and using science so that the authorities and their constituencies could be forewarned and be prepared. They were laughed out of the room. (Read “Sendong disaster foretold 3 years ago” by Kristine L. Alave, Inquirer, 12/20/11.)

Everything in words has been said about the immensity of the grief of the people who survived last weekend’s calamity that visited the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan as well as other Mindanao and Visayan areas. But there are not enough words.

Almost a thousand dead and countless still missing. The counting continues. The live images of devastation that stream on the TV screen, the still images on print, the wailing, the weeping. Dead people, dead animals, debris, mud, water, wreckage, decay. Hunger, thirst, disease, and worst of all, immeasurable loss. How to go on living when one’s loved ones have been suddenly swept away without warning, only to be found lifeless in the most unlikely places, disfigured and wrapped in sticky mud?

We think we have seen enough tragedies in this world. But sometimes our defenses are pulled away suddenly and we experience the rawness of it all. On TV one beholds a solitary mother squatting and cradling her muddied baby, limp and lifeless. There are no tears in her eyes, no words from her lips, but on her mouth is a frozen scream. You find yourself breaking into sobs.
Journalists don’t easily shed tears. Or we seldom do. Not when we are on coverage. There is a protective shield that we put between us and the subject matter before us so that we don’t cross the divide. The shield or armor could take the form of a tape recorder, a microphone, a camera, a notebook, a moving pen. The deadline. The press ID. These set us comfortably apart. And when everything is over, we think we can stand up and easily leave, leave behind all that we have caught in our electronic gadgets or on paper and proceed to write in isolation about the discomfiting scenes we have witnessed, the tearing grief, the despair.
But that is not always the case. There are times when one has to lay down one’s arms, so to speak, and simply listen and be there because that is the best way to catch it all (the journalist switching to another mode). Or because it is the human thing to do.

I recall the time I was at the Payatas dump right after it collapsed on hundreds of waste pickers and on hundreds of homes around it. That was in July 2000. The most heart-rending scene for me was not how the dead bodies were being pulled out one after another from under the foul heap. It was watching a man who was waiting for his dead mother, pregnant wife and child to be brought into the chapel. They were among the first to be found, placed in coffins and brought to the chapel near the dump.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

'Dominus est!"

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

“But in our weariness the Lord comes.” That is a quote from the homily of newly installed Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio G. Tagle DD delivered on Dec. 12 at the Manila Cathedral.
At that moment of recognition, at that moment when we finally see clearly, we gasp in awe, “It is the Lord!” Dominus est! This exclamation, Tagle reminds us, is drawn from the Risen Christ’s appearance to some of his weary disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. It is, I must say, one of the most dramatic post-Resurrection scenes in the Bible. “Dominus est!” is Tagle’s episcopal motto.
We are a long way from Eastertide. We are in the Advent season of waiting and crying out, “Maranatha!” But somehow, “Dominus est” seems apropos in this time of weary waiting.

The announcement on the papal appointment of Tagle, 54, as head of the Philippines’ most prominent archdiocese and his installation last Monday was among the few pleasant news events this Advent season. And so we gratefully say goodbye to retiring Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales who is known for his gentle leadership and love for the poor.

For weeks now we have been barraged with unsettling news that put us on edge and in near despair. Even as we embark on seeking justice for past wrongs done by the powerful, even as we long to see evildoers pay for their evil deeds, so many roadblocks are placed along the way. Will the big fish get away?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

25 Years: Nobody told me it'd be like this

Twenty-five years and some 2,000 feature articles, special/investigative reports, and column pieces later, here I am still asking: Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be like this?

I’ve had an amazing time. Amazing, meaning I have been privy to so many things of this world that other mortals are not because “they are not there.” Oh “to be there” where people live and die, feast and famish, laugh and cry, to be there where events unfold and to watch history leave its tracks behind for us to decipher and to be sometimes awed and humbled enough to make us fall on our knees in thanksgiving and sometimes in mourning.
To be there where the heavens opened and hell broke loose. To watch great lives, small lives, dirty lives, fascinating lives, beautiful lives, incredible lives rise and fall, bloom, break into a thousand pieces or become whole again.
On Wednesday, 44 employees, I among them, were honored for 25 years of service to the Philippine Daily Inquirer and its mission. We are this year’s Silvers. Also honored were those who have completed 20, 15 and 10 years with the Inquirer. For every milestone, the Inquirer gifts us with a precious token in gold—real gold. And more.

Dec. 9, 1985 is the actual founding date of the Inquirer, now the country’s biggest in circulation and with a staggering global reach. So Friday is the Inquirer’s 26th anniversary. I’ve been with the Inquirer for 25 years and nine months. I joined on March 5, 1986, a few days after the People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship. Before that, I had already been contributing articles to the Inquirer, a new kid on the block then, and also to its feisty sister, the weekly Mr. & Ms. Special Edition (published by Eggie Apostol and edited by Letty J. Magsanoc) and to the so-called “alternative/mosquito press.” These publications played a huge role in bringing down the dictatorship.

We had paid a price for all that daring. And a price we also later demanded. Last February, a number of us in the press got our first taste of justice in the form of initial compensation from the Marcos estate. We were among the almost 10,000 victims of human rights violations who had filed a class suit against the Marcoses. But that is another story.

A day after the 1986 February Revolution, I received a call from Letty Magsanoc. I was asked to join the Sunday magazine of the three-month-old Inquirer. “You start tomorrow,” she told me. And I was to fly to Leyte right away to look into the fabulous treasures left behind by Imelda Marcos who would have been turned into tiny bits by the mob that descended on Malacañang Palace had she not fled on time.

Although I was a feature writer for the magazine, I also wrote occasionally for the daily. In 1995, I asked to move to the daily so I could write more investigative and special reports. Just recently, I asked to be transferred back to the magazine, although I could also still write features for the daily. I began writing this weekly column, Human Face, in the Opinion section, in July 1991.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bukid Kabataan: A place to be strong, to belong

The happy shrieks of children blend with the sonorous mooing of the cows. The striking green of the fields compete with the blueness of the sky. The patter of little feet, the chorus of voices in the classrooms, the rising of the nuns’ chanted prayers at eventide…

Space, quiet, fresh air, dew on the grass, good food, warm arms and the healing embrace of nature. But here above all, is the child, the child who needs to become whole again.

Bukid Kabataan Center (BK), which means children’s farm, is a special place, a home for children who have never known one or who had watched theirs fall apart. Here they slowly claim their stolen childhood, name their pain and bind their wounds with the help of caring adults.
The children vibrate with energy, laughter and songs. But behind the innocent eyes and carefree mien is deep pain that these children are helped to confront. There are bright moments and bad moments. There is a time to drink the sun and a time to weep oceans.
At 9, Melan (not her real name) had already decided for herself how to fix her life, step out of her trauma and move on. Raped repeatedly by her grandfather and ostracized by her family because she was going to make a case of it in court (with help from legal and social services), she found herself in a bind.

Then Melan made a dramatic bargain. She would not testify so that the case against her abuser would be dropped – but on condition that she would never be returned to her family or next of kin, and that her family should release her for legal adoption.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Gawad Kalinga's European tour of hope

As stories about corruption, crime and violence continue to hog the limelight like telenovelas gone awry, we become filled with disgust and search for answers to the question, how have we come to this? But out there are countless stories of hope that remain untold simply because we choose to look at the noisier, bloodier, sexier, more scandalous and titillating side of things.

I recently spoke with Antonio Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga (GK), RM Awardee and Inquirer’s 2006 Filipino of the Year and felt a surge of hope. I have written several stories about him and GK, some written long before accolades were heaped on them. The recent one I did was on GK’s Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan, which is a showcase and center for social innovation (CSI). The center is part of GK’s second phase: a 21-year vision with a road map towards a First World Philippines.
There, nestled on 14 hectares of verdant, undulating terrain is a farm, home, village and “university” rolled into one, where people’s dreams and ideas are put to the test, made to grow and become realities.
Many European students and volunteers have spent time not only at the Enchanted Farm but also in remote GK villages where they lived the life of the locals. They brought home with them amazing stories of Filipino resilience, innovation and hope.

When Meloto recently did a hectic tour of 17 universities in France and England, he was met with great enthusiasm. Among those he visited were Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds and Sorbonne. Students, academics, social scientists and regular folk wanted to know more about GK and hear it straight from Meloto.

Meloto’s European tour was arranged by Olivier Girault, an executive of Orange Telecom, who has great affection for the Philippines and deep compassion for the poor. For Meloto to cope with the backbreaking schedule, Girault put Meloto on an “8888 formula: 8 hours of sleep and 8 glasses of water daily; 8 speeches and 8 meetings a week.”

Meloto shared with me his reflections on his university tour. Waxing Shakespearean, he said, “From France to England, GK smells as sweet.” That trip, he said in one breath, was part of “my continuing journey of hope for the world to see the Philippines as the next miracle of Asia and for our people to discover the awesome gift from God and the amazing privilege of being Filipino today.”

I now let Meloto speak in his own words. If you want the whole transcript, send me an e-mail.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Filep Karma, prisoner of conscience

Again, to explain: The columnists’ mug shots show closed eyes this entire week, our way of proclaiming solidarity with victims of crimes and their families who have doubly suffered because of the culture of impunity which has allowed those guilty to remain unpunished or to be above the law. This week also marks the second anniversary of the massacre of 58 innocents, 32 of them media practitioners, which happened in Ampatuan, Maguindanao. Although some masterminds and other suspects are now behind bars, the judicial process proceeds at a slow pace and the families of the victims have yet to get the justice they are crying for.
We close our eyes to pray, reflect and remember.

And while we continue to keep vigil for our suffering fellow Filipinos, it is also fitting that we take up the plight of our immediate neighbors. An Indonesian journalist, who now works for Human Rights Watch and specializes in human rights abuses in West Papua, asked me if I could spare some space for a Papuan political prisoner. (We met in East Timor in 1995.Our Filipino group and several foreign Human Rights Watch workers were, at that time, among those hastily kicked out of the island after our presence was discovered by Indonesian intelligence.)
The man of the hour is Filep Karma, proudly Papuan (but with Indonesian citizenship), who has been languishing in jail for some six years because he expressed his desire to see his fellow Papuans and his homeland free from Indonesian rule.
Last week, Karma won his legal case in the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Karma, sometimes called “the Nelson Mandela of West Papua,” is probably the most well-known political prisoner in Indonesia. It used to be Xanana Gusmao, whose case I had followed and whom I had written about during Timor Leste’s protracted bloody struggle to gain independence from Indonesia. Heavily tortured while in prison, Gusmao would later become the first president of his new country. I wept upon seeing their flag raised for the first time.

It is now West Papua’s turn to be heard. Karma is the voice of a people’s hope for freedom. Karma is detained at the Abepura prison in Jayapura. He wishes his Filipino friends and alma mater to know about his plight and take up his cause. Karma lived in the Philippines from 1997 to 1998 while studying at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati.

Karma was thrown into prison on Dec. 1, 2004, after he raised high the Papuan Morning Star flag at a political rally that commemorated the Papuans’ independence from Dutch rule.

Karma, who has explicitly denounced the use of violence, was convicted for crimes of hostility against the state and sedition. He is now serving a 15-year sentence despite calls for his release from NGOs and government officials. He is suffering from a prostate problem.

Karma recently won his case before the UN Working Group with the help of his pro bono lawyers from Freedom Now, a Washington-based NGO which also represents Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo of China. The same group represented Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Smokey Mountain's rainwater eco-laundromat

Smokey Mountain, the internationally known garbage dump that the media, social scientists, activists, environmental advocates, politicians and religious groups had so often visited, is no more, but the name, the symbol, the actual spot remains. For a long time, many visitors who experienced the shocking poverty and amazing endurance of those who earned their living through scavenging there had hoped that Smokey Mountain, this shameful symbol of Philippine misery, would vanish, if not transmogrify into something else.
Well, it did, thanks to the efforts of many concerned groups, individuals and the government. Tondo’s Smokey Mountain, the garage dump, is no more. The story of its transformation, the stories about the lives of the people who once lived on garbage could fill books. (There is a coffee-table book.) Where once there was a dump whose toxic fumes quietly killed many, there are now some two dozen five-story tenement buildings that house more than 2,000 families.
But the place is far from pleasant because poverty is still the lot of those who live there. Many of the residents still thrive on garbage, but now in a more organized, ecologically friendly way. Now in place is a materials recovery facility (MRF) where useful garbage (collected from institutions, homes, streets) are deposited, classified and segregated.

Last week I was in what used to be the Smokey Mountain dump. The last time I was on Smokey Mountain was when it was still a garbage mountain. Many “alternative” activities had been done there in the past, like exposure trips for visiting NGOs and the like. I remember joining a Holy Week Stations of the Cross there, organized by a militant church group immersed among the urban poor. At the end of the para-liturgy, Jesus Christ’s cross was fittingly planted on top of the dump. That gave us a feel of Calvary cum deadly fumes.

Today there is still a small portion of the mound that remains unleveled, but it is covered with grass, shrubs and some trees. The sad thing is that poor families are starting to set up homes there. There’s still a lot that can be scavenged and excavated, I was told, like pieces of wood that can be turned into charcoal. In fact, many are now into charcoal-making, a very unhealthy and environmentally damaging endeavor that needs to be checked. Young children who help out emerge from their smoke-filled lean-tos looking like troll dolls covered with soot. I hope to go back there to check things out.

So what bright spot am I talking about?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Crime, showbiz, politics and 'other families'

Also guns, money, power and treachery. They make for a long-running telenovela.

The only telenovela I ever followed closely was “Falcon Crest,” which ended in the 1990s. The plot got so corny and convoluted toward the end that I lost my interest in the final episodes. That’s why I don’t remember how it ended. I only remember the earthquake that rocked the wine valley.

That was before Mexican telenovelas became so popular and addictive here. After the success of “Mari Mar,” Philippine TV networks imported more of them and the rest is history. Locally produced Filipino teleseryes are now here to stay and competing with Korean soaps almost all hours of the day and night. This phenomenon is a great subject for social researchers.

And now a true-to-life teleserye unfolds in the media, with the Revilla/Bautista clan in the limelight. For about two weeks now, the hourly news and the daily newspapers have been “serializing” the progress in the investigation of the crime that rocked a known political and showbiz clan of Cavite.

The plot and subplots are getting more and more interesting as characters past and present, dead and living, are woven into the story. There should be more to come in the form of flashbacks and fast-forwards. One thing about this real-life teleserye is that it serves up surprise after surprise every step of the way. Those who have been following the developments from Day One can’t seem to have enough of the twists and turns in the plot. A scriptwriter of fiction would be amazed at how this true story is unfolding.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

He sees dead people & they confess to him

At three o’clock in the morning, while the world sleeps, troubled souls rouse this priest to relay important messages or confess their sins so they can move on gently and finally to eternity. The otherworldly messengers include Navy officer Phillip Pestaño who came back to tell the world that his death was not a suicide as some officials would have us believe. Another group of souls gathered by the priest’s bedside and told him they were victims of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

The apparitions initially puzzled Fr. Efren Borromeo of the Society of Our Lady of the Trinity (SOLT). Affectionately called Fr. Momoy by Bicol folk, he thought it was just one of those things. “I was reluctant to recognize it,” he says. “I know saints have soul visitations, but I am not a saint!”

Ghostbuster, spirit questor or saint, the label doesn’t matter. People whose lives he has touched agree that Fr. Momoy has the gift of healing the sick and seeing souls. He also has the ability to see through human bodies and reveal with uncanny accuracy what ails those who consult him, just like the radiology method called MRI or magnetic resonance imaging.

Though not a medical doctor, Fr. Momoy has basic knowledge of the human anatomy and is in fact, on his way to becoming another kind of doctor. He is finishing his dissertation for a doctorate degree in cosmic anthropology at the Asian Social Institute in Manila.
His cosmic encounters do not scare him, Fr. Momoy confides. In fact, he considers them a nuisance. “I would ask, why do you have to come for confession? Why don’t you go direct to heaven? Nakakaistorbo kayo (You guys are a bother).” But the souls continue to turn up at all hours of day and night. “That’s why I can’t drive,” he says. “I see dead people.”
One group he couldn’t just ignore because of their sheer number showed up in the dead of night. “Who are you, why are you so many?” he had asked. They were, the apparitions answered, the victims of the Maguindanao massacre. (In that November 2009 tragedy, 58 people, most of them media practitioners were brutally killed and buried in shallow graves. The main suspects, the members of the Ampatuan political clan, are now in jail and on trial.)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

7 billion stories

After the official announcement by international population experts that the number of human beings living on Planet Earth reached the seven billion mark on Oct. 31, 2011, after events have been staged and symbolic 7 billionth babies have been presented, photographed and assured of a good future, after the number crunching has been done and pop population puzzles have been created and solved (e.g., it will take 200 years for one person to count aloud from 1 to 7 billion, that is, if he or she lives that long)… what now?

There are many sites on the Internet that tackle the “7 billion” watchamacallit. Is it a phenomenon, a problem, a feat, a failure? National Geographic (NG) has come out with a series on the “7 billion” during the past months. If you are a subscriber you would have a billion interesting stuff to read.

NG and Apple’s iTunes have even come up with the free “7 billion app,” an application that would allow you to browse, read, listen to and watch so many things related to the “7 billion” so-called. But this could only be done on an iPad. iTunes alone on your PC or laptop would not work. And since I do not have an iPad, I could not tap into the breathtaking stories, photos and graphics. I clicked what were clickable and got a good idea of what it was all about.

But there are other interactive sites on the “7 billion,” like the one offering syllabi for school teachers and two-minute video contests for the young. (The majority of winners showed their worry about water supply.)
One site, called “7 Billion Actions” was put up by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). One of its features is “7 Billion Stories” that invites everyone to share their stories (and a photograph, of course) and what they could do to make this world of 7 billion a better place.
The stories (600 characters maximum) are heartwarming, inspiring and spontaneous. I found several from the Philippines. You could add yours. Don’t be shy to shout from the rooftops and tell the world about what you do. The crooks of this world strut about with impunity and even brag about their stealing rights, so why hide the good that you do under a bushel? Your story is your digital pledge on cyberspace.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Martyrdom is cinematic

When I learned of the killing of Italian missionary Fr. Fausto Tentorio on Oct. 17 in Arakan Valley in North Cotabato, my thoughts went back to the killing of Fr. Tulio Favali in 1985. I still have the human rights postcard that shows a bloodied Favali, his brain splattered on the ground.

Father Tentorio, 59, fondly called Father Pops, was the third priest belonging to the Pontifical Institute for the Foreign Missions to be gunned down in Mindanao. He was laid to rest yesterday, with some 10,000 people seeing him off, many of them lumad (indigenous people) whom he served for more than 30 years. There were many stirring images there that, I hope, might someday inspire someone to make a movie or documentary of it. So unchoreographed, but so cinematic.

And so my thoughts also went back to the 1986 movie “The Mission,” directed by Roland Joffé, which I had watched several times. I loved the movie so much that I had to get the movie’s sound track by Ennio Moriconne. A few days ago I dug up my 1986 Sunday Inquirer Magazine write-up on the movie (“The Mission: International cinema’s last dinosaur”) which had Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons in major roles as Jesuit missionaries defending the oppressed South American natives. Martyrdom was to be their crowning glory.

I also dug up my 1985 Favali-related magazine article which was about the diary of Fr. Peter Geremia, the real target of Favali’s killers. Then I went over my 2005 column on Sr. Dorothy Stang who was killed in Brazil for defending the indigenous tribes and the Amazon wilderness from exploiters.

Going over my own written stuff on bloody events of the distant past was perhaps my way of contemplating the recent bloody events. There have been so many this October—the assassination of Father Tentorio, the mass killing of soldiers in Basilan by Moro rebels despite the on-going peace talks, murders, rapes, family massacres, deaths caused by environmental disasters. And we’re just a few days away from All Saints’/All Souls’ Day when we honor our dear departed. October is Indigenous Peoples Month.
With Father Tentorio in my thoughts, I read what I had written a quarter of a century ago on a movie on martyrdom. Hmm, I thought, I could have written this just yesterday.
“The music, the song and the gaze of each native bear the mark of sadness for the plundering of the land…Our feet are calloused by the long journeys we have made, fleeing from the invader each time he has driven us into a corner.”

That was part of the message of the indigenous people of Colombia to Pope John Paul II during his visit there, I wrote. This painful and damning modern-day epistle could very well have been written by the Guarani Indians of 18th century Paraguay to the Pope of that time, when the Indians, along with Jesuit missionaries caught in a political maelstrom not of their own making, were driven out of mission territory and butchered by men who believed that might is right. This is what the film “The Mission” is all about.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Readers write

Rarely do I use readers’ letters in this space. Readers send feedback via the Inquirer online, email, snail mail, text or to my blogsite. I get surprised when a piece that I thought would not get much reader reaction—whether negative or positive—would elicit reflective feedback, sometimes laden with personal insights.

Last month I wrote about Welcome House and the Heart of Mary Villa, both run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, and their services for “the last, the least and the lost” (“For PCSO to know,” Sept. 29). Both were in Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office’s list of “endangered” service-oriented institutions.

Joan Orendain, a known PR practitioner, wrote me a letter: “How Welcome House welcomed my two little boys and me in 1974! Yes, we were in crisis.

“Lucky, 4, became Sr. Catalina Santos’ shadow, following her around all day, helping her water the plants (the floor got it more than the plant). But Sister Catá (the daughter of the Armed Forces Judge Advocate General) never complained…

“TJ, 6, helped the cook in the kitchen. My bosses, commissioned by the World Bank to do feasibility studies on Philippine highways to be reconstructed, brought my typewriter to Welcome House. There, I put the reports together, and in my spare time, was comforted by Sr. Emma Alday, a guidance counselor and the gentlest of souls.

“All the other women at the crisis center were pregnant and unwed, except one who was married to an activist who had gone into hiding and left the pregnant lady and her two-year-old son homeless. We were one another’s support group, bolstered by the Good Shepherd Sisters who fed and kept us whole.

“My sons were in such a loving atmosphere that they never complained about missing friends or not seeing the outside world during our over a month’s stay at Welcome House. They must have thought we were on an extended holiday in that nurturing atmosphere.
“It’s such a wrench to think that the PCSO has withdrawn funding for such an important institution as Welcome House. We have to pray PCSO will have a change of heart.”
From Charlie Falquerabao: “I have read your column “One woman, 15 pregnancies, 12 children”. You know what? My family has the same story as the family of Yoling. My mother had 13 pregnancies and 10 children. I was raised in the very remote province of Mindoro Oriental where life is so simple. My father is a farmer and my mother is a plain housewife. There is no electricity, no vehicles, no cell phones, no gadgets, no apples, no burgers, etc…

“The weird thing was that while I was in the middle of your story I found myself crying. I didn’t know the reason why but my tears kept on pouring. Just want to share, “pinaiyak mo ako eh (because you made me cry).”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

One woman, 15 pregnancies, 12 children

She is 42 years old, has had 15 pregnancies, two of them miscarriages and one induced abortion. She has 12 children who are alive, the eldest of them aged 26 and the youngest about four or five. She has three grandchildren, two of them children of single mothers.

I met Yoling (not her real name) last week. A friend brought Yoling with her from a town in Rizal where both their families reside. Yoling stayed overnight in Quezon City while waiting for someone to pick her up. She was going to a home somewhere outside Metro Manila where she will be working as a maid for a monthly pay of P2,500.
When I learned that Yoling has 12 children I asked her if I we could talk. She said yes right away. I told her I was a journalist writing for the Inquirer. I also said that she must have a very interesting life and a good story to tell. Could I write about her? Could I take a photo of her? Could she tell me her name and her children’s? She said yes to all without shyness or hesitation, but I also told her that it was best that I withheld her identity.
I asked my questions with utmost respect. Yoling was serious but not guarded, she was not the very talkative type but she answered questions straightforwardly.

Yoling is a real person. She is not a fictitious character or a composite of so many women.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mattress peddlers, NPA hostages

A heart-rending sight for me is that of a lone man carrying a whole bed or aparador on his back and walking the streets of the city, hoping to sell the homemade furniture, be relieved of the load on his back and go home with some money. A Philippine version of the Carrying of the Cross, indeed. I see this every now and then, and I wonder if bad elements would even think of divesting such peddlers of their wares and money like they do to taxi drivers, pedestrians and students.
This thought played on my mind as I went over the case of the Initao 6, homemade mattress peddlers from Initao, Misamis Oriental, who were abducted by the communist New People’s Army (NPA). The men left home on Aug. 10 and were said to be headed for the Bukidnon uplands and even stopped by a fiesta in the hope of maximizing their sales. They are James Mabaylan, 60, driver; Nelson Bagares, 46; Segundino Dailo Jr., 46; Ernesto Callo Jr., 34; Julieto Sarsaba, 30; and Ronal Boiles, 28. Four are married, Sarsaba and Boiles are single.
The abduction became publicly known when a press conference was held at the residence of Bukidnon Archbishop Antonio Ledesma sometime in early September. On September 13 the NPA under Commander Parago in Paquibato district (bordering Bukidnon and Davao) owned up to the abduction and stated the reason: the mattress peddlers were allegedly spying for the military.

The families of the hostages had sought the help of Davao City Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte but he reportedly declined to intercede on the hostages’ behalf. His reason: he was a resource person of the National Democratic Front (of which the NPA is part). But there are those who have speculated that Duterte, known to be a persuasive politician, did not want to see a repeat of the failed release of jail guards whose freedom was reportedly promised to him by NDF chair Luis Jalandoni.

So the Initao 6 are still out there, in forests primeval perhaps, without their mattresses to sleep on. Or did the NPA abductors seize the mattresses, too? Might these have contained deadly weapons in them?

I got an update on the Initao 6 from Jurgette Honculada, a gender and labor rights advocate from Zamboanga who serves as a member of the Government of the Philippines Peace Panel (presently headed by human rights lawyer Alexander Padilla) in talks with the CPP/NPA/NDF. So-called peace talks have been on-and-off for the last 24 years. And though dwindling in number, the CPP/NPA/NDF can still wreak havoc in a dramatic way, like the recent attacks on mining operations in Surigao del Norte.

Should these talks just continue for as long as it takes? Or do we want to see a denouement of some sort? (In plain language, maghalo ang balat sa tinalupan.)

On the subject of mattresses. Some 15 years ago, a group of enterprising young men from Davao, Bukidnon and Davao City tried their hand at making homemade coco coir mattresses . These men later married and settled in Barangay Tubigan, Initao, which became a center of mattress production.

Mattress making is the main source of livelihood of more than one-third of families in the barangay. Children help convert coconut husk into fiber through the pagkuskos method. Each mattress contains around 10 kilos of coir. The women make mattress covers from out of sacks. The men do the carpentry and assembly, as well as look for customers.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

'Ina': What price family, faith, love

Love, commitment. The self, comfort, material possessions. Family. Occasionally, these are put to the test. Which will endure? At what price?

Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s latest film, “Ina: Ikaw ang Pag-ibig,” does not beg for obvious answers as it follows what looks like separate journeys of individuals whose lives are inexorably linked with one another. Although familial, emotional and spiritual ties exist among them, each has a road to follow, a different drummer to heed.

Then there is “Ina,” the venerated image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia who is known for her miraculous intercessions, and who is at the heart of the movie.

Vangie (Ina Feleo) is a single mom to Gabby (Yogo Singh), her young son with boyfriend Joey (Jomari Yllana), an OB-Gyne who keeps pressing her to finally marry him so they could have a family. Dr. Joey is caring, committed and affectionate but Vangie who works in advertising is afraid to commit.

Vangie lives with mom (Shamaine Centerera), who looks after Gabby, because her absentee dad (Noni Buencamino) has been working abroad for years and is ostensibly not coming home soon.

Vangie has a pro bono sideline radically different from her commercial productions. She’s working on-and-off on a documentary on the Virgin of Peñafrancia.

Fr. Johnny (Marvin Agustin) is Vangie’s only brother, who takes his priestly vocation to heart, braving sun and rain and driving his motorcycle through dirt roads to reach his flock in remote places. Work and stress take their toll and he comes down with leukemia.

At this point, the Cruz family must either hang together or pull apart. Family problems, medical procedures, financial woes and spiritual questions surge on them like a tsunami.

Son in tow, Vangie travels to Bicol to visit the Virgin of Peñafrancia, whom she only knows through her video footage. They quietly slip into the small chapel where the image is usually kept after the feast. Vangie seeks out an aunt who turns out to be the keeper of the virgin’s miraculous cape, and returns to Manila with it.

Fr. Johnny is close to dying. A risky bone marrow transplant could spell the difference. Vangie is the only matching source for bone marrow. Will she or won’t she?

An intense moment: Vangie confesses to her ailing brother in the hope that the sacrament would result in healing for him, for herself and her family. She spills all.

By this time, the “Ina” that Vangie used to know only as the image on her video screen has come alive in her family who is drawn closer together. But there are loads of material and interior baggage they’d have to give up. Will there be healing for Fr. Johnny and the rest of them? Where is the miracle? You will have to watch the movie.

Weaving footage of a true-to-life event (the Peñafrancia feast) into a fictional feature film takes a lot of creativity. Diaz-Abaya and her crew braved the surging crowds to film this once-in-a-century event.

The budget-challenged indie film is a celebration of the 300th year of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, whose week-long September feast draws hundreds of thousands of devotees, spiritual seekers and tourists to Naga City where she is enshrined. It was commissioned by the Archdiocese of Nueva Caceres under Archbishop Leonardo Z. Legazpi.

“Ina,” says its director, was no ordinary project. Even while battling cancer, she forged on to do what she now considers the film closest to her heart. The multi-awarded director has done many groundbreaking and socially-relevant movies (“Rizal,” “Muro-ami,” and “Bagong Buwan” among many), but “Ina” has a special place in her heart.

“It could be my swan song,” she quips. “I had no idea if I could see it through. If I didn’t, there was [director] Laurice Guillen or Olive Lamasan, both Marian devotees, to finish it.”

But Marilou Diaz-Abaya and her “Ina” came through with flair and flourish. A miracle. Viva la Virgen!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

For PCSO to know

The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office’s (PCSO) announcement on the “delisting” of more than 100 beneficiary institutions made headlines and raised eyebrows. Many of these institutions are run by religious congregations and church-related groups that minister to the poor.

The reason the PCSO gave was the “misuse” (not necessarily “abuse”) of funds. There was a problem with liquidation on the part of the beneficiaries, PCSO chair Margarita Juico explained. A big issue was the use of PCSO funds for administrative expenses when these should be for health/medical purposes only of persons in need. Batteries not included, as the saying goes.

I went over the list of the delisted (temporarily, pending liquidation of expenses, it was clarified) and felt sorry for them. I know many of them and what they do for “the last, the least and the lost.” I am familiar with a good number of these institutions and I have written about the heroic work some of them do—quietly, without fanfare and despite the scarcity of funds. They provide services that government agencies are supposed to provide.

Now they look (or are being made to look) like they have not been good stewards of funds entrusted to them. Not all have been remiss in complying with PCSO requirements.

Among those on the list are ministries of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS). One of them, the Heart of Mary Villa (HMV), provides residential care for women who have gotten pregnant outside of marriage (because of either rape, incest or consensual/casual sex) and who need a place to go for counseling and care, and for babies who have been surrendered or abandoned.

For the last 54 years, HMV has been a place of refuge for pregnant women in crisis. Thousands of mothers had resolved their crises here, thousands of babies had spent their first few months in the HMV nursery before they were adopted. You might know some grown-ups who made good in this world who came from there. I know some. And I have written about their amazing life journey as much-loved adopted children and great citizens of this planet. I wish one or two of them would come forward to speak about the need for a place like HMV.

The Good Shepherd Sisters were sad when they learned that HMV was among the “delisted.” HMV president Sr. Marion Chipeco RGS wrote to the Inquirer: “The track record of HMV for 54 years attests to the relevance and necessity of its program and services. This reality must have made PCSO include HMV in the list of regular beneficiaries. We are grateful for the assistance…

“However, since 2002 we have experienced difficulty in receiving our subsidy… We sent letters from time to time. Part of the assistance meant for the years 2002-2004 was received intermittently, until we were told that what was not released would no longer be released. Instead, we were asked in 2007 to submit the requirements for a memorandum of agreement (MOA). The MOA, approved in July 2007, stipulated that a subsidy of P100,000 would be released monthly within the year. It took two years, though, for the subsidy to be completed…

“For 2008 we were asked to submit original receipts but no MOA was approved for 2008. (The original receipts that we sent were not returned to us.) The MOA for 2009 was approved in July 2009, a subsidy of P100,000 was released in August 2009, followed by another subsidy of the same amount in October 2010. No other subsidy followed.”

So where is the P1.2 million yearly for HMV that the PCSO is talking about?

Welcome House, also run by the RGS, was also among the “delisted.” For almost 40 years, Welcome House in Paco, Manila, has been a shelter for women and girls in crisis. Many of its clients have been referred by government agencies such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the Philippine General Hospital Child Protection Unit and the Women and Children’s Desk of the Philippine National Police, Welcome House coordinator Sr. Pilar Verzosa RGS said.

What government agencies cannot always do, the Good Shepherd nuns do.

Wrote Sr. Pilar: “We need funds for electricity, water, transportation to hospital, fees for psychiatrists and lawyers, funds for court hearings, repairs, food, clothing. These items have always been included in all the requests of charitable institutions. But now PCSO lists these as administrative costs which should mean only salaries, office supplies, rental, etc.

“All of us institutions know that we never ask for these items. There is no so-called ‘abuse’ involved. It is the task of the DSWD to assess if agencies and institutions should or should not be given allocations. DSWD accreditation has always been required by the PCSO. I believe that all those institutions delisted by the PCSO are DSWD-accredited. We are all in the same dilemma as to how we will now maintain our services to the poor.”

HMV and Welcome House are just two of the many and varied ministries of the RGS.

After more than 50 years in Malabon, HMV recently transferred inside the sprawling Good Shepherd compound in Quezon City where a new building that serves as nursery was inaugurated last February. Malabon is a flood-prone area and HMV was not spared the frequent inundation in recent years. In 2009 when Typhoon “Ondoy” caused huge parts of Metro Manila to go underwater, HMV was barely afloat. It was time to seek higher ground.

The RGS have many other ministries to sustain. Founded in France in 1835 by Saint Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, the congregation came to the Philippines in 1912 and will be celebrating a century in the country next year. The RGS are among the largest women’s congregations in the world. Their mission is “directed to the most neglected and marginalized, in whom the image of God is most obscure.”
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This Sunday, October 2, be surprised to read a thicker Sunday Inquirer Magazine, now a monthly.

(Send feedback to cerespd@gmail.com or www.ceresdoyo.com)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

When breast friends gather

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

We had a blast.

ICanServe’s 3rd national Silver Linings gathering held at the Grand Regal Hotel in Davao City last weekend was awesome, amazing, inspiring, heart-tugging. One is at a loss for adjectives in describing the experience. More than 1,000 participants from all over the country, most of them coming from Mindanao, came to be part of “a sisterhood like no other.”
The majority, if not many, of the participants (myself included) were can-do, energetic breast cancer survivors, the rest were special persons from the indispensable circle of support. Health workers, providers and advocates. Doctors, relatives, friends, facilitators, organizers, volunteers, sponsors. Grassroots women mingled with celebrities. Survivors in various states of wellness and stages of recovery from illness bonded, embraced, shed tears, laughed, prayed, listened to one another. Bright pink on black was the color theme of the day.
The registration lines were long, despite online pre-registration for many, and I thought, would we be able to start on time? But in no time the sea of women in the lobby thinned out and we all found our seats in the big, packed session hall. We were off to a good start and the day grandly unfolded as it should.

What is Silver Linings? Held every three years, Silver Linings is an educational forum and homecoming for breast cancer survivors and their circle of support. It is organized by ICanServe Foundation Inc. (whose major partner in this year’s gathering was Evolife-Evaux Laboratories). Several institutions, establishments, corporations, the media (the Inquirer, of course), Davao health advocacy groups and the city government threw in their support. 

And what is ICanServe? Founded in 1999, ICanServe is an advocacy group of breast cancer survivors that promotes early breast cancer detection. Its flagship program is “Ating Dibdibin,” a Filipino saying that means taking it to heart. Dibdib means chest or breast. For ICanServe, “Ating Dibdibin” means “take your breast care to heart.”  

Presiding at ICanServe’s birth were Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala (indefatigable founding president), Crisann Celdran, Becky Fuentes and Bet Yap. Its present executive director is Leilani E. Eusebio. Ating Dibdibin” is a barangay-based breast cancer screening program, the first of its kind in the country. It is the foundation’s response to the grim reality that the Philippines has the highest incidence of breast cancer in Southeast Asia. The Philippines ranks ninth in the world. Globally, breast cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths among women.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Painting the word beyond

Sunday Inquirer Magazine/FEATURES/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Printed stampita-size versions of a painting of EDSA People Power of 1986, with the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed in yellow, went around during that time when most Filipinos were aglow with patriotic fervor. The original painting was later presented as a gift to the then newly-installed president, Corazon C. Aquino, the widow swept into power by an almost bloodless uprising.
Now, alas, that painting (“Our Lady of Edsa,” 1987) cannot be found or traced.
Fortunately, an almost exact version of the painting exists, plus or minus some faces that were in the lost original version.  This version was done by the same artist and is in the possession of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM), the congregation to which the artist belonged.
The artist, Sr. Elisea Quinto, FMM, went to the Eternal Art Gallery in the Sky in 1993, but she left behind a body of work that speaks of her fervor for her art, and most of all, for her calling to the Franciscan way of life.

The FMMs recently mounted an exhibit of Sr. Elisea’s paintings as part of their preparations for the celebration of 100 years of their presence in the Philippines. Founded in 1888 by a brave and charismatic French nun named Mary of the Passion, the FMMs had their beginnings in the wilds of India. The first batch of FMMs arrived in the Philippines on Dec. 10, 1912, part of the stream of arrivals of Catholic missionaries, mostly from Europe, in the early 1900s. The missionaries became involved in various apostolic ministries.

The opening of the pre-centennial exhibit also featured the launching of Sr. Elisea’s book of paintings, titled “A Flame of Fire.” The title is a translation from French of a line in a prayer of the FMMs’ foundress: “Make my heart and the institute a flame of fire which will embrace the whole earth. Cleave this flame Yourself.”

A total of 48 paintings in oil and acrylic by Sr. Elisea are included in the book. But not all were available for showing at the exhibit. For example, the life-size portrait of the late Rufino Cardinal Santos (1960) that hangs at the lobby of the Cardinal Santos Medical Center could not be borrowed.

Sr. Elisea’s paintings belong to a certain art genre that could probably be described as “religious art.” These are not naïf art at all. But one cannot miss the innocence that pervades many of her prayerful renditions. The nun deliberately hewed close to the prayer-book art of yesteryears.  Her saccharine works would give critics a toothache.

“Our Lady of the Mission,” 1985. Contributed photo

But the bright celestial scenes ooze with symbolism. These must be Sr. Elisea’s idea of the so-called beatific vision. Lots of clouds, doves and lilies.  Cherubim and seraphim galore.  No laughing or angry Jesus meant to jolt or stun.  And the only street scenes are in one painting that shows the Child Jesus handing bread to a crippled child on the street of Nazareth circa 10 AD, and the EDSA highway people power scene circa 1986 AD.

Jesus and Mary, Franciscan saints and martyrs are common in Sr. Elisea’s paintings.  She did several of Sts. Francis of Assisi, Clare and Anthony, and painted the FMM sisters who were martyred in China during the Boxer Rebellion (among the many canonized by Pope John Paul II before he died in 2005.)

Most of Sr. Elisea’s paintings are huge and hang mostly in the halls of religious houses. Many paintings are in FMM convents. She painted several Last Suppers.  Her huge “The Annunciation” (1950) is the backdrop of the altar at the FMMs’ convent in Tagaytay. “St. Francis Preaching in the Woods” (1959, 359” x 68”), is at the lobby of the FMM-run Stella Maris College in Quezon City.
The FMM sisters think there might be other paintings by Sr. Elisea out there, and wish that they knew who the owners are.

Sr. Elisea hailed from Quezon province and was one of 15 siblings. She joined the FMMs in 1942 and made her final vows in 1948. She was already a nun when she finished Fine Arts, summa cum laude, at the University of Santo Tomas in 1950. The nun was sent to the FMMs’ generalate in Rome where she stayed for four years to further develop her talent.

But painting was not Sr. Elisea’s main preoccupation in life.  Sr. Emma Fondevilla, present head of the FMMs in the Philippines, observed that Sr. Elisea was “first and foremost a missionary.”

A short bio in Sr. Elisea’s book describes her thus: “Open to the Spirit and to the signs of the times, she served the poor with great sensitivity and compassion. She was actively involved in various ministries: in the prisons, relocation areas, medical clinics and feeding centers.”
The FMMs recall that Sr. Elisea did creative work in solitude and mostly in the stillness of the night after she was done with her varied chores during the day. Her paintings, her sisters say, are indeed “the fruits of her contemplation and missionary dynamism,” and her personal depiction of a world beyond the here and now as we know it. •