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Exodus to nowhere

July 1, 2008

The Matigsulug people who were forced to evacuate to the less-than-adequate Bankerohan Gym are the poorest people I’ve ever met.  I am not a great traveler and I am far from an expert on Third World poverty, but I have stayed in shanty towns in Manila and peasant communities on Mindanao.  And I have yet to see anyone as poor as these lumads.  As I said in previous posts, the Matigsulug are one of the 18 tribes of Filipinos who resisted both Spanish colonization and (less successfully) American colonization in the 20th Century. They live in the Compostela Valley region of Mindanao, an hour and a half from electricity. Running water comes from a spring near the community, bathing and washing happens when it’s not too muddy to make the trek. There’s no sewage system. We relieved ourselves in the weeds and my stomach turned when I saw that most of the children were running around barefoot. Needless to say, the infant mortality rate is high and the children that do make it look sickly most of the time.

Their homes are built up on stilts.  I was the first white person (according to the datu, tribal chief) to ever grace their village with my presence.  In turn, I was the first white person to fall off the stilted steps that led up to the datu’s home.  I’m not sure who the ladder was supposed to be keeping out as I saw small dogs and infants climb up with ease.  If Datu was correct I was also the first person to see the virgin forests that blanket the mountains around the village.  I didn’t tell him the secret won’t be kept for much longer.  Other white men will see these trees and core this land and everything will change.

The people are too poor for livestock, but they do manage to keep a few chickens here and there that reside under the stilted house.  They killed one the night of their return in our honor.  The chicken that was just running around the yard makes the best chicken soup imaginable.  The one chicken was divided among 15 of us.  That’s not a lot of meat, but these people are used to just broth and rice for every meal.  If they get every meal.  And I was trying not to store up too much, as the nearest bathroom would be an afternoon hike away.  

That night we sat on the porch of the shack with the datu as the men rolled cigarettes with old newspaper and home-grown tobacco.  The people are too poor for furniture or any real belongings.  There’s a large pot for cooking and a few dishes and utensils but there are no beds and few blankets.  Everyone has one set of clothing.  Some of the children have none.  

The darkness at night is intense.  There is no light but the moon and stars and it was a cloudy night and a new moon.  There’s chirping and calling and croaking all around.  Datu asks questions about America and if there is any poverty there.  I tell him there is, but it isn’t like this.  I tell him the poorest people in America are the people with darker skin, just like here.  This doesn’t surprise him.  Even in a country where most people are the same ethnic background, those who mixed with white, Japanese, and Chinese imperialists are lighter skinned and are to be treated with more respect.

In the morning there is some leftover chicken soup.  The people have gotten up before us (we were up at 6) and gone to the fields to pick camotes (sweet potatoes) for our breakfast.  The children are excited about the treat.  I wonder what life is like when a plain cooked potato causes excitement.  There is a meeting in a tiny wooden chapel that’s in the center of the village.  The village is hardly a village.  The people are too poor for a even a sari-sari (house front store), so there is just this tiny church and their shacks.  The meeting goes on for several hours.  The people all want to share about what happened in the gym.  They all express their gratitude for being able to come back home and their resilience to keep their land, their only form of livelihood.  I’m asked for a solidarity message and everyone marvels at my visiya.  The datu thanks me over and over for honoring them with my presence.  I think of how after these people are kicked off their lands, the oil and minerals and timber will be sent to America.  I feel kind of queasy, but blame it on the chicken.

For lunch we eat some sort of meat paste from a can that one of the activists brought with him.  I choke some down, knowing I have a long journey ahead.  I wonder what the people will eat after we and our meat paste go home.  We leave some uncooked rice to cover the food we’ve taken.  The next time white people come, they’ll just whatever they want with no payment at all.

I look back over my shoulder as we start the hour and half hike back to the town where we can catch a motorcycle.  If I see these people again, it will only be because they fled the military one more time.  I cannot fathom a worse type of poverty- when the only thing they have is their land and the most powerful force in the world is trying to take it from them.  The datu says that if united, the people can stop this wheel that is trying to trample them.  

He doesn’t know the wheel is called capitalism.  He doesn’t know I’m one of the people pushing the wheel along.  He doesn’t know that unless others stand up against it he doesn’t stand a chance.

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