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ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: Eighty years old na ako (4)

mindaviews rodil

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 12 October) –

The rock that grew into an island

The rock lay rooted deep on top of a mountain
A stone’s throw away stood our little farm hut
The farm was the homestead father acquired in 1940
The mountain was broken by two rivers
From the north and from the south
The two rivers intersected at the east
Beyond the river at the east was a little valley town
Encircled by more mountains
From this town of Nuro snakes out a road
That worms itself into the mountain opposite of where I was born.
I was born in that little hut.

When I was big enough to run around, probably four, possibly five or six, my only elder sister went to high school at the eastern end of the valley, stayed at the dorm and was seldom home. Three other brothers went to the same school, lived in the cottages in school campus and were seldom home either. Two more brothers attending elementary, also at the southern part of the valley, left early each morning and came home in the afternoon. A younger sister was born when I was six, a younger brother when I was ten. My father tilled the land from dawn to dusk. My mother attended to her domestic duties and me.

Six days a week, a great part of my daylight hours were spent with my mother or with myself, mostly with myself. Our nearest neighbor was a kilometer away. The next one two kilometers. Their children did not go to school and therefore helped in farm or housework. I was forbidden to venture even to the nearest one. Once or twice, I escaped and succeeded. But the neighbors were busy grinding corn. And as soon as I arrived home, I was scolded.

Very early in life, from that little rock, I began to wonder. What lay beyond my little world? Once my eldest brother came home with a camera. I was so scared and almost panicked when he aimed it at me; I cried helplessly. At another time my two elder brothers asked me if I wanted milk, showing me a little blue container. Powdered milk, they said. Jumping for joy, I ran for a glass of water and started to… they burst out laughing at my ignorance. The powdered milk was añil. And when my mother at last brought me to the city by the huge Pulangi (river), by bus into those mountains and beyond for the first time, she bought me my first ice drop. Unable to comprehend between hot and cold, I threw it away. I was called ignorante for that.

Like every good mother at that time, my mother taught me the prayers Ama Namin and Aba Ginoong Maria. I never got to learn them. But the ama got me curious and I asked her who he was. He is the father of everyone, she said. And since I was to go to school like my brothers, mother who went as far as grade four also taught me the numbers, first in Tagalog and then in English.

My wonder grew and my desire to see, explore, touch and know what lay beyond those mountains intensified on that rock overlooking the valley and the mountains. In the afternoons when the sun was at my back, I would stand on that rock for hours just wondering, longing. It was on that rock that I concluded: since God the Father of Ama Namin was the father of all, then all men must be brothers. That was my first conception of universal brotherhood. It was on that rock that I memorized my numbers. Each time I forgot the next number, I would run to my mother, then back to the rock again. Day after day, until I reached the thousand mark. Tagalog, then English.

When my brothers and one sister were away in school and my parents were busy with their work, that rock was my constant companion in afternoons. I never tired of gazing at the valley below and the sky above.

But when I grew to be seven and went off to school with my brothers, I forgot about the rock. My world had grown.

Grade one was only half day session for me.

Five days a week for one year, I would walk home the five or so kilometers alone. What took us an hour or less on the way to school took me double or triple the time on the way home. I was free to explore and I explored.

There were edible fruits along the way and I never had to go hungry. Several times I even slept underneath the tall cogon to escape the noonday heat, exactly the place where a mother pig gave birth to her little ones, bunbun, we call it.

In grade one I learned what justice or injustice was like. There were times when my classmates were late and they were not whipped with uway. But I was never spared the uway when I came late. Not comprehending the difference but understanding perfectly the shame and pain of uway spanking, I learned to be absent. Classmates who were absent excused themselves the next day saying they helped in the farm and were excused. I also did that and got whipped. I also learned to lie to escape from painful punishment.

School was fun. My classmates were all sorts: Teduray, Ilonggo, Ilocano, Chavacano, Magindanao, Tagalog. We spoke each other’s dialects with ease. There were factions, but in the early grades this did not matter. It was in the fifth or sixth grades that these became factors in fights, not serious ones really. In more cases, fights were due to personal rather than ethnic differences. Nor was religion a factor between Christians and Muslims.

One daily occurrence we enjoyed most was the regular ration of milk at the assembly line, courtesy of the United States Agency for International Development. How we loved the Americans for their generosity. We talked endlessly about this. Among the rare movies that we saw, some by PMC advertising their soap on the side, were those shown by USIS presenting the Huks and the Communists as the bad guys. How we hated the Communists then. Imagine delighting in the massacre of babies and disposing of old men who have ceased to be productive.

To see these movies, it did not matter that we waited till nightfall, without supper and hiking home three kilometers in the dark night afterwards.

We did not like the Muslims in theory but only because they never fought alone. One of them stood out apart from the rest and his name and image remains to this day deeply imprinted in my mind. His name is Tondok, a very good boy, obedient to authority, and never fought unless pushed to the wall by the Ilocano bullies among my classmates. He never flinched when our teacher punished him with the uway, nor did he ever run away from a fight even if losing. Never cried either. On weekends he would help his mother (I think they were only two in the family) with household work. Though I never spoke about it to anyone, he was my only hero through grade school. After we graduated, until today, I have never heard of him again.

I had an Ilonggo friend, too, Timo by name, who lived more than two kilometers away from our place. Since we shared the lot of not having monetary baon and the insatiable urge to get a taste of candy, biscuit or what our little valley town had to offer, we alternated bringing a fresh egg or two, sell them for five centavos each and bought what we desired. Sometimes, he would bring an orange, or sometimes I would, and shared it. He made a name, too, for opposing those whom no one wished to fight. He sometimes lost in the exchange, would cry but never gave up the fight. Never saw him again after graduation. Towards the end of 1978, I was told that he was in jail. He allegedly became an Ilaga and had taken part in the killing of some Muslims, and got arrested.

High school was a different story. First I tried enrolling at the local agricultural high school but I was rejected because I was too tiny, they said. I cried in disappointment. I missed school for a year. I cannot say whether it was for good or ill, but the following year I was sent to the city and for the next four years formed new attitudes and new values in the prime Catholic high school in the whole province, Notre Dame High School Boys Department.

With the elite of the big city for classmates, I became ashamed, and hated our poverty. For four years I only had four pairs of pants for uniform, one for each year: laundered without fail every Saturday morning, ironed in the afternoon, worn for the mass on Sunday and daily afterwards until Friday. At least I had two T-shirts to go with them. I had four pairs of shoes, again, one pair for each year, the least expensive rubber for the first three years, black for the senior year, and four pairs of socks – also for four years. By the time I got to graduation I was so ashamed of myself and my poverty that I insisted on a completely new outfit, from top to bottom. It did not bother me that my mother had to borrow money for it. I only perceived my pain and depression.

Several times I had to beg the principal to allow me to take the periodical examination despite my failure to pay my seven peso monthly tuition fee. Several times my name was called out in public at the morning assembly and detained after everybody had gone home for not being in proper uniform. But I had the best education in the family and that kept my dignity in place.

I learned from our religion teachers, for example, that no one outside the Catholic church would be saved, that all other religions were false; that Islam was a false religion. I learned that we, Filipinos, put side by side with Americans, were backward and lazy and poor. I learned to share the triumph of our Catholic American administrators when a Protestant or a Muslim turned penitent and became a Catholic, a faithful in the only true church in the whole world. I learned to hate the Communists who were the worst kind of people, so they said. I gloried in being a student of the best school in the province.

College brought me to Manila, three and half years in the seminary, under the firm and expert guiding hands of the Jesuits. My provincial English improved with daily drills in grammar and composition and rhetoric. Twice a day, five days a week. Latin, Greek and Spanish gave me more systematic foundations in the languages, Latin, in particular, for it was to become the principal medium in the study of scholastic philosophy. I had 24 units of it.

The scattered bits and pieces of anti-Communism was systematized for me (for all of us actually) by the all-knowing Jesuits. These atheists’ godlessness was pounded into our innocent heads repeatedly. How indeed could any sensible man be happy on this earth without a God? They expressed deep sympathy for the poor Chinese who, with the Communist takeover in 1949 and the expulsion of all missionaries, Jesuits included, lost all chances of being won over into the Catholic fold.

With scholastic philosophy, all the world’s problems were examined, opposing ideas easily demolished with the usual Thomistic logic. With Thomism we acquired the absolute certainty of a scientist that we knew what was bad and what was good for the world and were quite convinced by it. And one desire was born within me at that time: that I shall be a missionary to Russia, wipe out the Communist ideology from the face of the earth and win over souls for the only true church.

Among the budding theologians in the higher classes, moral issues were dissected and judgement passed upon. From them I heard more sophisticated explanations why there is no salvation outside the Catholic church. This time convincing arguments were forwarded to include non-Catholics, poor souls, in the concept of the church. It would have been a cruel God indeed who would exclude more than three-fourths of humanity from His kingdom.

When I left the seminary, humbled in the thought that I was too inadequate for the gigantic task of the priesthood, I joined the secular world, secure in my decision but no less arrogant because I was armed with Thomism and equipped with Jesuit education.

Back to my home province, and to poverty (because life in the seminary was a life of plenty), I became a working student at Notre Dame College (later University). Putting thoughts of poverty aside, I joined the company of the elite, the only English speaking group in the entire school, the ROTC officers, the writers, an elite fraternity, the Delta Sigma Omega (DSO) Fraternity, the student leaders. I enrolled but slept through courses whose teachers I likened to the best educators of the land, the Jesuits, and fell below par in the latter’s shadows. My grades were not too good and I excused myself in the thought that I didn’t learn much from them anyway. I could have made good but doing so would mean I respected them and I did not.

By the time I graduated, I had grown into an islet, cut off from much of the world, floating. All the time I was convinced that I was a solidly grounded island. You bet, I was proud of my education and myself. Work, struggle with the forces of the world changed all this.

Jolo, that land where I heard no Christian goes in and leaves with his head on, was my first assignment. I was made to teach courses I never had in college or had but hated. Torn between studying and losing face, I never studied more seriously in my life. Philippine history in college was nothing but Zaide. Took it twice in college: dropped out in the first one because the teacher was bright but did not know any better. I slept through the second but passed because I was wise enough to purchase a copy of Zaide; the teacher never said anything more than what was printed in Zaide anyway. Read Zaide and you win!

But having known no better, either, I passed Zaide on to my students, 99 per cent of whom were Tausug Muslims. I taught my students that the Muslims were, among other things, pirates, no better.

Imagine my shock when my students stood up one after another and angrily argued that their ancestors were not pirates. Drawing upon oral tradition, they related how their forefathers fought the Spanish conquerors (whom I incidentally credited with having heroically brought Christianity to the benighted peoples of the Philippines and stressed that if it had not been for them we would all have been Muslims) and never submitted to foreign will. I deftly extricated myself shielding my teacher’s authority with the argument that such are not recorded in our books and therefore could only be accepted conditionally. “Why don’t we keep the subject open for future debates and move on. And write our own stories.”

What saved me in Jolo was not my arrogance but the only good thing that I got from my elite education: a reliable grasp of English and excellent study habits. My arrogance was slowly eroded by people I met, some younger, some older who were better equipped than myself. And they were not all Jesuit-educated. I discovered, rather late in life that there is intelligence, too, outside Jesuit camp.

But anti-Communists I certainly was. Only men of evil could be Communists. Once, Jose Maria Sison spoke to a Zamboanga audience. The occasion was hooked to a radio station and was heard clearly in Jolo. I promptly dismissed a friendly suggestion to listen to him with these words: “He is a Communist; what good will I get out of his talk?”

Jolo was not the bad place I heard it to be. The Tausugs were not what I was made to believe they were. Of all the friends I have had so far, it was here and only here where three Tausug friends (who did not belong to the same barkada) expressed their willingness to offer their lives to protect me from harm. And in all three instances I could not offer the same terms. But I was deeply touched. I was to learn later that mine was not an isolated case.

Aripin, Nasul and Ricky Adjawie. What has become of them I do not know but they certainly epitomized, for me at least, the best that any man could offer a friend. They call to mind that passage in the Bible, repeated to us seminarians many times over, when Christ said: “Better friend no man has who gives up his life for a friend.” Experience with the other Tausugs were no less rewarding: gentle, courteous, friendly, generous, dignified. But don’t be their enemy! Do not violate their dignity!

I left Jolo because I was made to. Not by the Tausugs but by the powers that be, the ruling Christians in the Christian school where I taught. In their hands, not in Tausug I received my baptism of fire: oppose and get fired. No, I was not terminated, just not renewed.

The experience was more than rewarding to say the least. My islet was growing roots, some have reached the solid bottom. In Jolo, I learned how little I knew about my country and there a desire was born: each year I shall teach in a province, learn the language, imbibe the culture, from south to north until I reach Batanes. Then I can say to myself: I know my country, I know myself. In Jolo, I shed off the institutional church within me and became a freedom-loving Catholic, practicing it as I thought I should.

Davao threw me back to Jesuit hands again. I went there, voluntarily, to rise, I said to myself, in the academic ladder. But this time I found them stale, except for one. New people, new friends. One in particular took me through an academic tour of Mindanao, teaching me what have heretofore been known about Mindanao and its people. He is not a Jesuit, nor was he moulded in Jesuit’s hands. In Jolo, I discovered there was more than Zaide to nurse oneself through life in Philippine history.

In Davao, I outgrew him. And when I finally took the trip up the academic ladder, putting myself deeper into Jesuit hands at the Ateneo de Manila University, they killed him (Zaide) for me. But save for two Jesuits, well-heeled academically, humble despite their sterling scholarly accomplishments, no one else caught my attention. Tolerance, yes. The gap was filled by non-Jesuits.

But my self-respect as a Filipino did not grow in the classroom, for illusion piled on top of illusion. It was the student activists and the library that shook my moorings and blew away my illusions. My very foundations trembled. The roots that took over from the dead dangling ones reached bottom, which not even me succeeded in pulling out. Martial Law became the reason for the roots to go deeper and the rest of me to blossom.

With disdain for the academe, fury in my heart, anger in my mind and fire in my mouth, I took the plane back to Davao. A year and a half of volcanic eruptions, characterized by my total lack of subtlety and sophistication – just anger, my students captive recipients of burning lava and suffocating ashes, I decided that life in the academe without free thought, the hawks of Martial Law continually hovering overhead, was the life of a dying weed in the midst of drought. Later I would find out that I became known as the lone fearless critic of the martial law regime at Ateneo de Davao.

I moved on to a job that took me to all parts of Mindanao, rubbing elbows with the least of my brethren, the Lumad and the Moros, and through them found that the state system, too, had gone dry. The people should create their own to survive.

Where to now? I have discarded all the load that I had collected on my back. No longer afraid of Communists, nor of academicians, nor of statesmen, nor of Christians, nor of Muslims, I have taken on an even heavier load: the burden of my people. I was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Or so I thought.

But I did not know myself enough. I thought my foundations were solid. I thought my balance was correct. I thought I had discarded everything of my original load. Then one piece fell off. I was thrown off balance and fell, face first. Someone who fell before me and had partially regained her footing gave me a hand. And that was how I crawled back to my feet. But I needed crutches for a while after that.

Limping along, I thought of my little rock. So, off I went. On my bare feet, without my timepiece, I hiked to the land of my birth (I left that place in 1965 and came back in 1978), along the path of my boyhood, tarrying where I used to linger, chatting with an old time neighbor whose husband I had known well had died. In a minute or two I was home. That night I interviewed an uncle who lived alone with a daughter. From him I learned of the poverty that drove my parents, paga destino, to Mindanao.

That little homestead which my father applied for with the government was the land of the Teduray. And I looked like one Teduray because, said my mother and everyone else who knew the story, noong ipinaglilihi pa ako, there was this Teduray who, pale with hunger, came to our little hut. My mother took pity on him and asked my father who just butchered a cow to give him the head. That was how, I was told, I came to look like him. I had always wanted to meet him but missed him each time he was around. I, too, was the first born in Teduray land. And the name stuck.

Dawn of the next day, my birthday [1978], I walked to where our little farm hut once stood, then to where the rock lay. It took some time to find it among the tall cogon and talahib. And when I found it, my whole being was enveloped in the past. When I stood on it, my feet covered almost all of the surface. It was so big when I was small. But the bigger portion lay buried on solid earth. Now that I have grown it seemed so tiny.

The morning sun found me standing there, facing the east of my childhood, the sky of my childhood, the valley of my childhood, the rivers, the mountains. Motionless I relived the past until the sun seared my skin. I had no idea how long I stood there. The last time I was there was dusk when the sun was on my back. I have crossed many mountains, so many rivers, so many seas. Now it was morning, the sun was on my face.

When I walked away, perhaps never to see the rock again, my steps were light, my footing secure; my mind was clear, a new consciousness was born. My roots have found their mark.

I have discovered my own people, imprisoned by mountains. I shall set them free as I have set myself free.

The rock reborn has grown into an island.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Rudy Buhay Rodil posted these notes on his 80th birthday on his Facebook wall. MindaNews was granted permission to share these notes.)

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