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BANGSAMORO SPEAKS: Aroha and Aruga, Love and Care  

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E kore au e mate, ka mate. Ko te mate, ka ora ai ahau.

I shall not die, when death itself is dead, I shall be alive. 

  • Titokowaru, Maori Rangatira  


These were the words inscribed on a memorial found in Dunedin North Cemetery, where I was extremely fortunate to take part of a hikoi (walk) alongside my classmates and professors at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. The memorial was to commemorate Parihaka, a Maori iwi (community) in the North Island of New Zealand that became a center for nonviolent resistance to European occupation. 

In 1880, members of the Parihaka community were captured as prisoners and made to march from their ancestral homeland in the sub-tropical North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) to the much colder, temperate South Island (Te Waipounamu). The slave labor that these prisoners were made to endure is what built the main thoroughfares and infrastructure of Dunedin, New Zealand’s first and oldest city. Much of the work that they did is still visible in the Edwardian architecture that runs rife through the center of town. A memorial to Parihaka exists overlooking Andersons Bay and the Otago Peninsula. 

The author in Dunedin Railway Station. “I was still shocked that the sun was out past 6PM!”

It is extraordinary, to me, that an event that occurred over a century ago still causes so much generational grief. Members of the Parihaka community still make the trip down to Dunedin to mourn for their lost ancestors, who were buried in mass graves in Dunedin North cemetery and whose grave markers are nowhere to be found. Their whakapapa, or genealogy, is rooted so deep into their culture that to be able to bear witness to it felt sacred. 

I know more than anyone that generational grief is also, in a rather twisted way, personal. My mother was taught by nuns of the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM) in Kidapawan City all throughout her elementary and high school years, and yet she met and fell in love with a man who was most unlike anything she’d been raised to believe: my father, a decorated police officer, was Tausug as far as the eye can see. I was their only child. His career, paired with his wandering eye, meant that I was never raised in Tausug culture, nor do I speak the language fluently. Any hope of being taught by him was snatched away forever when I was 15; I lost both of my parents to cancer, six months apart. 

During the NZ Manaaki Scholarship Luncheon for incoming scholars in January 2020. The author with Ambassador Peter Kell, outgoing Ambassador David Strachan, and Bai Nishran Candao. “Nish and I are the first-ever Moro scholars to ever get a Manaaki Scholarship.”

I could barely fathom the idea of losing one parent, let alone both of them. With their death, I lost years and years of a relationship that should have lasted until my adulthood. Never will I see my mother holding her grandchildren in her arms, or my father walking me down the aisle at my wedding. I wasn’t thinking of my cultural heritage, or what it meant to be Moro and Tausug and raised Catholic all at the same time, and the moral responsibility of both worlds. I wish someone had realized that I needed more than financial support — I needed love, care, respect, understanding.

It wasn’t until I was a financially independent adult that I undertook the journey of reclaiming this hidden part of my identity. You could call it “lukso ng dugo,” or curiosity, but my longing for my parents led to me wanting to find out as much about them as I could.  The name Tausug literally means “people of the current” and it was evident in what I had always known my father to be. Those who hail from Lupah Sug are a fierce, proud, and deeply loyal people who, at their mightiest, ruled over the Sulu Sultanate. What does being Moro mean for me? Would I be Moro or Tausug enough for others? Hell, would I ever be Tausug enough for myself? 

The opportunity to discover all of this came for me when I was working in the peacebuilding field alongside my colleagues at the Al Qalam Institute of the Ateneo de Davao University. My then-boss, Datu Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan, is Iranun; my closest friends in the Institute are Star, who is Maguindanaon, and Nur, who is Maranao; our stakeholders were from many different Moro-Muslim tribes, including Tausug. I was also able to travel back and forth to Cotabato, Zamboanga, Iligan, discovering more and more parts of myself that made me Moro. I was elated. 

However, this process was met with a lot of judgment from others who were not used to me being so forward about my Moro identity. I remember the cruel words of someone who said to me, with no trace of irony, that “the only good Moro is a dead Moro.” If I misbehaved, they said,  I would be sent back to Jolo. I also remember someone else referring to my high school sweetheart, who is Sama Dilaut, as my “muklo” boyfriend. 

Photo taken in September 2020, the author’s first trip to Christchurch. It was spring, so the cherry blossoms were in bloom!

My financial independence became key to this personal journey; it also meant freedom, a freedom to explore just who and what are the people that my father came from. Learning about the history of the Moro people in the context of Philippine history only strengthened my commitment to it. I listened, from Moro elders and traditional leaders,  to stories about Bud Dajo and the atrocities that American soldiers committed towards Tausug men and women in that time. I read about Oplan Merdeka and the Jabidah Massacre and the four-part interview that Jibin Arula gave to MindaNews. I sobbed through each and every one. 

The interview with Jibin Arula in particular cut deep; the lone survivor of the Jabidah Massacre, he was Tausug and of an age with my own father. I was able to dimly recall my father telling me of how he fled Jolo with his family with only the clothes on his back when they burned it to the ground. I looked it up, and he was right; in 1974, the island of Jolo, my father’s ancestral homeland, had been attacked by paramilitary forces in what is now called the Burning of Jolo. He would have been around 22 or 23 years of age, give or take, the same age I am now. My hands shook at the thought of someone possibly raining bullets into my father’s body and it broke me. 

How could I ignore my heritage then? It happened to my family, to the father I never truly knew but longed to know, to my aunts and uncles and grandparents. Dad’s memory, and the memory of all that I have learned, compelled me to want to give back to other Moro people in a more meaningful way. How was I going to do that, however? I didn’t have any meaningful savings, as hard as I tried to save my money from my then-meager salary. My job with Al Qalam allowed me to help them, but I wanted to do more. 

The iconic University Clocktower at sunset.

I had always dreamt of studying abroad, but those dreams died along with my mother. She had been an engineer, a public servant, an educator. She was fiercely proud of my and my father’s heritage, even if she could not teach me the language or the culture firsthand. I lived for her smile and longed for her love, and she gave both freely. She had wild dreams of her only child being the first Tausug Supreme Court Justice and about uplifting the struggle of the Moro people, and I used to just laugh at her. Those dreams were absurd then, and were even more so when she died. It was never going to happen. 

Through some sheer force of kismet, or maybe it was my mother playing God, an opportunity came. I was present for an event hosted by the New Zealand Embassy regarding a scholarship program for Filipinos, and they were looking for Mindanaoan, Moro, and Indigenous scholars to study full-time in New Zealand. Then-Ambassador David Strachan had reached out to Al Qalam to see if we could help invite students who were interested. I remember the video presentation that they screened like it was yesterday; Open spaces, open hearts, open minds. 

While I wasn’t a student anymore, my friend Nur urged me to apply. In fact, he was supposed to apply for it himself, but his plans fell through at the last minute. I didn’t think much of it during the first two application rounds because I really didn’t want to get my hopes up. There are so many other people who deserve it more than me, I thought. I ended up texting a couple of my mother’s closest friends, asking for guidance. My Tita Rona Naidas, my mother’s best friend, told me to go for it. I heeded her advice, just as I heeded her then when she told me I should go to UP Mindanao for college. 

A mother’s prayers, whether mine own or her friends’, proved to be more powerful than I could ever describe. I felt my heart stop the minute I received word that I had been shortlisted, and that only an interview with certain New Zealand Embassy officials stood in my way between me and a full-ride postgraduate scholarship. Emboldened, and with Datu Muss’ support – he expressly told me that I “needed” to get this scholarship – I flew to Makati for my final interview. 

A week before my twenty-fifth birthday, I received word that I was one of twenty-four Filipino scholars who would receive a Manaaki New Zealand scholarship. Ambassador David, who was in town for the Mindanao Young Leaders Parliament launch, congratulated me in person when we met at the event and told me that I was one of only two Moro people to ever receive the scholarship. Me? Moro? Really? There have never been any before? 

It was the start of what I could only describe as the most fulfilling, demanding experiences of my life. 

During the completion ceremony in October 2020, with Josh and Olivia. “I am wearing my mother’s traditional Tausug clothing as well as my UP Sablay,”

I left the Philippines for New Zealand  in January of 2020. I had reached out to my Mom’s friend, my Tita Evan Dispo, who lived in Christchurch, if she could help me find accommodation. She came through fabulously, connecting me with her friends Cielo and Gilbert Azarcon, who greeted me warmly even though I was just a stranger who showed up at their doorstep with two suitcases and a red winter coat and only $60 in my pocket. I made sure to pay rent on time for the entire duration of my stay. 

Next was an orientation of the school’s grounds. I gasped at the stunning Clocktower and administration building which overlooked the Leith River and the yellow roses that were planted to commemorate the University’s 150th anniversary, the Link which bridged the AskOtago help desk, the International Office, and student lounges to the massive – to me, at least — library, and the fire trees that shaded the main pathways along the other buildings. The University assigned each of us an Immigration Adviser as we settled into our new life. Mine was Claire, a tall, thin, blonde woman who spoke warmly and told me to call her if anything happened. 

I also met up with Jeremy Simons, a former neighbor of my Ninang Carol who had lived and worked in Davao City for years and was also getting his PhD at NCPACS – which is a coincidence, because that is where I would be getting my masters. He showed me around the Centre and introduced me to the people there, who were all friendly if a little harried because they were dealing with many pressing deadlines. He also showed me where to get $3 lunch at the OUSA building, right across the masters suite on Albany Street. That tip helped me save a lot on food when I did my study there.

It wasn’t always good, however. I remember a particularly clueless fellow who, in a wild misunderstanding, had been worried that I had gone all the way to New Zealand “to study to become a terrorist.” I also struggled with the unpredictable weather, an echo of the city’s Scottish roots. Whatever cold I felt, however, was made up with the warmth of the Kiwi folk around me. New Zealanders are some of the most kind, generous, and loving people I have ever met. The concept of manaakitanga, a value that means hospitality and generosity of spirit, was made very clear to me. 

I was, however, extremely nervous for my classes. It had been a good four or five years since I had been in a classroom setting. I felt that everyone was so much smarter and more well-informed, and I with my strange identity and even stranger features felt so deeply, well,  foreign. I did my best to keep up while my professors spoke about theories that I had not thought to put a name to and events that I had never even heard of. I felt small – my experience was very localized to the Bangsamoro, to Mindanao, to home. Would I ever be able to match up, talk about these experiences, and do them justice? Was I Moro enough, Tausug enough, to tell these stories? 

This strange inferiority complex bothered me immensely. I had been taught all my life to value myself, but years of being worn down by insults and neglect had worn me down. I didn’t feel worthy of my spot, which was ludicrous. I had so much to learn, and I was so eager to listen to my classmates and my professors, but I had to reflect on whether my words were of any value. The first time that most of my classmates will have ever heard of the Bangsamoro would be through me. I had to do it right. To compensate, I did my best to listen as they taught us stories of nonviolence in the New Zealand context – the Moriori people, who chose death rather than forsake their pacifist values, struck my heart. The efforts of their descendants to rebuild their culture and language awed me in a way that I hadn’t felt before. I couldn’t let myself feel inferior anymore after that. 

In an odd way, the legal definition for what a Moro is was something that reassured me. According to Republic Act 11054, or the Bangsamoro Organic Law, Moro people are defined as “Those who, at the advent of the Spanish colonization, were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands, whether of mixed or full blood, shall have the right identity themselves, their spouses and descendants, as Bangsamoro.” My father was clearly Tausug, and I am very much his daughter. Through him I am part of a rich cultural heritage that manifested itself into a search for meaning, and then, to my studies abroad. I am not the perfect Moro, but that’s okay. I can only be myself. 

Before I could fully comprehend the enormity of these ideas, the world turned on its head when the New Zealand government declared a full lockdown of the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant that all my classes had to be fully online until the situation recovered. As international students, we were given a choice to return to our home countries or stay on in New Zealand. I had only been in the country for six weeks.

It was an easy choice to stay. There was no home to come back to, and no family waiting for me. I thought jadedly, at least this pandemic would be unable to take anyone I truly loved. They had all died before I came over, and this thought felt ugly and wrong. But it was the truth. 

With classes fully online, I ended up deciding to stay outside of the Azarcon house and into my new boyfriend Josh’s flat to ride the storm of the lockdown over. I was convinced that this was either the worst idea ever, or the best. We met mere days into my arrival and everything happened very quickly after that. I met his family, which included his lovely daughter Olivia, mere days before the lockdown happened, but this was something else. This was a large commitment, to actually be confined together with nothing but each other’s company. We hadn’t even decided what to do when I was going to eventually come back home to the Philippines, but I thought that I at least had to try. At least, if it didn’t work out, the Azarcons were supportive and made me feel welcome to their home if ever I decided to come back. 

So I stayed over for all five of those weeks, taking my classes online, and spending the rest of it getting to know this other human being whose life could not be more different than mine. We blessedly ended up fighting only twice over the entire stay, and it was a sign that we should probably continue the relationship. We still make a habit of communicating as clearly as possible, something that has helped immensely as we continue our relationship long-distance. 

His support was invaluable as I weathered a whole bunch of hurdles after lockdown lifted. Due to the pandemic, my hypochondria – something that I have hidden from others in the Philippines out of shame– flared up and threatened to take over me. The stress of that led to a series of health issues, leading to me contracting a urinary tract infection and then, to my utter shock, being diagnosed with alpha thalassemia minor, a genetic blood disorder. It got even worse when my Naynay Bernie, my childhood yaya and the only real family I had left, was hospitalized due to complications from hypertension while I was on medication. I cried for days and sent as much support to her as I could, feeling helpless. 

One thing I didn’t have to stress about, however, was paying the bill. As an MFAT scholar, we were considered as part of the public healthcare system. It seemed like a miracle to me in those days – what do you mean, I don’t have to pay for anything? In addition to that, I was able to get my HPV vaccine for free. This meant the world to me, as my mother died from complications caused by cervical cancer. I recovered physically, but the mental and emotional scars were there, and they were slow to heal.  

In the midst of my health crises, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get good grades. I had gotten straight A’s in my first semester and was told by my Immigration Adviser and my professors that, if I kept this up, and turned in a not-so-terrible dissertation, I would be graduating with distinction and be eligible for PhD scholarships if I ever decided to go back to school. 

Distinction. This was something I had never thought to achieve in my life. I was an average student in high school and college, making up for it by doing as many extracurriculars as I could. Maybe it was a fluke? Or maybe, there had been some kind of mistake while my professors calculated my grades? Regardless of how this came to be, I began putting extra pressure on myself to do better than that. Maybe, if I was excellent, if I got top honors, I can finally be good enough for my family– I mean, myself. 

Around this time, my conflict resolution class with Dr. Mariska Kappmeier had introduced to the idea of doing a hikoi in September 2020, and that we would be learning about the story of Parihaka. Our entire class went to do the walk along with other NCPACS students and faculty, as well as some of the descendants of those very Parihaka that had died in Dunedin. 

We started at the Clocktower, the main feature of the University’s Admin building, famous for its beauty. We then walked through history together and learned that the ground we walked on, the buildings around us, were built on the backs of the forced labor of the ancestors of the Parihaka descendants present. 

Afterwards we headed to the Parihaka memorial that looked right over Andersons Bay, which was mere meters away from one of the cells that held actual Parihaka prisoners. The door of the cell had been graffiti-ed over. I had driven past that door so many times and never thought about it being there. Now it held a much deeper, more solemn meaning. 

We then headed back to Dunedin North Cemetery, where I read those same words inscribed in stone. When death itself is dead, I shall be alive. Maybe it was the stubbornness in those words that struck me, but it reminded me of that only universal value that could have ever survived death; love, only love. 

In Te Reo Maori, the word for love is aroha. It is similar to all greetings across Oceania, such as the Hawaiian greeting aloha. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave her daughter the name Neve Te Aroha, which I found particularly beautiful. However, due to my stay and all the issues I have had, I found that these words sounded familiar. They sounded, well, Filipino. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as both Te Reo Maori and Filipino (as we know it to be) belong to the Austronesian language family. Of course there would be similarities. 

Aroha, to me, sounds so much like the word aruga. Pag-aaruga, or the act of caring for others, particularly to family and friends, is such a Filipino virtue. The fact that they are so similar, and that these were things I had long missed in my own life, seemed to ring in my head. After all this time, I know that love is the only thing strong enough to survive death. My parents are long gone, more than a before I ever stepped onto New Zealand soil, but they live on because I do. Their love for the Philippines, for the Bangsamoro, also lives on in me. I had a duty of care, to them, to others, because of this love. 

If aroha, then, aruga. 

I still struggled with my mental and physical health over those days. The days also began to get much hotter, almost like the Philippines, which meant that it was Christmas. This also meant that my days in New Zealand were numbered. To my immense relief, my second semester grades reflected a second set of A’s. I had only my masters dissertation left to go. And then, afterwards, I had to come home. 

Home, however, became complicated. Despite everything, I had fallen in love with New Zealand and everyone in it. Josh and Olivia are in Dunedin, and they had become my family. The love and assurance and care that I once had with my parents, I finally had again. It seemed so cruel that I, who had been so bereft of family and warmth, find it again only to have to leave. This tormented me. I was terrified of going back and leaving what had become my home and having to live alone again. 

Everything happened so quickly after that. With my mental health declining, I filed an emergency petition to extend my dissertation deadline by a month. My adviser, Dr. Sungyong Lee, was incredibly understanding of my situation and even phoned my International Adviser, who by now was a tall lady named Louisa with long dark hair, to help mitigate the impact that this extension would have on my scholarship. In addition to my fears, I struggled with the idea of failure, of letting everyone down, of still not being Tausug enough or smart enough or brave enough. I was also in a panic at the idea of going home and knowing that the COVID-19 situation was untenable. New Zealand, which had done a marvelous job keeping the pandemic out, seemed like a safe haven. 

It was then that aroha and aruga came for me in droves. Josh came through for me in these days, ensuring that I was eating and sleeping and making me laugh. I started going to counseling while I was there. My professors and friends came out to support me, and my good friends Andrea and Allun planned an impromptu trip back to Christchurch and Wanaka after I had finally finished my dissertation. I finally got to visit my Tita Evan and thank her for her help, and she said that she did it because my mother had been such a good friend to her. It was the little things that helped give me the strength to finish my work. I submitted my master’s dissertation, all 18,000 words of it, on March 18, 2021. 

In April 2021, I flew back home to the Philippines, and here we are. 

Despite the challenges, the peace and quiet of New Zealand helped to offer so much perspective for me. It informed my papers for classes and in my arguments with my classmates and friends there. I studied Galtung and Lederach and Chomsky and Foucault and learned to balance these ideas with those I know of Bangsamoro culture and history. Most of all, I was able to represent and give voice to the story of the Moro people – my people

This fish-out-of-water experience turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to me. Being able to study and learn about a culture so different from my own was exactly what I needed. Aroha and aruga, love and care, values that I now hold onto for dear life. I knew that I had to make big changes to honor these values.  

The biggest takeaway for me, however, was in learning that the struggle for self-determination is universal. In New Zealand, the Maori and Pakeha people have had a long history in determining what was best for the future of the country. The settlements between the Crown and Maori iwis are still ongoing, and these have come a long way in healing and reconciliation for both parties. I want that for the Philippines, for the Bangsamoro, as if these actions could help heal the rift inside of me, Christian settler and Moro both. 

In learning about the story of Parihaka and the efforts of their descendants to honor and cherish their memory, I remember my ancestors who fought in Bud Dajo. 

I remember the Moro men and women who died during Martial Law and the All-Out War and in all the years since. 

I remember my father and mother who give me so much pride and joy, and whose memory I try to keep alive even now. 

I remember that I am as much Tausug as I am anything else, and it took me being seven thousand kilometers away to accept, and love that, about myself. 

After much delay due to the pandemic, and after almost two years of being away from New Zealand, I graduated with my masters degree with distinction, or first class honours, in December of 2022. Josh and I are still together, and we are busy planning my return and our future together. I have since left Al Qalam, but the friendships I have made along the way are some that I will hold forever. I even spent the holidays in Zamboanga with my Dad’s side of the family, who I have thankfully reconnected with and who have come to love and accept me as I am. 

These days, I am still immersed in development work and have led a much slower-paced life since then. I still repeat the words aroha, aruga to myself when I am down. It usually works. 

My parents, Christine and Ali, would have been proud. And, I think, I am too. 

(Kristelle Alina “Telly” P. Rizardo is a writer and communications practitioner who has spent the bulk of her career in peacebuilding and development. She is a recipient of the New Zealand Manaaki Scholarship, the first Tausug to do so). 

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