In an article published on the Philippine Daily Inquirer online today, Tara Quismundo describes Bernard Kerblat’s experience of the Filipino bayanihan spirit. (Click on the link, above, for the full article.) Kerblat, chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Philippines, is no stranger to devastation, whether wrought by man, such as the Genocide Wars in Rwanda or the wars in Afghanistan, or by Mother Nature herself, such as Hurricane Katrina in the US.
Kerblat described Yolanda’s aftermath as beyond what he’d seen so far. But he stated, “The other thing that equally moved me—and we need to reinforce and sustain this—is this incredible national mobilization, bayanihan on the move in support of their ‘kababayan.’”
Let me just point out that the spirit of bayanihan does not occur only when disaster or tragedy strikes. It happens everyday and is extended not only to those who have less. Sometimes, it happens to those who have more.
Recently, my grad school class visited Sapang Kawayan, a small island along the coast of Bulacan province. The residents are poor fisherfolk who earn their living off the waters surrounding their barangay. Some work for the large privately-owned fishpens, guarding the fish, or mending the walls of the pens (pananambak); some who were fortunate enough to own boats and nets would go out and catch fish from the sea (paglalambat). But majority of the residents earn their living scrounging for fish, shrimps, and shellfish in the shallow waters, catching these with their hands (pagkakapa), for they have no boats or nets. If they were lucky and worked hard the whole day, they could end up with a kilo, more or less, of catch for the day. They would have food for a few days. Or cash, if they could sell their catch to their neighbors or to buyers from Hagonoy.
Hagonoy is the nearest town to Sapang Kawayan. It is from Hagonoy where the residents buy their needs, like rice, which they describe as parang ginto sa kamahalan (as expensive as gold). Such was our amazement, therefore, when one of our group announced that she was given a bowlful of cooked rice by one of the residents. But I am getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back a couple of hours on the day of our arrival at the community.
Despite my request that the community not prepare anything for us when we arrive, the barangay officials led us to a feast of huge grilled milkfish, freshly caught from the fishpens, and two big platters overflowing with rice. We were not a small group, hence, my request to the barangay captain. My concern was the financial cost, a common concern for folks living in the metro areas. When this feast of a lunch was announced, I was aghast and this huge wave of guilt started washing over me. But then, I saw the beaming faces of these simple people and I understood. This was what they had and they were sharing what they had with us. We were not only visitors, we were kapwa, we were di ibang tao.
It is difficult to translate; there is no English equivalent. The concept of kapwa means treating the other as not an outsider or stranger, but as family. But that does not make it any simpler, because family to the Filipino is not just the nuclear family, but includes a whole clan of people to whom one is related not only by blood, but also by affinity.
And while we were seated and hungrily strategizing on how to deal with the delicious and fragrant bangus before us, Pao comes running in with a clear plastic bag full of cooked rice.
"Look! Look!" she ordered, waving aloft the rice. "They gave me rice!"
For a few minutes, the bangus was forgotten. (Just a few minutes.) Pao had forgotten to buy cooked rice for lunch at Hagonoy. (I had instructed the group to bring their own lunch.) So, she went around the small community, looking to buy cooked rice from a store. Of course, there was none. As she turned back toward the barangay hall, this child came running up to her and handed her the plastic bag full of cooked rice, after which the kid ran off.
Aghast, I asked, “Did you pay for that?” “No!” Pao answered, herself aghast. We all looked at each other and finally understood: We were not expected to pay for anything that was handed or offered to us. To offer to pay would be an insult.
Filled with gratitude and admiration, especially for the six full-sized bangus, we turned back to lunch and ate with gusto. I ate all the heads, except the one that got away. Dr. Sta. Maria got that one. The fish was so fresh, stuffed with onions and tomatoes, there was no hint of lansa, that offensive fishy taste in frozen seafood. And the sukang Paombong was perfect. They gave us one full bottle of the local vinegar, as yet unopened, along with a bottle, also unopened of patis (fish sauce).
I didn’t want to be a burden to these simple folk, but in my concern, I forgot to expect the Filipino spirit of hospitality. In the provinces, especially among the simplest of folks, this cannot be overlooked. To not accept such graciousness would be an insult. In this light, I decided to forego reimbursing the barangay captain for the gasoline used for the banca sent to fetch us from Hagonoy and to bring us back. But in a stroke of genius and because Dr. Sta. Maria is such an extrovert (sipsep!), she discovered that the community was going to hold a Christmas party and thought that we could contribute a small sum to add to their fund.
We came up with a small amount, wishing we could give more. Money, we cannot give more of; but there is something much more we can do for these folks. We can tell the world about their truth, counter the wrong impression that the world has formed of these people who are no less Filipino than any Filipino out there. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the true, unadulterated Filipino values live in this community more so than in richer, more privileged and ‘educated’ ones.
It is this spirit that keeps the Filipino spirit afloat in the face of tragedy, poverty and corrupt politicians. The Filipino may be poor, but he is not helpless nor has he lost his dignity. The Filipino treats everyone as kapwa, until you repay his pakikipagkapwa-tao with boorishness. Then, you are ibang tao and undeserving to be treated as kapwa.
It will do well for the world — and corrupt Filipino politicians and their ilk — to remember this.
Photo shows roadstead leading to the numerous islands along the coast of Hagonoy, Bulacan. Courtesy of Dessa Grace Mercado.