In the late 1960s I was with a batch of about 10 graduates of Zamboanga City High School who bravely took a 427-kilometer bus ride to Marawi City to begin college life at the Mindanao State University (MSU). The nonstop trip took 24 hours on some of the roughest and scariest roads in Mindanao, perhaps in the whole country.
I lived in Marawi for one school year as a 15-year-old MSU freshman. The campus, set on scenic rolling hills almost 3,000 feet above sea level and five kilometers from the city center, was the most beautiful and the greenest I had ever seen. It overlooked the grandeur of the ancient, 340-square-kilometer Lake Lanao, the lifeblood of Maranao society and culture. Marawi’s climate was pleasantly cool, with no harsh weather disturbances, its air naturally clean and refreshing.
MSU students came from all over Mindanao and a few from Luzon—three-fourths of whom were granted scholarships that included free tuition, lodging and food. Relations among the students were generally good. There were, however, occasional incidents that reflected a lack of cultural sensitivity. Once, the university cafeteria served a dish without disclosing that it contained pork. This resulted in a verbal berating of the kitchen staff and the breaking of a glass window.
Western influence came via faculty members who were Peace Corps volunteers teaching English and philosophy and retired foreign scholars funded by the Ford Foundation which built an exclusive housing enclave for them. Some of the breakfast food served in the cafeteria were USAid donations.
I joined the MSU Darangan Cultural Troupe as a backup singer and learned two Maranao songs—“Gabon Abon” and “Adao Ogarinan ku.” The melody was sufficiently catchy that, till today, I can still sing a few bars. Muslims and Christians made up the group’s cast. Its repertoire consisted of ethnic songs and dances from various cultures of Mindanao.
That year, the Beatles released their iconic “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. A student had a copy and we would gather in his dormitory room to listen in awe to the songs. One rainy night, we stayed glued to our radios to monitor the championship game of the Asian Basketball Conference where the Philippines beat South Korea for the country’s last regional cage crown.
But there were few opportunities for MSU students to relate more with Marawi residents and Maranao society in general. Visits downtown were infrequent, and only to watch movies or to purchase commodities. The city market, however, with its locally woven and colorful malong and finely crafted brassware, was a favorite place.
I vividly recall an incident in the Marawi market that made a lasting impression on me. I was then under the (mistaken) belief that my great grandmother was a Tausug Muslim. But when I proudly relayed this to a vendor, expecting to receive a positive response (and a discount to boot), she strongly admonished me for abandoning my ancestor’s faith.
Downtown Marawi was where one could rent a car for a day or weekend trip to the more commercialized Iligan City 40 kilometers away. The hourlong ride on winding roads would be highlighted by the sight of picturesque Maranao villages with an occasional torogan house and its panolong—okir-adorned carved beams with naga motifs. Another visual treat was the breathtaking view of the fierce Agus River and its cascading waters that emerge from Lake Lanao and end in the famous Maria Cristina Falls and the less-known Tinago Falls.
The Marawi crisis and its traumatic consequences leave me with bittersweet memories of a place and a people that, regrettably, I didn’t have the time to know better and fully appreciate. But somehow a deep connection had been established that lasts to this day. I am proud to have spent time in MSU and Marawi no matter how brief my stay. Occasionally, I meet up with former MSU contemporaries now living in Metro Manila, and I am friends on social media with the others.
Eduardo C. Tadem, PhD, is professorial lecturer of Asian studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman and president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition.
Inquirer calls for support for the victims in Marawi City
Responding to appeals for help, the Philippine Daily Inquirer is extending its relief to victims of the attacks in Marawi City
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