Notes from the fringes
BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi — A visit to the country’s farthest island province in the South is always a welcome respite, even if it is only for less than two days. Even if the actual brief escapade to Bongao’s nooks and crannies took less than four hours, in between two consultation-cum-workshops, it was truly what I needed to rev me up for the next deadlines I have to beat.
Tawi-Tawi’s charms lie partly in its insular nature, its stark difference from other provinces in Mindanao dubbed as “mainland.” But being an island is also its curse: relative isolation and being “left out.”
In the one and a half days of conversations on the future of education in the Bangsamoro, representatives of educators in the province expressed in various ways their feeling of always being left out, of being the last to receive whatever is made available to their counterparts in the center of power in the region—Cotabato City.
The feeling of being on the fringes is heightened by the way we make an artificial dichotomy of “mainland” and “island” in which we put a higher premium on the former. The word “main” in mainland holds a powerful symbol of primacy over the island; the latter has to wait in line after the mainland gets its due.
As we navigated past innumerable tricycles and people vending on both sides of the busy streets in hilly Bongao, I felt a palpable sense of pride among the people there: of their food’s distinctive flavors and of the abundance of fish in their wet market (priced unbelievably cheap, too!). The price of one bunch of large and medium-sized lapu-lapu (grouper) fish is only P250! (This is one of the blessings of being an island—seafood is abundant and cheap!)
While waiting for our grilled fish to be cooked, our erudite and gracious unofficial tour guide, former Department of Education-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao assistant secretary Noor Saada pointed out the island of Simunul that could be seen from the vantage of the bridge where several strollers, including ourselves, watched Bongao’s beautiful sunset.
The island of Simunul is flat, like a typical giant sandbar. Many houses have huge water reservoirs because it has no source of potable water, except rainwater.
A huge tarpaulin displayed in the main thoroughfare caught my attention. It was an advertisement used during the campaign for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). The words on it were both in English and Tausug, the latter being the province’s lingua franca. It exhorted all voters in Tawi-Tawi to vote yes to the BOL, saying it is the “Bunga sin Jihad Fi Sabilillah” (This — the BOL — is the fruit of the struggle for the sake of Allah).
The message was quite effective, as Tawi-Tawi voted yes to the BOL, unlike its big “sister,” Sulu, that voted no.
However, this kind of messaging heightens people’s expectations that the “fruits” of their struggle will just fall freely on their laps after the signing and ratification of the BOL.
But, most metaphorical, tasty fruits are difficult to reach. We need to strategize how to harvest these, and to ensure these are distributed evenly to all, regardless of whether they are from the mainland or island provinces. There are fruits already on the other side of the fence, as selfish politicians have appropriated these for themselves even before the ratification of the BOL.
If people in the region, especially from the islands come up with collective efforts to harvest the fruits of their struggle, then there will be sustainable peace, a goal that no war can ever achieve.
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