There is a place in Zamboanga that is almost obscured by the onslaught of the fast paced life in the city. It is there, behind the revered structure of the La Nuestra Senora de la Virgen del Pilar, past the lighted candles held by the pious as their prayers rise, past the stalls that sell cotton candies and cheap rosaries, past the old acacia tree where placentas placed in shopping bags hang from its branches.
It is a place where a mere game of basketball is almost a religion, where women with baskets of fish on their head walk on rickety slabs of wood strung together by ropes. They walk cautiously, lest they plummet to the water below, which is almost solid after years and years of human waste of every kind have amassed. But they walk with fluidity and grace, like dancers listening to the ancient music produced by the tides of the sea. The men, whose flesh are wrinkled and dark, walk with a gait that belied their years.
This is the place where children who refuse to let their scalps be rid of lice are brought, or so we are told. This is what most urban Zamboangeno parents say in frustration, telling children that the very same critters they allow to take permanent residence on their scalps will carry them off by the hair, never to be seen again.
This is where I first met the children of Rio Hondo who dive into the water in search of the coins thrown by passers-by — children whose hair are kissed orange and yellow by the sun.
It was two months before my graduation when some of us went there, part of a requirement in a developmental communication course we had been taking. We went there to give storytelling sessions to children, most of whom were not in school. Of course, the Badjao parents had their doubts. How can this bunch of kids — some of whom were dressed like they were going to the club afterward — possibly tell stories?
It was not a walk in the park for us either. Back then, we viewed it as a bothersome activity we had to go through to pass the course; and some of us didn’t really like their appearance. The chipped teeth, the welts on their arms, the dry yellow hair, the smell. And so it was that we took on gaunt expressions and stony demeanours, like chemists too careful to stay a cautious distance away from an experiment that could blow up anytime.
We distributed the story books in the same way we handed dole outs. We read the stories sometimes in a bored, nonchalant way, and even pretended to give an understanding smile when a concept or two were not understood — all the while thinking what we would give to get out of there.
Then, it happened. We went to read the last of the stories. But it was the children, the very same who had welts on their skins and perpetually runny noses, who told us their stories. One girl said that their house was blown away during a fierce storm and the misfortune with which they were left. One boy told us of his desire to go to school, though he couldn’t because he had to help his father fish so they would have something on the table.
And there was Abu, who told us, through a song uniquely sang by the community and nowhere else, about their labours during the rainy season; nights when they couldn’t sleep because they had to make sure every hole in their roof has a pail below so their houses wouldn’t flood.
Confronted with these real stories, it seemed that the fantastic tales we had brought have become shallow and arbitrary. Faced with such inescapable reality, our stories were irrelevant.
Yet, the children loved every one of them. Thus, whatever reservations we had about the kind of stories we told, we continued. The stories let their minds wander for a while, to serve as respite, to frolick amongst beautiful things, like bubbles floating in the air. The stories made them laugh; the stories made them happy; the stories took them far out into the sea into lands where ghouls and princesses live in enchanted kingdoms.
I left Rio Hondo with a mixture of shame and regret.
I was at the Fort Pilar Museum a month ago for a shoot I was doing for a local newspaper. I was on my way home when I stopped by a small stall of knick-knacks just off the main road and felt a hand creep to touch the video camera I was holding. I whipped around and came face to face with the boy who sang the song about the rain. I remember him because of how he looked as he sang — with a blemish of despair on his face.
The boy smiled and said, “Ikaw yung nagdala ng kodak sa amin.” I suddenly remembered that it was I who had been taking footages of the storytelling sessions. I asked him what he was doing; he was selling candles.
“You should be in school,” I told him.
The boy just shrugged and took off, his large yellow T-shirt flapping in the wind.
I wonder now about the children. Do they still want stories? I wonder if some of them already attend school. I wonder if they still sing songs about the rain and missing dolls and tears. There are a lot of things I wonder about.
There is one thing of which I am sure, however. These children, who live by the sea, still rise at dawn, their dark brown arms tingling in anticipation of that familiar rush as sunlight dances on their skin.
Jonathan Jimena Siason, born in Zamboanga City, has an MFA in Creative Writing from the De La Salle University-Manila. His stories have seen print in national publications and anthologies. In 2008, he was a finalist to the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards (Fiction). He is currently a college instructor at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University.