By Midpantao Midrah G. Adil II
(This essay is the winner of the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)
In search of great treasure, one must first learn to defy the limits. This is the particular teaching that my parents left me before they went to the afterlife.
Having been left as an orphan at an early age, I never really had the wits to decipher what was their truest intent. The only thing they left me was a piece of vague philosophy that even a fifteen-year-old boy would never understand. So, it was then when I decided that it was about time to start my very own crusade—to look for life’s greatest treasure.
As a natural-born Maguindanaoan, I was raised to love my tribe’s culture. My father instilled many great things in my young naive mind, including the exquisite wonders of our family tradition. He was indeed a great fine man, and just like any father, he was my biggest support system.
I could still recall my ten-year-old self indulging in the euphony of authentic kulintang music while engaging my eyes in a colorful show of Muslim ritual dances and feasting over lavish food during certain occasions such as kalilang, or traditional wedding ceremony, within the family. Truly, everything was a remarkable experience. On the other hand, the abundance of elaborate tapestry draped all across the house was a sign that our kin had an affinity for big celebrations. It was part of our culture.
As a child, I was also a big dreamer. Taking myself to greater heights was something that ignited the fighter in me. My burning passion for self-expression taught me to become vocal about the things that concerned me one way or another.
I dreamed of becoming a writer. However, some of my aspirations were too much for me to handle; also, most turned out to be impractical in the eyes of my family. All I had was a heavy amount of disapproval from my kin. They wanted me to embrace the family tradition—to become a lawyer, not “a lousy journalist,” as they called it. But deep within my heart, I knew I needed not follow them. It was clear to me that my heart longed for something extraordinary.
At a very young age, I have always been committed to the urge of looking for life’s truest meaning. My feet have dragged me from various places throughout the island to find meaning in my existence.
Mindanao has been my home for the past twenty years. I was born and raised in the province of Sultan Kudarat. Although most of my ancestors were from Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, my father decided to settle in Tacurong to give me a good urban life. As a lawyer, a city was the best place for him to earn a living. In the city, I was enlightened about many things in life. And almost nothing was sugarcoated.
The struggle began when my parents sent me to a private Catholic school. Living in an island where Muslims are commonly stereotyped as terrorists, suicide bombers, and enemies of the state, it was very hard for a kid like me to fit in. There’s a stigma with being a Muslim. Many non-Muslims fear that my families might be affiliated with terrorist groups. In effect, I often became the target of bullies.
My heartbreaking experiences from my critics made me resilient. In fact, I never hated my bullies. If anything, I became quite grateful because, for what they did, I grew up as a strong man. It’s not that I tolerate these kinds of acts, and I know I must not. It’s just that, without them dragging me down, I would have never risen and become the person that I am now. For me, they made me who I am.
Way back in my childhood days, I was labeled with far too many harsh words: terorista, moros, damak na Muslim, and many more. I was considered inferior because I was a Muslim. The proud race that I had grown up in became my greatest downfall. Without noticing it, I became ashamed of my ethnicity and felt that I had to blend in. Many of my relatives may be outraged why I did this, but it’s human nature. I needed to be liked.
It is quite unfathomable how some people could develop a bad sense of racism against the culture I have. Suffice it to say that I cannot point my fingers directly at these people. This exact feeling makes me remember something that occurred two years ago.
In 2017, parts of Marawi City were bombed into rubble by the local ISIS terrorists, the Maute group. This marked the dawn of Mindanao’s desolate fate. I never personally witnessed the tragedy; however, as a student journalist, I remember my eyes being tightly glued to the late evening news. That was an imperative trait—a social responsibility, at the least—for a scribe.
The bullet-drilled infrastructure along with the ghosted streets of Marawi was a clear implication that everything was out of control. It felt real. The fear crippled me knowing that it might also happen in my town if not controlled by the authority.
The televised view of the cold frigid bodies of the casualties being pulled away from the bombarded buildings broke my heart. The tragedy made it to the headlines of all media networks that day. With peace becoming a scarce commodity in the market, hope was held hostage by fear.
I asked God that time that if he was watching, why was he letting those things happen? If life mattered to him, why was he allowing those poor innocent lives to be taken away? If it was wrong to kill, why was he letting the evils of mankind slaughter the entire city? I myself could not find the right words to answer my questions. I had too much doubt in my mind.
As an eighteen-year-old during that time, I already had some maturity to weigh the rationality of things. The Maute group was fighting for the empowerment of their clan. They might have sparked a wrong kind of fight, but it shook me to a realization. If there had been peace, harmony, and equality within the island, no one would have ever craved for destruction. No one would have plotted for supremacy. However, they did. That’s the saddest conclusion that I could arrive upon. Is this a war of races, and whoever is non-Muslim gets beheaded? This was the thought in my mind.
The Maute group was fighting for dominance of Islam in Marawi. It was a crusade—the evil form, to think of it. Race and religion were dividing the island into non-substantial factions. It was the embodiment of the bullying I had received when I was still in elementary school. But now, it was us who had become the bullies. I know people will counter-argue that the Maute group was not true Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace, but I am talking about the times when all they ever wanted was to eradicate the non-members of their faction. This is the brutal truth.
It was later this year when the Bangsamoro Organic Law was finally pitched in Congress. Because it was offering to be a substantial answer to the conflicts arising within the island, I became quite ecstatic to hear the news that the government was finally taking a stand on the empowerment of my people—not only the Moro but the tri-people in general. It painted a warm smile in my face after seeing how people of different races came together in the fight to address the problems of Mindanao.
For the past decades, Mindanao has been a place of bloodbath. With the uprisings and revolts that have taken place, one might begin to ask, Is God still here? I don’t know. Lives have been lost, and souls have been wasted. This isn’t the Mindanao I had in mind as a child. No one ever understood the severity of the situation. However, I’ve never lost hope.
I have been to various provinces within the island. I have been to Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato, South Cotabato, the Davao provinces, Bukidnon, Sarangani, Maguindanao, and more to learn the substantial differences between the peoples of Mindanao. Not every expedition was entirely fruitful, but I consider everything as a stepping-stone, to say the least.
Is Mindanao really at war? Everywhere I go, I hear stories of conflicts and despair. Deprivation of rights to land ownership as well as struggles to find adequate support from the government has awakened me to fight alongside with the victims. As a student journalist, these have been my inspiration for my craft.
With my fellow campus journalists in Cotabato, I ventured to Barangay Kisante in Makilala to conduct an extension activity in a young Lumad boarding school in 2018. There, one thing caught my attention—a group of young people walking in the vicinity with schoolbags on. It was definitely a heartwarming sight.
It was pleasing to see that despite the poverty and lack of resources, the children were still sent by their parents to school for them to have access to education. This might be the kind of improvement that their ancestors might have dreamed from the beginning.
With boarding schools like the one we visited, the young Lumads of Cotabato are given education about their socio-economic, political, and cultural rights. They are able to gain empowerment and protect their ancestral domains and exercise their rights to self-determination.
The stories that I heard from the children broke my heart a thousand fold. Most of them lacked decent clothes to wear and notebooks to write on. The stories made me realize that my responsibilities crossed beyond the boundaries of conventional writing. I must help change the world one story at a time.
My family, being inhabitants of Maguindanao, took me around to witness the growing poverty in various Moro communities. I was exposed to the kind of life that many of our people have. Pagalungan, a small municipality at the heart of Maguindanao, is one of them. I am not from the place, but my father was. Despite the small amount of time I’ve been there, I was able to tell that most houses in the area lacked potable water sources and access to modern facilities. As how I witnessed politics in Muslim areas, there might also be bloodbaths. Unfortunately, that is how life is there.
In search of more stories to tell, I never stopped exploring. My curiosity brought me to a trip in Arakan, Cotabato. About 88 kilometers away from Kabacan, where I was staying at the time, is the hidden gem that is Bani Falls, also called Matigol Falls by local trekkers. Sitio Inamong, Barangay Datu Ladayon, where the waterfall is located, is a small village that is home to the indigenous peoples Manobo and Tahurog.
I was quite astonished how these people had managed to live atop the mountain and display vibrant smiles on their faces. Life there was decent and, well, peaceful. Because they were way too far to be reached by amenities and government services, they found ways to improvise things. They made me realize that happiness doesn’t always have to come with a price.
The people there are one of the most welcoming peoples I have met in my entire existence. They accompanied me and my friends throughout our trip. They shared with me the gifts of Mother Nature. Indeed, the memories we had in that journey have been truly worth remembering.
From the young Lumads in Makilala, Cotabato, to the Moro in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, and even the indigenous tribes in the rocky mountains of Arakan, Cotabato, my pen has painted stories that are truly close to my heart. Mindanao is my home, and the people here are my soul.
For the past five years, I have dedicated my life to the journey of finding the said treasure. I have been to various islands within the country looking for meaning and trying to defy whatever limits life has imposed on me.
From Pampanga to the highlands of Baguio City and the busy streets of Metro Manila, I have explored places in search of stories. Every time I travel, I meet new people, blending with their culture and eventually becoming one of them. Learning about people’s traditions and embracing their culture is my biggest contribution in addressing racism and breaking the stigma. If I have learned anything, it is that no race or ethnicity is above any other.
Despite the various places I have been, Mindanao is the only place for me that feels like home. There is truly a fine line that separates this great island from the entire Philippine archipelago. Mindanao is filled with gems and treasures. It offers a rarity that is beyond the imperial. The part of the culture that I left home still echoes back to my heart. Mindanao is the haven of the brightest treasures in the country. What are its treasures? Its diverse people.
In my search for the greatest treasure, I have learned to defy the limits. I learned to set aside my selfish desires and individuality. These stories made me into someone who is well aware of his identity. As I embraced far-flung cultures even though they aren’t close to mine, I became complete.
My parents have taught me that the beauty of life only reveals itself the very moment you allow yourself to discover its greatest secrets. The instant you break free from the stigma is when you learn to find meaning in your life. You see that the world is truly full of hidden treasures.
Being different is not a liability. It’s a gift. We should celebrate our uniqueness. Our diversity. Our roots. Our race. The sun will shine one day with the peace I’m fervently praying for already in our hands. If there is one thing that I have learned throughout my journey, it is that the Philippines has a lot to offer. And I can’t wait to board another plane to my next destination.