“The Philippines is a beggar sitting in gold.” I grew up hearing this line over and over again. I was born and bred in Mindanao, the second biggest of 7,106 islands composing the Philippine archipelago. Located down south, Mindanao is closer to the countries across the equator below, than the northernmost part of my country. In fact, Zamboanga peninsula, where my hometown, Pagadian City, is located, is considered the Philippines “backdoor economy,” since business and trade with China, Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia has been going on long before the Spanish colonization in the 16th century.
As a child, I never imagined leaving my hometown – a small place where everybody knows everybody, and everything I needed and wanted was practically within my reach. It was my only home, the axis of my being and becoming. Or so I thought until civil war broke out when I was twelve and military rule took its toll. It was then that I dreamed for a better life, a better world. This dream drove me to pursue university education through a state scholarship grant far away from home. Struggling through a culture and civilization far removed from mine in the Islamic City of Marawi, I knew then what “conflict” was all about – as I saw the many differences between Christians and Muslims. Yet I realized at the same time that the Philippines is amazingly endowed with a richly diversified beautiful culture. More remarkable is that my people, despite varied interests and myriad cultural identities, have managed to co-exist in harmonious and symbiotic relationship, even through foreign influence brought about by centuries of colonization. The colonial period of 370 years of Spanish regime, 40 years of American era, and 4 years of Japanese occupation left indelible marks in the way of life of the Filipinos, but has not changed the uniqueness of its beauty and essence.
The early years of my career took me to the rice lands as I worked with the National Irrigation Administration in the Visayan Islands - my father’s homeland. There I roamed around country-sides and mingled with farmers who bring staple food, rice, to our plates. It was such a great privilege – to be able to share in this noble duty.
I was in my mid-twenties when my father became ill and I had to return to Mindanao. At that time three of my younger siblings were pursuing college degrees in the same state university I pursued mine, and needed my support. I got a job in the country’s steel monopoly, the National Steel Corporation, in a nearby city. That was in the mid-eighties when the Philippines was in its “construction boom”. Wow, what an enormous role in nation-building! And then I moved to the country’s power industry. We were then engaged in the rural electrification project through hydro-electricity powered by Maria Cristina waterfalls, constructing 138 KV steel towers and installing transmission lines and power substations island-wide. I traveled around Mindanao, through plains and mountains, rivers and lakes as we pursued our mission. I felt so important, knowing we supply the power that runs my country’s economy.
At the turn of the century I left the power industry and pursued a master’s degree as I resolved to settle in the academe for good. But that was not to be so. In a mysterious twist of fate I found myself working in the government’s peace process with the Muslim separatist rebels in Mindanao. And this was where I got the greatest disillusionment in my life. As I look back I could not help but wonder in misery where and how things went wrong.
Starting out my career with the National Irrigation Administration I was so proud, convinced I was feeding my people. My stint with the National Steel Corporation made me believe I was building my country. And I felt great working with my country’s power industry, corporate giant National Power Corporation, thinking I was empowering my nation. Yet in the last decade of my career, with the government’s peace process, I confronted hunger, destitution, homelessness, helplessness and powerlessness beyond my grasp. And it pains me so bad that despite my being a beneficiary of my own people’s sweat and blood, as product of government schools and grantee of state scholarships afforded by my people’s taxes, I couldn’t even utter a word of hope to a million internally displaced persons in my beloved homeland – my own people struggling through the armed conflict that has haunted us through half a century. Through it all, for lack of choices durability has become our way of life; for lack of chances spontaneity has sustained us into a culture; for lack of stability resiliency has become our strongest anchor; and for lack of security we find refuge and redemption in each other’s embrace.
The Philippines is a beggar sitting in gold. Now I know what this means exactly - as multi-national companies keep investing in my country’s rich resources, with foreign business ventures like mining industries, dairy, farm and sea food processing and wet and dry goods manufacturing. Tourism industry is a big deal, too, with such beautiful and pristine tropical beaches, amazing flora and fauna, panoramic landscapes and natural endowments matched with my people’s warmth and hospitality. And most of all, as Filipinos increasingly prove to be the nation’s greatest economic assets, not only in the Philippines, but in the global arena as well. A beggar sitting in gold, yes, because despite all the wealth my country is abundantly blessed with, the Philippines is still a thriving economy in the third world.
There is not much I would like to change in my country, with my people. I know somehow we will go on in unending breakthroughs as a nation. We will give our all and do our best, through strife and triumph, through pain and gain, through shame and fame, as we hold on together with steadfast and unrelenting solidarity.
All my life I will never cease seeing the beauty of my country and feeling the goodness of my people. I am a Filipino. The Philippines is my homeland, my very own, my only one. I love to live here … and I hope to die here.