i create. i am a creation.

My childhood and the dying sakada child

Posted on: August 1, 2014

I was reading my old blogs and deleting spam comments when I encountered two comments that prompted me to resurrect this blog today.

The entry was about Joel Abong, the symbol of poverty in the Philippines, the poster child of the sufferings of the sakadas in the 1980s. He haunted my childhood, changing me forever and ever. (No, he’s not the reason why I am fat today. Let’s just say I’m scarred forever because there will always be a part of me that would hanker for a meaningful job, instead of getting rich and have a happy ignorant life.)

One of the comments in my old blog directed me to Kim Komenich‘s page devoted to his coverage of the Philippines during the tumultuous Marcos regime leading to Cory Aquino’s ascent to presidency.

Photo by Kim Komenich/San Francisco Examiner) Young tuberculosis/malnutrition victim Joel Abong is among the hardest-hit of the children at The Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Hospital in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. The hospital is home to a clinic where about a dozen kids are being treated for third degree malnutrition as a result of lack of food due to sugar layoffs. Joel’s father, a fisherman, cannot make enough money to feed Joel and his six siblings. It is doubtful whether Joel, photographed on May, 4, 1985, will recover. (revolutionrevisited.com/remember)

I remember Joel Abong as a sakada child whose emaciated body was plastered all over the newspaper’s front page (and for the life of me I cannot remember what newspaper was that because I’m not sure if it was right before or after EDSA I). Now I don’t know if my parents mistook him for a sakada child, the newspapers mistook him for a sakada child or, as one of the commenters in my old blog claimed, his parents were paid by the photojournalist to pass him off as a sakada child.

Little did I know that this child — skin and bones and all — would haunt me for eternity.

My mother always showed me the newspaper clipping of Joel Abong whenever i threw tantrums and didn’t want to eat. I was really a picky eater then. She often reminded me that I was fortunate that I had something to fill me up whereas this child did not. (Don’t get me started–my parents didn’t care about the psychological repercussions of my harsh education as long as I grew up to be a compassionate and mulat na Filipino).

Because of that, I could not forget that image and his name.

His memory was again resurrected in my head when I watched Maalaala Mo Kaya four years ago featuring a sakada family. Two of the letter sender’s siblings died of hunger and neglect, because of their parents’ ignorance and because their situation was further aggravated by their father’s abusive nature and irresponsibility. I cried towards the end of the episode and I couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason why… Maybe because the drunkard, abusive father asked for forgiveness from his son whom he banished more than 15 years ago or because of the plight of the letter sender’s family.

When MKK showed the ashen corpse of the letter sender’s youngest sibling, the image of Joel Abong suddenly flashed through my mind. No, they didn’t look alike but their lasting impression on me was the same: it was that of horror.

At the back of my mind I know people like them die everyday and stark realities like these every now and then get shown on TV. I’m angry that a child could die like. What makes me more frustrated was that I don’t know if my being a journalist is making any dent to their situation. I don’t know if I am making a difference. Our housekeeper that time asked me (she was watching MKK with me that time when we were having dinner) if it’s true that such things happen. Yes, I replied. It happens everyday. And I don’t know if I am doing anything about it.

We, the burgis crowd, are lucky we don’t know the realities of what this woman lives with everyday. We only get to do stories about them. We only get to read them. Like poverty pornography in print.

I remember my friend of so many years became so disillusioned with multilateral/bilateral projects/grants/loans after being part of one of those “aid” projects in the country. Part of her job was going around the country, to the most depressed places you could think of, and see the areas that needed “development”, to put it simply.

She met a family from a province down south who cut and gathered firewood for a living. All of the children had to work alongside their parents day in and day out so that they could earn a maximum of P250 a day. Collectively. for a day’s work each of them only earned P50.

In contrast, her bosses — the project consultants — were earning at least P350,000 a month. She complained that some of them weren’t even reporting to the office and weren’t doing any work at all since most of the “work” just piled up on other people. As if these consultants were just milking the project of those much-needed dollars that should be going to these impoverished families. She knew they weren’t doing anything much to help solve the poverty problem and all of what they were producing were papers, recommendations — those sort of stuff that wouldn’t really put food in those wood gatherer’s stomachs.

She asked whether there were any sense at all in these projects. She asked me, why can’t these multilateral or bilateral agencies just use the P350,000 paid to each of those “consultants” to help the wood gatherers and their kind instead?

She was so distraught and disillusioned. She resigned from her high-paying job (at that time) and wandered around for a while until she found herself again.

I couldn’t blame her. I would be questioning my raison d’ etre if I were put in her shoes.

Was my father right all along? The debate still continues if these loans do really help the poor.

And now back to the sakadas, I wonder about the sugar workers of the azucareras in the south. I wonder what happened to Joel Abong, his family. I wonder about the farmers who continue to suffer, with climate change, with the failure of WTO agreements and the so-called safety nets that economists promised two decades ago.

I wonder about where I will be going.






5 Responses to "My childhood and the dying sakada child"

Who says that meaningful and rich & happy are mutually exclusive? 🙂

Well, if you go by my history, meaningful (journalism) and rich (material) really don’t go hand in hand. Happy is the deal-breaker.

This is a great piece. It is like a beautiful sword- direct and horribly precise

Hello, I come from Negros and, as a young journalist, saw Joel Abong die. My mother was chief of pediatrics in provincial hospital where they brought Joel. His parents were former sugar workers and his father was a fisherman, too, during off season. But they had relocated to Bacolod City, in Banago, the squatter colony beside the city’s main port in those days. He wasn’t a sacada but in 1985 the crisis of our monocrop island affected everyone. He was a child of poverty, of a system that bred so much injustice that killed people slowly. At the height of the crisis, bato ang ulam ng ibang sacada. Stumbled on your blog because I was researching more… having lost all my notes during those turbulent times and not able to immediately go to check the libraries for my old stories.

I’m writing something and would like to get your permission to quote you here: “My mother always showed me the newspaper clipping of Joel Abong whenever i threw tantrums and didn’t want to eat. I was really a picky eater then. She often reminded me that I was fortunate that I had something to fill me up whereas this child did not. ” Will include link to your post

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life in business journalism

crazy. exciting. boring to some but hey, you get to understand the world better when you're a business journalist. you learn to be patient with tons of documents, make sense of numbers and charts. all geeky stuff. this is my story, behind the scenes.
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