TRUTH is stranger than fiction, so I heard. Take Virgilio’s case, for example. He is from Brgy Cabalagnan (literally, a place with vines), one of those villages in my parish that can be so easy to forget because they are so hard to get to. Looking back, I feel now that my meeting him was a cross between accident and destiny. Cabalagnan is more than an hour walk from Brgy Camada which is a ten-to-fifteen-minute ride from Brgy Lalawigan, the center of my parish. At that point I had lost track of the exact number of kilometers to measure the distances. I had just celebrated the Eucharist and received simple but generous “thank you” gifts of root crops, veggies and bananas from the villagers for the efforts my companions and I made to reach them.
Actually when I saw them with broad daylight smiles bringing said gifts during the Offertory, I was more worried than glad. You guessed right. It meant we had to carry added burdens aside from our bags on our way back. You would react the same way, too, if you were in my boots (I was wearing a pair). Yes, I decided to use a pair of boots because the last time I was in Brgy Cabalagnan, some zigzagging, up-and-down and just plain pathways were under water or muddy. I remember wishing I had boots on instead of the rubber shoes I was wearing then. This time I saw that having boots was a big mistake. The road surfaces were dry, rough and tough because of El Niño. My feet were swollen from walking because I refused to put on socks out of some misplaced pride in my ability to endure the boots with bare feet. I had to eat my pride for breakfast when I went asking to buy a pair of socks from a parishioner in the village. Thankfully, I found what I needed.
But let me go back to my story. The Brgy Chairman sought and easily found someone who would bring the rather onerous offertory gifts. But I gasped when I saw a rather diminutive boy carrying some native backpack loaded with our root crops, veggies and bananas bulging on his back. I felt I couldn’t take what I was seeing.
“What’s your name?” I asked. “Virgilio po.” “How old are you?” “Ten po.” “Do you go to school? What grade?” “Yes po. Grade three po.” So that’s why he speaks partly in Pilipino, I thought. School can make people speak Pilipino. But that’s no guarantee they’ll act like they are, I said to myself. “I don’t think I’ll let you carry all that load,” I said, trying to be manfully righteous. “Even I won’t dare to do that nor ask you to, not only because my own bag is heavy enough but also because you are a child…” “Padre, it’s ok. I can carry as much as 30 kilos, as a matter of fact…” “What?” I exclaimed. “You carry 30 kilos of what?” “Copra po. There are no vehicles that can come here. Our roads can be very difficult and dangerous. So they hire us sometimes.” “And how much do they give you for 30 kilos of copra?” “Depends, Padre. Some copra dealers just give twenty pesos, others are even more miserly because they give less.”
I was furious at being unable to dissuade Virgilio. Yet, frankly, I couldn’t, for all the manly pride I had in my physical abilities, take the load off his back. I had to admit I wouldn’t be able to walk and carry that load at the same time. And I couldn’t ask him to go back to the village either, as he behaved like the bulging basket on his back was just a piece of salukara (our local rice pancake) compared to 30 kilos of copra. But I felt terribly sorry for him and the reasons why his parents wouldn’t hesitate to allow him to do child labor.
In fact, parents in Brgy Cabalagnan and in its environs assume not only the rightness of this awful practice but also demand child labor from kids like Virgilio as though it were among their parental rights. There certainly are anti-child-labor laws in the Philippines. But who would enforce them in this law-and-order-forsaken place? Who would not be compelled to ask little children to do heavy adult labor when there are no farm-to-market roads worth the name to Brgy Cabalagnan and not even a shadow of them to Brgys Banuyo, Canyupay, Hebacong, Benowangan, Baras, Pinanag-an and Bagong Baryo?
In other words, child labor in our benighted land is a direct product of the virtually ‘invisible’ services one expects from a working government. You might say, “Why doesn’t he simply admit it indicates bad governance?” One could say, “What governance? There’s nothing you can call that here.” Maybe I’d say “minimal governance” after a season of maximum political propaganda (the recent elections). Different shells, you might retort, same eggs. Believe me poverty can rob you of the ability to distinguish things.
Virgilio and I had a long chat about school. “How is school?” “Ok, Padre. Grades One, Two and Three are all in one classroom. Masaya pero maingay (fun but noisy).” I tried to give him my cap. “Take my cap, so it won’t be too hot while you walk with that load.” It was a very humid El Niño day. I thought it was the least I could do to ease his burden. He refused. “Salamat na lang po, Padre (No, thank you, Father). Sa ‘yo na lang po (Please have it for yourself).” I sensed that he thought I needed it more than he did. I was put to shame by his deliberate toughness.
The day’s mood was sunny but, as I hiked with Virgilio, I remembered the song about laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. That’s how I felt for myself, for my homeland, for Virgilio and children like him, for my parish, for Borongan my hometown of which these villages are a part, for my province Eastern Samar, for my country. I asked myself, “Until when do we refuse to learn and finally stop going round and round in circles reaping the fruits of a sick political culture that makes money decide elections, bringing leaders that hardly lead, servants that barely serve?”
As we reached Brgy Camada I thanked Virgilio and gave him something more than the usual fee for 30 kilos of copra. I saw his eyes flash gratefully. But I knew it was still a pittance for all his pain. But I was not prepared for what I would see next.
I saw a smaller boy, around eight years of age, by the waiting shed, sweat all over his body and a huge ‘sarasad’ basket full of veggies, root crops and house items on his back, which he ever so slowly laid down. On the other side of the road his mother was barking commands to his younger brother, around seven years old. He too had an identical huge ‘sarasad’ basket on his back that seemed to dwarf him. Both were about to get their rest, still breathing hard and perspiring profusely after a long hike. It seemed to me that they were Virgilios carrying the burdens of our sins…
As I watched them with bated breath I soon found myself wrestling with another question: Will a smiling tomorrow ever overtake these boys?
The answer depends on whether you and I will do something about it.