midsayap. tacurong. matalam. these are towns in the southern philippine island of mindanao, and if you have not heard of any of these places, it is not because you are ignorant or not well traveled. it is because none of these places, which count as among the least developed places in the country, is on any of the well-known tourist itineraries known to even the most intrepid of travelers. i spent 3 days in mindanao recently as part of work, visiting peace build sites of habitat for humanity, and i felt a welcome few tourists will ever find in the most luxurious of locations.
habitat's work is focused on building homes for the filipino families who belong to the lowest-income bracket. this particular project is important because other than one's state of poverty, to qualify for the program, a family must either have been directly affected by the protracted violence between the moro national liberation front (MNLF) and the armed forces of the philippines (AFP), either as families of former combatants, or those misplaced by the once-frequent clashes.
i had first come to learn about habitat when former US president jimmy carter came to the philippines in 1999. however, habitat has been working in the philippines since 1988. the project in mindanao was touching and moving in many levels. although at first i always thought that habitat gave the houses for free, i learned while looking closely at the project that the beneficiaries have to pay the cost of the homes in monthly instalments lasting 5 or 10 years.
i initially asked why this was so, but when i realized how empowered the homeowners become, driven as they are not just pay the monthly bill that often is no more than P550, but also to achieve other goals in the near and medium-term, i began to realize that the construction of homes is only the first step in helping these families rise from the clutches of poverty. by giving them a sense of ownership -- they invest a lot of sweat equity into their little homes, hauling water, mixing sand and cement, digging the foundations, etc. -- they don't just build the four corners of a basic house with no divisions, but they lay the cornerstone for the birth of a community. a lot of other things, like water supply and electricity, follow, slowly, but certainly.
during our visit, we had occasion to speak to many of the homeowners. they are often shy about the immediate improvement in their lives, even less forward about how they only manage to pay when the yield of their farms is sufficient, but they are profuse with gratitude to us. but any and all congratulations are deserved by no one but themselves.
the visit to all these places, often tucked away from any of the major road networks in mindanao, was profound. i am not at all detached to the realities of poverty. but it has prodded me to rethink many of the precepts i once had about the philippines. i used to think that poverty is the root cause of all the ills in the country. but after these visits, and not necessarily due exclusively to them, i am ever more eager to understand the philippine condition. is poverty a cause, or a result, of this nation's greatest burdens? if the latter, then what is the reason? i do not necessarily think that i will find an acceptable answer anytime soon, but at least, in trying to find a suitable explanation, i will better understand the present, and how it relates to history, and maybe, even plot out a future.