Monday, March 11, 2013

The Song of Water Hyacinths along Belligerent Rivers: Lila Ramos Shahani’s ‘Boses Ng Pagbabago’

Book Cover: Boses Ng Pagbabago (Voices of Change)

“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”
~ Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta

Imagine an affluent little girl who brought home an emaciated and abandoned kitten in the neighborhood, painstakingly fed and cosseted the poor creature until it restored its health and felt at home in her delicate arms.

Now, imagine that diminutive gesture of kindness as the genesis of human compassion. As that affluent little girl grows older, that tiny seed of compassion grows deeper. And by the time she turns and matures into a woman, that compassion, particularly for the less fortunate, consumes her soul and being.

In her Boses Ng Pagbabago (Voices of Change), a recently launched book at the Department of Education in Pasig last February 26, 2013, HDPRC Assistant Secretary & Head of Communications Ms. Lila Ramos Shahani passionately voices out the unspoken struggles and victories of the 18 poor Filipinos from the different strata of our society.

The launch was attended by former President Fidel V. Ramos; Sec Armin Luistro and the Executive Committee of the Department of Education; former Senator Leticia R. Shahani; Mahar Mangahas of SWS; writer and columnist Krip Yuson; writer and head of the Siliman Writer's Workshop Susan Lara; Dr. Isagani Cruz of La Salle; Dr. Rebecca Añonuevo of Miriam College; artists Mac MacCarty and this writer; contributing photographers Christian Malubag, Bing Roxas and Jordee Queddeng; Rochit Tañedo; Anita Celdran; and other members of government agencies (DSWD, DILG, PCW) and civil society.

Lila Shahani, former President Fidel V. Ramos, DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman,
former Senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani, and  DepEd Secretary Bro. Armin Luistro

             Elegantly designed by Felix Mago Miguel with arresting full-colored images by Neal Oshima and other Filipino photographers, the book is a project of the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet (HDPRC) Cluster, which covers 26 government agencies dealing with poverty and development. The Cluster is headed by Secretary Dinky Soliman of DSWD, who also gave welcoming remarks after Asec Lila Ramos Shahani, head of communications of HDPRC and the book's editor-in-chief.

The 18 brief stories of the poor, as portrayed in the Boses Ng Pagbabago, are success stories of sacrifice and struggle, of finding opportunities provided by the different government agencies and NGOs, of achieving dreams and aspirations through perseverance and hard work, thus making them self-sufficient and productive in their respective communities.

Although, the stories were written in formulaic form, i.e., ‘From penury to self-reliant and productive citizen’ plot, juxtaposed with scholarly analysis, data, and information on the government’s anti-poverty programs and policies, the book provides a glimpse of hope and assurance that the perennial problem of poverty in the country is conquerable.

The poignant story of a 56 years old blind printer, for instance, named Rebecca Arabain; her poor condition and visual impairment did not prevent her vision from achieving her dreams for a better life.

For 30 years, as a supervisor of the Philippine Printing House for the Blind, she passionately devoted her life preparing, reading, editing, and printing the braille for the visually impaired students in the Philippine public schools. Consequently, she was able to open the eyes of her fellow blind Filipinos to see the color of hope amid their murky condition, literally and figuratively.

“What is particularly meaningful about this book is that it seeks to capture and present the voices of the poor themselves,” Ms. Shahani cogently said in her opening remarks at the book launch. “It tells stories of deprivation and destitution, and of efforts to overcome conditions that are nothing short of inspirational. In this way, it attempts to humanize those who have traditionally been consigned to the margins, having been rendered almost invisible.” 

In another story, it tells how a group of Liguasan women exploits the surplus of nature, turning the ‘explosion’ of water hyacinths at the war-torn regions of Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat into a productive source of livelihood. After gathering and pulling the stalks of the plant, they dry and weave them into bags and baskets for both local and foreign market. From there, the poor women’s elusive dreams blossom like the teeming water hyacinths along the rivers of their belligerent land.

Aside from the variegated success stories of the poor, the book discusses the historical aspect of poverty in the country, the government’s anti-poverty policies, and the poverty alleviation program under the Aquino administration. Equally compelling is the thorough analysis about the Philippine economy and its growth, and how the 2.3 million Filipinos fared in their destitute condition, as a tortuous scuffle to be constantly fought in the process.

Arguably, Ms. Shahani saw the paradoxical discrepancy of ‘economic growth’ in the country. For example, the reported 4.8 economic growth between 2003 and 2009 should have reduced the number of 19.8 million poor Filipinos; it catapulted, instead, to 23.1 million. “In short,” she says in the book, “economic growth did not benefit the poor as much as it benefitted corporations and families who were better-off.”

“In fact,” says Ms. Shahani bluntly, “economic growth heightened the disparity between rich and poor, across regions.”

But who is Lila Ramos Shahani, and why she gets entangled with the problems of poverty and human trafficking in the country? Instead of occupying a lucrative position in New York where she obtained her academics and clouts, what prompted her to come back: A nostalgic memory of home or a haunting emaciated call from the squalid alleyways of our society?

 Lila Shahani with her mother, former Senator Leticia R. Shahani
“Lila Shahani is an academic born into political aristocracy,” to borrow the words of John M. Glionna of Los Angeles Times, “who lived abroad for most of her life, until a natural disaster brought her back to the Philippines.”

Indeed, it was that disaster, Typhoon Ondoy, which impelled Ms. Shahani to write a moving letter, as accidental blogger, to her uncle the former President Fidel V. Ramos, expressing her disenchantment how the government poorly managed the crisis during and after the deadly Typhoon in 2009.

“Our government,” she wrote, “was as much to blame for the colossal loss of life and habitation in the country as was climate change.” 

She might have had earned the ire of her uncle and some cousins during that time, but her ardent supporters began to pour in on social networks. One reader, for example, commented: “This is one Filipina worthy of emulation. She speaks and writes the truth. The Philippines needs more people like her—women with balls!”

Perchance, Ms. Shahani is one of the most powerful female voices in the Philippines today, a controversial figure with acerbic but honest opinion as a social critic. Aside from advocating the rights of the victims of human trafficking and prostitution, she also defends some government policies and programs that are trenchantly criticized by both Filipino and foreign bloggers, political critics, activists, and intellectuals.

She sees the intrinsic benefits of government programs for the Filipinos, particularly the poor, they just needed time to take effect and yield results. But she is also critical how the government system works, laden with unnecessary protocols and bureaucracies. However, instead of being querulous over a failed system, she goes out her way, and even spends her own personal resources to offer the quality of service that she wanted for her fellow Filipinos.

“I am more of an artist that passionately pours her soul into her work,” she self-effacingly said to this writer.

In the middle of asking her questions, after the book launch right outside the entrance of DepEd Pasig, it was halted for a while when she thoughtfully asked her staff, helper, and driver if they had already eaten, if they needed money, or if they were fine. She talked to them with delicate voice and alacritous smile as if she was talking to a dear friend or a family member.

Such sensitive and solicitous gesture reflects the humanity of Ms. Shahani as a public servant. A degree of incredulity and skepticism that burrowed in the mind of this writer, about the government officials in Metro Manila, was partly transformed with awe and respect, after witnessing her caring nature for the majority unnoticed government workers.

She may look like a Bollywood actor or intellectual elite with endearing presence, or she may be perceived as the privileged daughter and niece of the prominent politicians in the country. Yet, in her own right, she is just that ‘affluent little girl’ who has a big heart for the downtrodden and the voiceless in our society. 

Although, there may be other government officials like her, the Filipinos, especially the poor, abused and violated women, need a younger blood with unwavering passion that they can identify with—intelligent, intrepid, honest, and compassionate—a woman with independent voice and principle to represent their hopes and dreams.

To sum, the Boses Ng Pagbabago does not only tell the plight and the success stories of some extremely poor Filipinos, it also provides a map in a wider perspective, with critical analysis and evaluation, how to combat the daunting problem of poverty in our midst.

Given the right opportunity, the ‘fortunate poor’ can also help their fellow poor Filipinos (2.3 million) in the form of ‘subsidiary empowerment,’ ‘dialogic immersion,’ and ‘equal dissemination’ of opportunities and livelihood resources.

Hence, if the poor Filipinos have that ‘political voice’ and ‘second chance’ to live their dreams and aspirations in life, as what the Boses Ng Pagbabago implicitly suggested, they can become an effective ‘agent’ of socio-economic reform in diminishing poverty in the country.

As the old adage says, “Only the poor understands the poor!”

 Exhibited photos at DepEd Pasig during the book launch of  Boses Ng Pagbabago

No comments: