(Two years ago today, Super Typhoon Yolanda wreaked unimaginable devastation on that part of the archipelago often visited by destructive forces of nature. As a consequence, the Waray people of Samar and Leyte were thrust into the global spotlight in the Armaggedon-like aftermath where thousands of lives were lost — thousands more left uncounted by a callous government afraid of its own ghosts.
The survivors have since picked up the pieces of their lives, gingerly plugging the holes left by loved ones who lie unnamed in unmarked graves, never to be forgotten if only in their relatives’ hearts and minds. Stories of resilience and unbroken spirits abound — of children forced by circumstance to become adults in the way they look at life.
“Malipayon ako hit akon kinabuhi dinhi ha Tacloban,” a nine-year-old girl, speaking to Unicef, said. “I am happy with my life here in Tacloban” — imagine an innocent saying that while living with her family in a temporary home built from plywood bought through a cash grant given by a foreign NGO.
Sums up the kind of people the Waray people are, to say it once again.)
Regional stereotyping, or the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, has always characterized the people of Samar and Leyte as ‘matapang’ (or quick to pick a fight), ‘laid-back’ (or bahala na bukas, if you will), ‘heavy drinkers’ (tagay-tagay is their pastime) and ‘happy-go-lucky’ (or smiley, if you are referring to the commercial models of ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’).
There may be some tinge of truth to those perceptions, especially if one has only heard of the Waray-Waray Gang as a point of reference, your house help is from some obscure town in Samar, you’ve tasted tuba and found it too pedestrian, or you have Waray friends and you think they are too carefree for their own good. Add to that the dubious distinction of residing in some of the poorest provinces in the country.
True, the Warays are maisog (brave), in more ways than not just backing down or surrendering from a fight. One only has to hark back to 1901 when bolo-wielding natives attacked an American regiment stationed at Balangiga, Eastern Samar and dealt the US Army one of their worst military defeats. The Balangiga Massacre, which turned Samar into a ‘howling wilderness,’ was regarded as one of the bravest acts by Filipinos at war time.
True, drinking is their main form of diversion and tuba is their passion. Men and women happily partake of their indigenous drink after a hard day at sea catching fish or at the fields tilling soil, with their day’s catch as sumsuman. They gather at dusk in kamaligs or makeshift sheds, chat away to their hearts’ content, and gleefully break into non-stop singing. Many of the menfolk also work as combat soldiers; they man cargo ships that traverse dangerous waters marauded by pirates – and a shot or two of their favorite spirits helps keep the gloom and doom away.
Their teenaged girls and middle-aged women are sought-after as maids and yayas by the rich and not-so-rich in the Big City, some of them grossly underpaid and treated like slaves by their masters. They have no choice but do menial work because poverty never gave them the chance to earn a decent education. Then again, how can they afford to be easy-going and upbeat when they have almost nothing in life? Mind you, they don’t just smile, they laugh; and their laughter, which often becomes boisterous, hides their pain and lifts their soul.
There are many prominent Waraynons in national government, business, entertainment, high fashion, sports, and mass media – but most of them have chosen to take a low profile, for one reason or another, in terms of pushing the region into getting at least a share of their spotlight. Some who have the capacity to help their relatives and town mates do so without fanfare, which is admirable; others just seem unconcerned even as they can use their status and friendship with people in high places to have the plight of their fellow Warays thrust into the national consciousness.
Despite being bigger in land area (third largest land mass in the whole archipelago) and being rich in mineral deposits and other natural resources, Samar has largely toiled under the shadow of its more progressive sister province, Leyte. When the Imeldific was at her most powerful, she saw to it that Leyte got all the bread. Samar was content getting the crumbs, especially after San Juanico Bridge connecting the two islands was built. Nevertheless, their people continued to live in harmonious co-existence, with bahalina, curacha, binagol, latik, moron, banig, kinilaw, silot and humba binding them together as kindred spirits.
Typhoons of all strengths and appellations are common occurrences in the two islands especially at the coastal towns facing the Pacific Ocean. Among the most typhoon-prone is Guiuan, Eastern Samar located at the southern tip, where super storm ‘Yolanda’ made its first landfall, wreaking unimaginable havoc in its wake. With its eye hovering over the fringes of Tacloban City in Leyte, a storm surge never seen before left a swathe of death and destruction too mind-boggling to comprehend. The destinies of Samar and Leyte are apparently intertwined.
Majority of the people in the remote barrios live in thatched huts and fragile dwellings, yet they manage to withstand the severe blows of Nature, year in and year out, and get on with their lives without complaining. They don’t complain that they are not given much in terms of improving their situation although they are witness to how their politicos and bureaucrats have built big, pretentious houses and acquired fat, expensive cars over the years. That might be their main weakness, if one can call it that: They are a contented people, rightly or not. While others might whine and curse their misfortune, the impoverished Waray just live and let live.
The Warays were the first Filipinos that Ferdinand Magellan encountered when he set foot on Philippine soil in March 1521, paving the way for the country’s discovery by the Western civilization. The Portuguese explorer and his fleet of three ships first landed in Homonhon Island, just south of Guiuan, and the first Mass was celebrated at Limasawa Island, off the coast of nearby Leyte – thereby also making the pre-colonial Waray people the first Filipino Christians. And as further testament to their strategic locations, the Americans set up an air base in Guiuan during World War II, and General Douglas MacArthur ‘returned’ to liberate the Philippines by landing on Red Beach in Palo, at the outskirts of Tacloban. Not to forget the Battle of Leyte Gulf, known as the biggest naval battle in modern history, after which Tacloban became the seat of the Commonwealth Government for a time.
By some stroke of fate, this ‘strategic location’ allowed probably the strongest typhoon ever recorded by man and machine to enter land at almost the very same spots. By virtue of the unprecedented magnitude of devastation inflicted by Haiyan/Yolanda, Tacloban and Guiuan suddenly became household words across the globe, courtesy of CNN, BBC, NYT, AFP, AP, Reuters, WSJ, MSNBC, ABC, Al-Jazeera, etc. – and the people of Samar and Leyte have finally earned the spotlight, albeit in dire and cataclysmic circumstances. After languishing for ages in the doldrums and struggling under the radar in extreme want, they are now ‘enjoying’ their fifteen minutes of fame. But what price ‘fame’? They have lost even the little that they had, and whilst many countries are giving financial and material aid, there is no guarantee that they will ever be able to better their lives.
Resilience amid neglect
Samar and Leyte have long been mired in poverty, too long that many generations of Warays have known only poverty all their lives. They have been neglected by their own government such that they have become inured to it. Now that they are in desperate need of help, they are made to wait, beg, and steal – for a little relief from hunger and thirst. Worse, they have been condemned as looters and undisciplined, mostly because they had to take the matter of their survival in their own hands, knowing from painful experience that no one will help them but themselves.
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper rhapsodized about the “Filipinos’ incredible strength”, he was decidedly looking at the victims of the calamity in the eye, and those victims are the ‘easy-going’ Warays. Through the foreign media – ‘parachute journalists’, so-called – the world now knows what kind of people the Filipinos are – strong, courageous, resilient, unbroken in the face of disaster and tragedy.
“They have every reason to despair, every right to be angry,” Cooper says. “Instead, they find ways to laugh, to love, stand up and move forward.” Sums up the kind of people the Waray people are, which, ironically, the rest of the Philippine population are only now just getting to know.
(This article was written and posted at Facebook on December 18, 2013 in tribute to the people of Samar and Leyte.)