Time to get to know the Waray people

(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.)

(Samar and Leyte shield the rest of the Visayas islands from the furies of the Pacific Ocean)

(Samar and Leyte shield the rest of the Visayas islands from the furies of the Pacific Ocean)

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.

(Let's drink tuba)

(Let’s drink tuba)

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.

Twin destinies

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.

(The colorful hand-woven banig of Basey)

(The colorful hand-woven banig of Basey)

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' ubiquitous mode of transportation - Traysikol!)

(The Warays’ ubiquitous mode of transportation – Traysikol!)

Strategic location

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.

((“I have returned!”)

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.

(Sunset at Maqueda Bay)(Sunset at Maqueda Bay)

(This article was written and posted at Facebook on December 18, 2013 in tribute to the people of Samar and Leyte.)

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17 thoughts on “Time to get to know the Waray people

    1. In fairness, during her heyday, she shared some of the “blessings” with her fellow Leytenos. None, if at all, for the people of Samar except the construction of San Juanico Bridge linking the two islands.

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  1. Your article, including MacArthur’s landing in Red Beach interests me so much. Having been born 6 months before his return, I got interested in the details of the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Tell me about it.

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  2. I’ve been followings news about the Yolanda victims from time to time and I’m just wondering if there are any updates on where have all the millions of dollars of donations from other countries gone. I would really appreciate if you could spare some time to enlighten me about this matter, if there is a way. Hope you mind, thanks…

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    1. As far as I know, the Government has not yet done an exact accounting of all the donations from foreign countries. There are reports, though, saying that most of the money is left untouched in the banks when the purpose precisely is to help the survivors recover from the tragedy. One of the justifications they cite for the slow rehabilitation is the difficulty in finding lands for the building of houses. Yet, private foundations like GMA Kapuso have already turned over permanent homes to hundreds of families in Tacloban and Palo, Leyte.

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  3. Ms. Meneses: Please don’t answer my question with a question. You mean to say you are optimistic that this next lineup of aspirants can do better, including your favorite, Mrs. Llamanzares? Am not a resident of Pinas, so don’t expect me to be fully updated. However, I am very much concerned about the future of my mother country and hoping for a good leader, peso has been devalued again. Moody’s rating on PH economy is dependent on who gets elected and foreign investors are nervous if not very much concerned. Let the Waraynons and others be very wise and intelligent in their choice.

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    1. I’m just saying that Noynoy Aquino’s government has not done anything really significant. What sticks to mind – at least to me – are the series of ‘kapalpakan’: from the Luneta hostage crisis to the Mamasapano massacre, with DAP, PDAF, MRT, Yolanda, etc. thrown in between. I will discuss this in greater detail when I do the open letter to Roxas. 🙂

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  4. An Open Letter to the Bashers of the Better Government

    To whom this letter may stab,

    I came to realize that some of you are supporters of two extraordinary politicians, the rest and the majority are supporters of plunderers, thus, let me start off by saying that I really admire Miriam Defensor Santiago for her intellect and regard Rodrigo Roa Duterte for his effectiveness in imposing discipline.

    Having said that, you should know better than going irrational and resort to propaganda and dirty campaign strategies.

    To blame every single mess that this country is experiencing to President Noynoy Aquino (P-Noy), who has only served for almost 6 years and the only President who has done a tangible drive against cancerous corruption is just unintelligible.

    Before you criticize the President, have you even thanked him for the significant things he has done for our country?

    Let me name some:
    ♦ The high GDP numbers per quarter which can only be achieved by effective economic reforms
    ♦ The increased ranking of the country in the Global competitive Index from 85th place to 65th place
    ♦ The record-breaking growth of Foreign Direct Investments to 2.8 billion dollars, outpacing Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore
    ♦ The record-high performances of Philippines Stock Exchange
    ♦ The lowest recorded inflation rate in five years and lower than the average inflation rates in Indonesia, Singapore, India, and Vietnam
    ♦ The Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s conferred investment grade status (BBB-) to the country and the Japan Credit Rating Agency upgraded the country one notch above investment grade (BBB)

    You may say that all of these achievements in numbers are nothing if the economic growth can’t be felt by ordinary Filipinos, yes that’s true but the task is not easy as you make it seem. You can’t expect the government to give out mansions and jobs directly to anyone who hasn’t even gone to school.

    Lifting the poor people of our country needs more than just saying the “Erap Para Sa Mahirap” or “Gaganda ang Buhay kay Binay” slogan. It starts with concrete economic plans and doing the right things to implement them.

    As the experts have said, it needs at least 10-15 years of sustained GDP at 6% – 7% of the Philippines to make the masses feel the economic growth.

    But first, to get to that point we need to support the efforts of the government which are good. When something good is done, we need to support it and drop the political agendas we have. It is the only way to go up.

    Stop the crab mentality. Just because you don’t like Pnoy, you bash everything he does and you discredit him of the good things he has done?

    I didn’t vote for him myself, I voted for “Gibo” but that didn’t make me bitter to Pnoy when he won Presidency. I supported him and his anti-corruption drive because I think it’s the best way to express my sense of nationalism – to support leaders and people doing good for the country.

    My support comes in different ways and one of them is this posting. Now for the things you are bashing him about, it’s really funny ‘coz it turns out you have nothing really substantial to throw against the President, let me go over them one by one.

    ♦ The “Tanim Bala” has been going on for several years before Pnoy’s term. Why blame this issue to the President despite his mandate for thorough investigation? He is doing his job and that’s it.

    ♦ The issue of the balikbayan boxes being stolen from by people from BOC has also been going on for so many years before Pnoy’s term. Why blame the President for this? It is only now that it has been taken into consideration and we should be thankful that action has been taken.

    ♦ Mamasapano – Many incidents of soldiers dying from an operation against MILF have happened before but why blame only Pnoy for this? If that’s the case, all who died in clashes with the rebels should have been blamed to all the previous Presidents as well.

    ♦ DAP was not pocketed by Pnoy, that’s the fact as of this time. If you do your thorough research you would know that DAP is a mechanism to boost-up government spending on priority projects and everything is accounted for and I can say this since no corruption case has surfaced out of it. If there is anyone who misused it, they are subject to charges, same with those who abused PDAF.

    Apparently, the Pnoy administration is transparent, thus DAP is reflected on a government site where one can see the list of projects and even how DAP works. (http://www.dbm.gov.ph/?page_id=9796)

    No matter how you blur out the issue by relentlessly stating the sum amount of DAP, educated people know that the whole sum of money was not stolen.

    Yes it was declared unconstitutional but no corruption charges came out of it. Until charges are filed, DAP remains not an issue for it has benefited the people and the country.

    For the record, Pnoy followed the Supreme Court ruling and stopped DAP despite its good effects to the economy, a plausible act of not being above the law.

    At the end of the day it’s not all brains, rather a right blend of skills, compassion, nationalism, intellect and charisma that makes an effective president.

    Thank you and have a good day.

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