Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘To Be Poor and Obscure: The Spiritual Sojourn of a Mindanawon’ by Karl Gaspar

by Bryan Meniado

Last weekend, Dabawenyos celebrated the first in-person Kadayawan Festival after a two-year hiatus brought by the pandemic. The Kadayawan is an annual thanksgiving of life, culture, and bountiful harvest. It is derived from the local term “madayaw,” which loosely translates to good, valuable, and beautiful. 

This year’s celebration was also my first after a long while, since I had only followed the several previous iterations through TV broadcasts. In the past few years, I wasn’t even in Davao to witness the traditional street dancing called Indak-Indak sa Kadalanan and the Floral Float Parade, which exhibit the rich and diverse Indigenous cultures of the region. 

Hence, it was a treat to experience the festivities once again. I also had the chance to enjoy the abundance of durian and pomelo among other local fruits, which are a staple at this time of the year. Moreover, being in my hometown and experiencing Kadayawan after a while somehow rekindled my regional pride of being not only a Dabawenyo but also a Mindanawon. 

In the spirit of the Kadayawan, as well as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9 and Buwan ng mga Wika, I would like to expound more on this renewed sense of pride by sharing about a book on Mindanao by a fellow Mindanawon: To Be Poor and Obscure by Karl Gaspar. 

Karl Gaspar is a writer, social scientist, theologian, peace advocate, and Redemptorist lay brother, who has more than five decades of experience doing justice and development work among peasants, fisherfolk, and Indigenous peoples in Mindanao. The book, To Be Poor and Obscure, published by the Center of Spirituality-Manila and distributed by the Ateneo de Manila University Press in 2004, is a collection of his personal essays and reflections from his field and pastoral work that brought him to various corners of Mindanao—from the Zamboanga Peninsula and Lanao to Bukidnon, Surigao, and Sultan Kudarat. 

For this month’s WFSR, I would like to share my reflections and realizations from reading To Be Poor and Obscure. With this book, I hope that more Filipinos are encouraged to better appreciate and understand Mindanao, its people and their struggles, and its role in our national lives. 

Back to our roots

Mindanao tends to exude mixed impressions among Filipinos, especially those from the north. Some people would say “maganda talaga sa Mindanao, maraming pambihirang tanawin, at mababait ang mga tao.” But on the flip side, there’s a sense of apprehension because of the presence of separatist movements and rebels that would make people think twice about booking a flight to Sulu. They might ask, “Safe ba doon?” 

In relation, I remember when I first moved to Manila for university. Some of my “northern” classmates had asked me questions along the lines of whether I rode the carabao to school, “nabobomba ba kayo,” or “may mall ba sa inyo.” I didn’t find these queries insulting; in fact, I found them quite amusing as I really felt their genuine curiosity toward Mindanao. 

However, this unfamiliarity is not only applicable to our friends from Luzon and Visayas. To some extent, many of us Mindanawon don’t really know what makes us who we are beyond Mindanao being our place of birth. We sometimes take for granted other facets of our identity as Mindanawon like our languages, cultures, and histories. 

Nurturing peace amid diversity 

In my case as a lowland settler, one manifestation of this unfamiliarity is our indifference toward the “other” fellow Mindanawon. I’m pertaining to the apparent divide among Christians, Muslims, and Lumad. As much as we try to celebrate our diversity, coexistence, and shared identity, there is still some sort of a disconnect, maybe brought by our lack of knowledge on history and the plights of one another, especially those who are marginalized such as the Lumad. 

As Karl Gaspar discussed in one of his essays where he reappropriated Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, we create our own “imagined tribes.” It is when we think of people as part of our group or otherwise, that is to think of them as not part of our group. And this happens among us Mindanawon every time we “other” Lumad because they are so and so, or when we stereotype Muslims or lowland settlers.

But I don’t want to sound pessimistic and disparaging. Indeed, there are many instances of peaceful coexistence, tolerance, and acceptance among the so-called tri-people across Mindanao. It’s just that—and I think Karl Gaspar would agree—there is still a lot of work left to do in terms of advocating peace and development in the region. In his long experience in the field, Karl Gaspar hopes that more people, especially young Mindanawon, will follow through and engage with the grassroots in order to serve and empower the marginalized, and foster a deeper respect, understanding, and appreciation of our diversity as a people. 

Never forget, never again

One way to nurture respect, understanding, and appreciation amid diversity is by educating ourselves about our history and culture. In this time when disinformation is widespread, it’s unfortunate that we tend to relegate history as something trivial. We even vilify our respected historians just because the facts don’t agree with our views and opinions. History, as a popular quote says, is not there for us to like or dislike but for us to learn from.

Sadly, because of our disregard for reliable sources, bona fide references, and esteemed scholars, we fall prey to the “Marites” versions of history that distort and deny facts, and exploit our ignorance. And I feel sorry not only for ourselves but more so for the victims of atrocities and abuses of the past like Karl Gaspar, who was a political prisoner during Martial Law. It’s such a shame that instead of binding us together, our history, or rather our historical delusions, further divide us as a people. 

To be better people 

To Be Poor and Obscure, written by a scholar, is more like a diary than an academic read. Although we too can learn a lot about applied anthropology, theology, and missionary work, Karl Gaspar also shares some of his most intimate musings not only on Mindanao but also on his personal life. While reading about his triumphs, frustrations, and disappointments relating to his life and experiences on the field, I could feel his sincerity and desire to give back to the community and to serve the marginalized.

Furthermore, the wisdom of Karl Gaspar’s writings goes beyond time and space. Given his background as a lay brother, everyone—regardless of whether one is from Mindanao—can pick up a lot of learning from his essays, ranging from how to live a simple life and how to be more forgiving to how to face our fears and embrace our mortality. 

The most striking lesson I got from this collection is how one can willingly and consciously choose to be poor and obscure rather than to be rich and famous. This way of life encapsulates how a person can be so selfless to a point of sacrificing one’s comfort and privileges just to serve others. That really is an incredible level of commitment and altruism that not everyone can or willing to achieve. 

Moving forward as one 

My lasting impression of To Be Poor and Obscure is that everyone is connected no matter how far or different our life circumstances may be. In some way or another, we, as well as our life choices, are all interlinked. This has also reminded me of an important concept in sociology called “the sociological imagination,” or the ability to view social reality as it is projected from three coordinates: history, society, and biography. This means the capacity of the individual to understand personal circumstances in relation to the structures of the society. 

So the next time we hear about peace and development endeavors in Mindanao, we should always ask, “Development for whom?” Is this development also for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor? Is it for Moros, Christians, and Lumad? Is it beneficial for many and not just the few? Does it respect and uphold the rights of everyone? These reflections should remind us that in our quest for regional peace and development, no one should be left behind. Everyone should be in the same boat as we move forward so that the future of Mindanao will truly be madayaw. ☁️

Why Filipinos Should Read appears every last Friday of the month. Read more here.
This book and those in the last photo are available to read at Bibi Mangki Bookbed.

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