The overflowing river took their lives away. Six young children wanted to cross through it during one rainy day in order for them to get home. It was on the 10th of October in 2010. That news made me cry.
I used to walk from our sitio to my school in Poblacion. The travel would take my little feet from fifty minutes to one hour. For other children and teens in many parts of the country, it would take them hours. For Enna, Herlen, and Riza, five hours.
“Makapoy pero kinahanglan lakton para maka-eskwela, makatapos, maka-obra, kag makabulig kanday Tatay kag Nanay. Daw wala man rasun para mag untat kag magreklamo”
[It’s tiring but I need to. I want to finish school, find a job, and help my parents. There is no reason to complain.]
Enna’s brother was one of those six young children who died in the river incident in 2010. He was just 7 then. As she timidly answered my questions, I could still feel the loss. But when Herlen joined us, I felt the light-hearted air.
Enna smiled more.
“Masadya maglakat-lakat sang mga lima ka oras. Damo lang kami mastoryahan kag makita. Kung kis-a may away-away kami nga gamay, wala naman dayun kay ulupod man kami lakat sang malawig.”
[Walking for five hours is fun. We talk about so many things. Even when we have petty conflicts sometimes, they are forgotten because we have to walk together.]
Indeed, the long walks to school have forged lasting friendships. It took me back to my younger years when I walked with Bik-bik, Nora, and Dondon. We talked a lot about our dreams. We used banana leaves as umbrellas and shared it amongst ourselves.
“Abi mo kis-a, may mga pispis kami na nga makita, isipon pa na namon tag-isa isa kag magkanta-kanta.”
[You know what, when we’d often see birds, we’d count them one by one and we’d sing together.]
Enna and Herlen started to walk far when they were in Grade Four. Each morning, they had to walk for almost two hours to get to school. They graduated from elementary with a pair of calloused soles, but a thousand memories’ worth of encounters with nature shared with each other. When they went to San Antonio National High School, nothing could stop them – not even the heavy rains.
There were no umbrellas, just large leaves. There were no raincoats, just their young bodies. On rainy months, they’d pack their uniforms and shoes in plastic bags and would only wear them as soon as they reached school. They were never afraid of the rain. When the rivers were too strong, they would wait for it to get calmer. When the lightning got too scary, they’d hide amongst the trees.
For them, the exhaustion was nothing compared to the hours of joy they had. When they spotted fruits along the way, they’d climb its trees to get them. When it’s sugarcane season, they’d suck the sweetness with laughter.
“Damo kami tanum kag mga bulak sa balay kay kung may malabyan kami nga nami, ma-utod kami para dal-un puli ka itanum. Haha!”
[We have a lot of plants and flowers at home because we’d cut a part of the plants we find on our way home… then plant them in our yard!]
21 years ago, the rain did not stop me too. It did not stop us. We’d stand wishful under a big mango tree until the downpour stops. We’d squeeze our skirts the moment we arrived in Poblacion so our uniforms would dry up as our classes went along. In the afternoon, we’d hold hands and walk back.
Herlen is now studying in NIPSC-Ajuy; she is now in her first year as a Computer Technician student. When she quit high school for a year, she also earned a certificate from the local Alternative Learning System (ALS). Enna has finished high school but cannot continue studying in college as of the moment for her parents can no longer afford. She wants to find a job.
Riza is now 15. She has been walking to San Antonio National High School from Nagpana for 3 years now. Like Enna and Herlen, her legs get tired in some days, but her spirit never does.
“Galakat ko upod si Rik-rik kag duwa pa ka taga diri. Malingaw man kami ka istorya kag kadlaw. Masadya man maglabay sa overflow kay malamig ang tubig. Ka preska.”
[I walk with Rik-rik and two other students from here. It’s amusing to talk and laugh with them while walking. It’s fun to pass through the overflow because the water is refreshing.]
I asked them what keeps them walking that far. Their answers were the same:
I will never forget the light in their eyes.
(Author’s note: May schools become more accessible. I sometimes even think that local government units have to go minimal on their yearly “lakbay aral” to faraway tourist destinations and spend more time in their respective areas. I know what really happens in those trips. We had them during my Sangguniang Kabataan days and I even refused to join major lakbay-arals back then because they cost a lot.
It’s my hope that local leaders visit villages to immerse themselves in their communities more – to listen and feel the plight of the people, especially the young dreamers. I hope that would allow them to take pro-active approaches to implement their educational programs.
These young people are full of hope. We must honor this light and take responsibility in guiding them. For me, poverty of the spirit is way more discouraging than a pair of exhausted legs and toes.
To those of you who are still walking…
To those of you who have found the grandeur and humility because you have walked…
May it continue to be a pilgrimage of hope and resilience.
Dreams are destinations.)
Originally published in ProjectIloilo.com