BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews / 25 December) – In less than five minutes, Ignohassan Mustajid disappeared in the maze of stilt houses in a community of Bajau in coastal Barangay Nalil where his family has been living in a dilapidated single-room wooden hut.
For first-time visitors, going to the house of the 2019 Palarong Pambansa gold medalist in lawn tennis is a tough act as the footbridge is so narrow and there are no railings to help keep one’s balance.
Fondly called “Pendeg,” the 14-year-old Grade 9 student literally floated like a butterfly while crossing the footbridge, a masterclass of agility and balance every step of the way.
This daily routine may have unconsciously helped mold what he had achieved so far as the first Bajau to win a gold medal in lawn tennis in the 2019 Palarong Pambansa (National Games).
Tennis requires excellent footwork, agility, flexibility and balance.
Mustajid was introduced to the world of tennis when he was seven years old. Poverty pushed him to tennis and he hopes tennis will push him out of poverty and fulfill his dream of a better life for their family of six. He is the second among four children.
In his desire to help bring food to the family table, Mustajid at the age of seven, started serving as “pulot boy” or one who picks up wayward tennis balls and returns them to those who play tennis to keep fit or to have fun.
He gets around 20 pesos or food and drinks, for his role in the tennis match.
Considered a sport for rich people, Mustajid tore down the social divide through grit, constant practice, hard work and the generosity of supporters in his hometown.
He began his tennis journey using rackets fashioned from used plywood he found in the streets.
“I would hit a discarded tennis ball using a wooden racket while learning the ropes of the game. My father does not have a regular job. My family cannot afford to buy me a real tennis racket, not even the cheapest one,” he narrated when MindaNews visited his house on December 7.
Mustajid managed to use a real tennis racket while serving as “pulot boy.” Sometimes between breaks, kind tennis players would lend their rackets to “pulot boys” so they could play the game.
Borrowed tennis racket
He built on from that opportunity, becoming a varsity player of the Bongao Central Elementary School in Grade 4. He used a borrowed tennis racket for practice and during tournaments.
Tennis brought Mustajid out of his shell and made him see the larger world outside his province.
“If not for playing tennis, I won’t be able to travel outside of Tawi-Tawi,” he said.
In 2018, he was among the tennis players recruited to represent the then Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao during the Palarong Pambansa in Ilocos Sur.
It was his first travel outside Tawi-Tawi. His family could not shell out any money. His father Eddie is a porter at the public market and his mother Anita does laundry for well-off neighbors outside the Bajau community.
If Eddie is lucky to get hired for the day, he can bring home 100 pesos while Anita earns 700 pesos a month for her laundry work. His older brother does odd jobs with no fixed income. Because of their situation, Mustajid forced himself to earn money, no matter how little, so he could help the family.
Becoming a “pulot boy” was the best and easiest option for him.
Watching from the sidelines of the tennis court and picking up the balls for the tennis players, it was as if he was just playing a game.
His first Palaro stint was a fluff – he lost in the elimination.
However, it made him more determined, thinking of the support he got from Bongao’s tennis community, which provided his tennis racket, a pair of shoes and cash allowance for his trip to Northern Luzon.
Despite his unsuccessful bid, he returned home with a happy memory of the Palaro: he was inspired to practice with more intensity and focus while serving as “pulot boy.”
And his efforts paid off. In the 2019 Palarong Pambansa in Davao City, he brought home gold and silver medals for the BARMM athletic delegation.
The gold medal was for the doubles event and the silver medal for the team event in the elementary division – a tennis feat only Mustajid has achieved as a Bajau and as an athlete of the BARMM.
The BARMM delegation garnered a total of three gold, ten silver and six bronze medals during the 2019 games. Team Bangsamoro placed 16th among the 17 regions that saw action in the country’s annual biggest sporting event for the youth.
The two other gold medals won by the BARMM delegation were from the athletics long jump and athletics triple jump events also in the elementary level.
Aside from the gold and silver medals, which are considered treasures by his family, Mustadjid returned home with P35,000 worth of cash incentives from the BARMM for winning gold and silver – P20,000 for gold and P35,000 for silver. It was athe single biggest amount his family ever received in their lifetime.
Prize money for boat
Mustajid took only 500 pesos from the cash incentives he received to buy notebooks for himself. He bought his father a second-hand wooden banca.
“It’s my father’s long dream to own a motorboat. He was very happy when we bought one for him. I’m very happy for him because he could go out to the sea to fish,” the son said.
Bajaus are sometimes referrerd to as “Sea Gypsies.” But fishing did not augur well for his father, who sometimes came home with no catch.
Two years later, the banca is docked at the shore, needing repair as some parts are rotting, and the family is still saving money to have it fixed. Mustadjid declined to answer how much was needed for the repairs.
Eddie is back as porter at the public market, competing with other porters who are all at the beck and call of traders to carry their goods.
Mustajid is banking on tennis to obtain a scholarship and finish college
so he can spring his family from the quagmire of poverty.
Police or Air Force
“My dream is to become a policeman or member of the Philippine Air Force,” he said.
His parents are supportive of his love for tennis, letting him practice during his free time.
At the same time, Mustajid continues to watch from the sidelines as “pulot boy” to earn some money even if he’s good at playing the game.
He joined other local tennis tournaments and managed to save enough from his winnings to buy himself a smartphone.
“This kid has the talent and his potential to make a name in tennis is big,” said John Paul Santos, tourism officer of Mapun Island and a tennis fanatic.
Every time Santos is in Bongao, he would call on Mustajid to be his tennis partner, giving him some cash or non-cash incentives in return.
Santos vowed to help Mustajid achieve his dreams, and hopes that others will pitch in to support the Bajau boy in his tennis journey.
According to Santos, tennis somehow shed off the inferiority complex of Mustajid. He noted that because of his Palaro feat and his exposure in the tennis courts, Mustajid has been mingling with people outside his community, unlike his peers who usually keep to their own community.
“That is already a huge personal victory for this kid and his feat in tennis should serve as in inspiration to his fellow Bajaus,” he added.
Santos always reminds Mustajid to keep his focus and continue improving his skills to become better in the game.
The gold medalist acknowledged the advice with burning fire in his eyes, but he apparently needs all the help he could muster since the expenses for the game, such as shoes and racket, are simply beyond the reach of his family.
Mustajid hopes to shine again in the 2023 Palarong Pambansa to bring honor and glory for the Bajau and the BARMM.
There has been no Palaro since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mustajid hopes he will perform better in 2023
(Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)