KISSA AND DAWAT: Back to Bongao, the boom town

BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews/01 July) – After a few months lull, I was finally back in Bongao, the boom town, in Tawi-Tawi province, proverbially referred to as the land far, far away. These days it takes less than an hour to reach the capital town from Zamboanga City. Flights are daily and fully-booked most of the time.

Tawi-Tawi? Where is that? I was once asked this by a kababayan working in a duty-free shop at Melbourne airport. My best response was an analogy. Do you know Batanes Islands? “Nasa tabi ng Batanes ang Tawi-Tawi?”. “No, ang gusto ko lang sabihin ay kung pinaka-norte ng Pilipinas ang Batanes, ang Tawi-Tawi naman ang pinaka-south nito”, I explained. “Oh I see, so na ilalim pala ng Mindanao?”. She added, “parte pa ba ng Pilipinas ito?”

Tawi-Tawi used to be the southern part of Sulu until it was separated to become another province, with Batu-Batu as its original capital town in 1973. Its creation is based on the clamor of the majority and largely pacifist Sama-Bajaw population for their own self-governance.

Its original capital Batu-Batu is set in a cove on the eastern part of the mainland also called Tawi-Tawi and to the Sama-Bajaw locals as “Tana Mehe,” the big island. The local name conjures magnanimity as the main island is a great provider for the people when food becomes scarce in their small insular communities. Over the years, its magnanimity created a unique land-based lifestyle – Sama Daleya, Sama engaging in upland farming, like wild rice varieties cultivating native fruits and veggies, and harvesting from the rich wildlife, from eggs of the native Tabon chicken to medicinal herbs – atypical for a cultural group largely associated with the marine world.

Tana Mehe is also home to sacred spots called “tampat” where pre-Islamic rituals are practiced to appease the spirit world, the mystical home of “kaomboan” or ancestors. As such, it conjures safety from major natural and man-made calamities, such as big storms and refuge during colonial invasions from the Spaniards to the Americans and the Japanese.

However, after the Jolocaust of 1974, it was feared that Batu-Batu was highly vulnerable to be captured by the MNLF forces. The security decision was to transfer it to remote Bongao island at the southern tip of the mainland archipelago and to be constructed on a hill top. So, it is today.

Bongao’s metamorphosis started as a backwater village along the Aguada Bay. The Bongao Channel, the strait between Bongao and Sanga-Sanga islands, and the so-called “Tawi-Tawi Beach,” a wide coastal expanse of fine sands and coral reefs on the southern end of Bongao Island was enough source of daily seafood variety. No one goes hungry here as long as one is industrious and diligent enough to scour the rich coastal zones for one’s preferred seafood. Back then these coasts were communal property, all have access. But there are unwritten rules, such as to take only what you and your family need, to leave certain spaces for these species to regenerate and prosper, and as always, to be grateful to the bounty of the sea. Having a grateful heart is part of the old rituals.

Bongao was traditionally ruled by the Halun chieftains. The famous one of the same clan became a local president and donated generously for roads, for the provincial hospital, for the main campus of the Mindanao State University in the province, and for several public elementary and high schools.

Just as in “Tawi-Tawi beach,” a love song was composed by an American serviceman who fell in love with a local princess, here too in Bongao is where my father first laid his eyes on my mother aboard a school float. Back then there was still reservation on cross-cultural marriage. The Tausug women do not really favor their sons marrying “tao south”.

In those days, the south conjures magic and incantation as much as black magic and witchcraft. In fact, there are still those who believe that in order to counter the southern enchantment, a Tausug man must wear his underwear inside out when visiting there. Another practice is to feel the bottom of any glass offering; accordingly, a bewitched glass of tea would always feel cold at the bottom. The power of black magic and witchcraft heightened on a full-moon Friday night.

Imagine my paternal grandmother’s consternation when her youngest son told her he is falling in love with a southern girl and wants to marry her immediately? But when it was my time in the year 2010 to marry my southern girl, the consternation was gone; and cross-cultural marriage has become a norm in town, just as the town itself has become a microcosm of multicultural, multilingual and multireligious living.

Bongao booms

From backwater village, Bongao is now a bustling town – hub for government transactions, commerce and education. The town is always the first recipient of road network to public utilities, like water, electricity, phone and internet access. Between then and now, Bongao had changed a lot.

We now have problems associated with urban lifestyles – from noise to air pollution, from garbage to traffic, rapid population growth to consumerist lifestyle. In fact, there is a stretch of the national highway at the Poblacion that has become our version of “EDSA”, the traffic. To live in Bongao one has to be ready to assume a cost of living costlier than those in the island municipalities.

The once communal beaches have been owned privately. Like in developed towns and cities around the country, one has to pay to have access to it. The shoals are gone and beaches have shrunk in size too because the building boom that followed Bongao’s designation as the new provincial capital meant harvesting the island’s white fine sand and beautiful corals to feed the construction frenzy to this day. There was a time when there were 4 to 5 housing projects simultaneously constructed and on offer to the general public. Bongao population now stands at 100,527, the 3rd most populous town in the BARMM –  bigger than Datu Odin Sinsuat’s and Sultan Kudarat’s, the two largest towns in Maguindanao, larger than any town in Lanao del Sur and Sulu, except Marawi City and Jolo, and even twice the population of Lamitan City in Basilan.

Despite the urbanization, there are still many things we can enjoy for free. From the Capitol hilltop, visitors do not fail to appreciate the panorama – Pababag Island just off the coast of Bongao, slightly to the northwest is Sanga-Sanga island where we can find historic and archaeologically-important Boloboc cave, to the west the silhouettes of the Bellatan group of islands, and to the southwest, the famed island of Simunul where the first mosque was erected about 700 years ago. Just below the hill is the ever-expanding town of Bongao.

Boom means emigrants

After Bongao became the provincial capital, government officials, workers and those looking for public employment begun flocking to the island and bringing with them their families. Even after retiring from government service, they decided to stay in Bongao for good.

The next wave of settlers are those going for higher education. To date, Bongao is home to one state college, one CHED-supervised college and a host of private colleges offering courses from teacher education to liberal arts, from midwifery to criminology to marine and fishery sciences. They are also offering technical and vocational courses accredited by TESDA. Aside from public elementary and secondary schools, there are no less than five private schools as well.

The third wave of settlers to the islands are those seeking their fortunes in the vibrant local commerce. Bongao’s hectic commercial activities can be seen on weekdays with island lantsa (launch boats) and timpil (motor boats) flocking to the wharf within the Aguada Bay. Commerce ranges from fishes to farm produce from Panglima Sugala, the food basket of the province. Also traded locally are imported Malaysian and Chinese made goods. It comes as no surprise that the town hosts Midway Plaza, the only mall in the then ARMM.

While Jolo and Siasi in Sulu, and Malabang in Lanao del Sur, are losing the vibrancy of their local economy, Bongao is ever growing. Had it not been for its limited physical space, the town could have easily been the largest on this side of the ARMM.

While the other towns are losing or are seeing their Chinese entrepreneurs decreasing in number, Bongao’s relative peace and order have seen their number increasing with new department stores. The surge in local enterprise can be surmised from the number of banks present locally.

The fourth wave of settlers to Bongao town are the young college students throughout Mindanao studying on scholarship at the Mindanao State University in Sanga-Sanga island. After their four-year stint, many prefer to stay, look for job and start their own family locally.

The fifth wave of settlers to Bongao are those returning from Sabah, Malaysia, either returning home voluntarily or forcibly deported as halaw. Because of its proximity to Sabah, Bongao has also become the backdoor, mainly illegal entry to Malaysia. The municipal government had registered an increase in human trafficking victims accosted at the pier from vessels plying the Zamboanga route.

The latest wave of settlers to Bongao are those seeking respite from conflicts in its northern neighbor. In fact, this migration had greatly altered the demographics of Bongao to become Tausug dominated. Many migrate without employable skills or startup capital, so squatting on private lands has become a problem. The problem of drug abuse among the youth is a concern as well.

Before our arrival, former DENR secretary Gina Lopez was in town with her team to promote community-based environmentally-sound tourism. We can watch their videos here:

This development points a preferred future for this southern town, one that includes conserving and protecting the environment, and importantly as sustainable base for its unique maritime lifestyle. The consumerist lifestyle needs to change. The destructive exploitative development needs to change. We need a transformative mindset just as the Sama-Bajaw of yoke were able to adjust to this marine and maritime sea world.

The town and other municipalities need to be proactive in responding to the global climate crisis. Despite our romanticizing, we can’t anymore deny the effects of climate crisis are everywhere. Like all those small insular nations of the Pacific and the Indian oceans, the future of Bongao and Tawi-Tawi lies in the pursuit of sustainable development and lifestyles.

As author Robert Swan reminds us, the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it. No one else will save Bongao except its people. Aptly, there is a native American proverb that says, “we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” And it is for the sake of our children’s future that we have to save our town and our province from wants and selfishness of ourselves.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an Insider Mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue).