Sketches from Marawi: Malika’s Story

Tintin Ongpin-Montes for Duyog Marawi

~ for Malika and all the children of Marawi displaced by war ~

I am still thinking of Malika. I am thinking, too, of Malika’s friends Sittie, Basmah, Fatima, Mosrifah, Farhana and Haima. I am thinking of all of them. This will take several minutes for you to read, but here, have a glimpse of a day in Malika’s life. As the people of Marawi move towards rebuilding and rehabilitation, we, too, must keep the conversation about Marawi going.

***

It’s a solidarity visit and medical mission here at the Bakwit Village in one of the areas of the Peace Corridor. The Duyog Marawi Emergency Response Team has prepared food packs and hygiene kits for around three hundred families who are in the official list of evacuees. Doc Don, a DM volunteer doctor who exudes so much warmth, is with us.

***

The air is crisp. There are new shelters made of container vans with windows wide open, Hello Kitty curtains billowing out. There is a scatter of tall palm trees around. Streamers welcoming donors and guests wave in the air. The evacuees have just finished an assembly.

The first one to arrive is Sittie. I remember smiling at her without saying anything; just a nod and a smile, and she sits beside me. My volunteer’s ID catches her attention and I tell her my name. She says her name is Sittie.

“Ang ganda mo dito, Teacher,” You look pretty here, Teacher, she looks at my ID picture and then me.

“Dyan lang?” Only in the picture? I tease her. She does not patronize me and replies with a mischievous grin, “Oo.” Yes.

I like this kid, I say to myself.

Malika comes next. She hesitates and teeters by the wall of the outdoor community hall. I smile at her and do not say anything.

“Teacher siya!” Sitttie exclaims and encourages Malika to join us.

Sittie is now busily writing her name on my yellow Steno notebook. She declares that this will be a list of their names so I will remember them; she is convinced that I will bring them toys the next time I visit this temporary village of theirs. She writes her name multiple times, “To make sure you do not forget me!” she says in her broken Tagalog-Meranaw-Bisaya. She is seven years old and already full of aplomb.

Meanwhile, Malika remains quiet. She stands by the wall, wordless but awake; her eyes gazing straight into mine, her lips a soft line that do not let me know how she feels. As Malika stands there listening to Sittie asking me question after question about my school, about Manila, about lligan, Malika is attentive; she is taking in every word—mine and Sittie’s—and I can see in her eyes that a story is unfolding in her imagination, creating a picture in her mind of who I am and what I do. There is a palpably wise and old presence in Malika. I can feel that she has so much to say, but still cannot.

Finally, Malika comes closer to Sittie and me. She sits down with us on the steps of the low stage in the hall. The audio speaker not very far from us begins blaring names, and suddenly, she tilts her head towards the Duyog Marawi staff holding the microphone. I then realize that Malika is waiting for her mother’s name to be called. These are the names of the internally displaced families’ household heads and they will be receiving goods today.

“Nandyan ba si Mama mo?” I ask Malika. She shakes her head. She is in Poblacion, she says, where another relief goods distribution is going on. Her father is in Manila. Or maybe Cagayan, she is not sure. Sittie exclaims, “Ako pupunta sa Manila!” Malika and I just look at her. There is a growing sense of unease and worry in Malika. She becomes even more pensive. But bless Sittie’s good heart, she thrusts the yellow notebook and blue pen into Malika’s hand and tells her to write down her name, which distracts both Malika and me. I smile at her to tell her it’s okay.

“Malika. Grade 3. 11 years old.” Her handwriting is unwieldy; the way she holds the pen is a little awkward. She looks up at me, as if knowing that the teacher in me recognizes her difficulty, and once more, I smile and tell her to do it again if she likes. But Sittie chides her for writing so slowly, and says they should do something else instead. “How about sing a song you both know?” I sugggest. At this, Malika smiles and she is the first to begin the song “Bangon Marawi”. Malika closes her eyes from time to time as she sings. She has memorized the words. Her voice soars.

As they sing, the rest of the children come and sit with us. The list of names in my notebook has grown longer now. We talk about many things. We laugh. Malika says she wants to become a doctor when she grows up as most of them do, in fact; a few want to be teachers, and one wants to be a TV show host. Every single one of them says they miss Marawi. Oh how they wish they could go back to their old village, they say.

“`Yang mga ISIS kasi!” Sittie exclaims. Her small fist clenches, but then she covers her mouth, as if stunned by the words she has just uttered. The others do not say anything, but Malika breaks the silence.

“Teacher, maganda ba sa Manila?” Teacher, is it nice in Manila?

“Maganda rin naman. Maingay, magulo, maraming tao. Maraming puwedeng makilala. Maraming puwedeng puntahan. Nandoon ang bahay ko.” It is, somehow. It gets loud, noisy, and chaotic; there are lots of people. Lots of people to meet, lots of places to visit. My home is there.

“Parang Marawi.” Just like Marawi. Malika nods and smiles. Her eyes light up. My heart wishes it could transform into a home big enough for Malika and her friends to dwell in.

The afternoon goes on and I must have fifteen children with me now. I tell them to go home first and have lunch, but Malika stays with me, still waiting for her mother’s name to be called. We talk about the games they play here in the village, her siblings, and her mom who goes out every day to look for “relief”. She shows me her swollen ankle; I tell her Ate Al-Rizah can massage it later and the promise of relief and comfort loosens her up a little. She tells me she will ask Doc Don, who is holding the medical mission, for medicines. Her mom has bad headaches all the time, she says, and her younger sister has a fever. I then take her hand and we walk up to an Emergency Response Team member. I explain Malika’s predicament; my husband Pierre joins us. Yes, she can get the medicines when her mom arrives or after the others in the list have received theirs. I explain it to Malika and she is thankful.

“Ipinagtanggol nyo ako ah!” I do not know where or how she gets that word. No, my dear, I have not done anything to help, much less, defend you.

There is some confusion in the queue. Some of the people in line are not supposed to be there. I can sense Malika’s worry growing even more as her mother is still nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, the kids ask me to talk more about my school, to teach them some games. They ask where I am staying in Iligan and when I describe what a convent is, Sittie is surprised,

“Christian ka?” Yes, I say. She looks at my head cover and searches my face for something only a child who has seen things she shouldn’t have wants to find…

They ask why I am here. “Magsusulat ako ng mga kuwento nyo. Saka magtuturo ako sa Meranaw high school ng writing.” I will write your stories. And I will teach writing to Meranaw high school kids. They do not prod any further; they all nod as if to understand, and one says they haven’t gone back to school in ages.

Then, Basmah, a bright and cheerful little girl, says she wishes she had a cell phone so she and her mother can text and call her father who is far away looking for a job. Next thing I know, I am drawing cell phones on their palms, which they then use to “take” our selfies and text and call each other. Now there are “hello, hellos” chiming in with the din around us. In the midst of all this, I feel that Malika has given up, knowing that her mother will not show up in time.

The thing is, the reading of names is finished. Her mother’s name is not in the list…

“Teacher, uuwi muna ko! Kakain lang!” I say yes and bid a silent goodbye to her. I tell myself that she will not come back. What for, I ask myself. She and her family will not be getting their own aid today.

Sittie and the rest of the kids start playing games. They shout, shove and kick each other. I call them back and ask them to sit around me. I make up a story where there are princesses who all want to win in a game and end up hurting each other; the princesses then try to play again, and they do it by taking turns with the golden ball. With that, I send them off to play again.

Half an hour later, in the middle of untangling themselves in Doctor Quack Quack, a clammy hand touches my arm. I turn around and it’s Malika and her younger sister Mosrifah. They have had a late lunch and they have taken a shower. They have taken extra care in grooming themselves, and I notice the carefully brushed hair of the girls, the traces of baby powder on their necks; they are wearing fresh pajamas, ready for the chilly Marawi evening.

“Teacher, naligo na kami,” Malika says. She is beaming with pride only known to a child who has learned to take on responsibility at a tender age. I smile again and pat her damp shampooed hair. A smile is the best answer to someone like Malika. She does not need the emptiness of words explaining things to her. Her quiet strength tells you, she knows. She knows what it’s like… what it’s like to wait, when to stand in line and stay put, when to run, when to flee. Soon enough, she eyes the adults carrying bags of rice and other provisions but she does not say anything. She joins her friends in the game, but sits down with me after a few minutes.

“Teacher, may ano ba dyan, sa relief?” She tries to find the Tagalog word for it and adds, “May, ano…may tinidor ba dyan? Wala kasi kami eh.”

I do not know what to say. A fork. There are no forks in the packs, little one. No eating utensils this time. But her question floors me and sends waves of sadness that renders me speechless. When I find the words, they are futile and heavy for her, and a slap that leaves its mark on me: “Wala eh…”

I look at Malika—she whose name means “queen”, a presence of resilience and steadfastness—and she looks back at me. She smiles. She holds her head up, straightens her back, shrugs her shoulders, and says,

“Teacher, babalik ka ha. Hanapin mo kami.” Teacher, you will come back. Find us.

She says these words; she does not ask them. She says it as a declaration, a statement that, yes, we all need to keep going. Look around, look at us, you need to keep going and do what needs to be done. Tell our story. Do something.

I nod, put my arm on her shoulder, and together, we sit in silence and watch her friends laugh in innocent abandon as they untangle themselves from each other, happily, in the fading daylight.

Matunggaw Bakwit Village, Marawi, 09 February 2018

(Photo Credit: Tintin Ongpin-Montes)