This question I excited asked as I held a pair of white- and pink-colored socks which we distributed to poor children in Tungawan, Zamboanga del Sur last week. From the crowd of more than 20 kids with almost all of them looking clearly frail and malnourished, two hands shot up in the air.
Then it dawned on me as I stared at scrawny-looking kids: How can I ask whether they have shoes when they cannot even afford to buy slippers?
This is ironical because Zamboanga del Sur – now known as Zamboanga Sibugay -- is considered as the “rubber capital” of the Philippines because of the large plantation of rubber trees in this province located 803 kilometers south of Philippine main capital Manila. Zamboanga Sibugay is one of the country’s poorest provinces.
“This is where we are going to put up our Claret Mission Center,” Fr. Larry Miranda proudly declares as he surveys the land stretching 19 hectares wide. I swallowed hard as I ponder that “this” too is the place where the library borne out of the collaboration of the Claret Mission Center, the Kristiyano-Islam Peace Library and the Kapatiran Claretian Inc. will soon rise.
But amid the danger of having the MILF as your next-door neighbor, there is no denying that this place is where help is needed most as people here live on the most basic subsistence and where people’s lives are lost for mere P300 and where those robbed are even divested of their tools of the trade like hammer and bolos. Robbers in Manila have the class to leave behind their hammers and knives behind.
Thus, even the Bicol-born Fr Larry has to adjust to using motorcycles as the only mode of transportation in Tungawan (see picture below). The Tungawan province is so lucky to have the Claretian Missionaries around -- they provide and fill up the lack of basic services from the national and local government.
The Claretian missionaries in Tungawan is led by Fr. Gilbert Quenano, CMF who is superior and parish priest, with Fr. Pedro "Dodong" Cleofe serving as assistant parish priest. Fr. Miranda is the director of the Claretian Mission. The Claretians have put up the water system in the area and one of the oldest community cooperatives around as well schools.
Still, the close to three-hour ride to this place from far modern Zamboanga City is worth the journey as we see the excited faces of the parents of mostly shy children as they go over the imported books we brought and which were donated by the Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran Foundation and the KIDS Foundation of actor-businessman Diether Ocampo.
That is the place where we effectively established the initial phase of the Claret Mission Center-Kris Library-KCI Library as we brought sets of encyclopaedia, children’s books, textbooks and some snacks. Still, more books are needed to make this place a full-scale library.
Even old copies of 1970s Reader’s Digest and National Geographic Magazines are considered gold to kids and their parents who have never received books from anyone in their lives. “I will read those magazines myself,” joked Fr. Miranda.
But rather than be cowed and scared, we felt challenged and compelled to help this place even more. As we leave the place of a thankful community, one thought lingers in our minds: “Next time we’ll return with shoes!”