At first glance, there is nothing special about the Sumilao farmers, except for the sunburnt skin coating their obviously tired but still very eager and resilient demeanor.
Health-wise, I looked sicker than them. Actually, I haven’t been feeling well over the past four days, a victim of a bug causing a rather bad bout of upper respiratory tract infection. But I digress.
In what is tantamount to a huge blessing, I was able to join the medical team who looked after the Sumilao farmers as they stayed for the night at the Ateneo De Manila University campus in Quezon City. We came with four of our clinical clerks- 4th year medical students- who are currently doing their community medicine rotation with us. The faculty grabbed the opportunity to expose the students to the plight of the Sumilao farmers as a way of giving a human face to all our talk in the UP about extending healthcare to the marginalized and vulnerable sectors of society.
We came upon the invitation of several UP Medicine alumni who have been working closely with the organizing committees of the Ateneo pit stop of the farmers’ Walk for Land, Walk for Justice – their 1500+-kilometer trek from Bukidnon in southern Philippines to Malacanan Palace to air their grievances to the President come December 10, International Human Rights Day. We were but a small part of the contingent of doctors, coming mainly from the UP College of Medicine, the Philippine General Hospital, the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health, the Medical City, among other volunteers. In all, at least fourteen doctors saw a total of some seventy patients coming from the ranks of the marching farmers.
The marching farmers who are in the Ateneo now actually come from areas as varied as Sumilao, Bukidnon; Calatagan, Batangas; and Catanauan, Quezon- farmer groups who are suffering the same agrarian reform injustice. They have banded together along the route- many in San Pedro, Laguna- just before the main bulk of the marchers entered Metro Manila.
The medical interviews and physical examination and subsequent dispensing of medical advice ought to have taken less than 10 minutes per patient, again given the fact that the patients I saw looked and felt much, much healthier than I was. Really. But I took the opportunity to talk to the marchers, requesting them to share a little about their conditions, weaving their social concerns into the medical interview.
I got the chance to talk to Ate Marilyn, a 33-year old lady from Sumilao. She temporarily left her husband and three children to walk with her fellow farmers. I excitedly shared that I already had the chance to pass through Sumilao en route to Malaybalay. She joked that it was her first time to go to Manila, and never did she imagine that she’d reach the capital on foot. She had minor health concerns, save for her aching feet, which she joked has soles that have become so calloused I could poke them with a very sharp object and she’d most likely not feel a thing. Mabuhay ka, Ate Marilyn!
Then there’s Alwyn a 20-year old fisherman and coconut farmer from Catanauan, Quezon, which he described as about three towns away from Lucena City. He also described their problems with the ownership of their land, which is currently in the hands of a Filipino-Chinese businessman. He, too, suffers from a very minor health condition which I believed warrants immediate medical intervention in case it exacerbates in their town. I asked if there’s a rural health center in their area where he can consult. He says there is- but it was at least 20 pesos away by jeepney… Mabuhay ka, Alwyn!
And then there’s the ever-smiling Augusto, 25-year old farmer from Batangas. They, too, walked from their hometown of Calatagan and eventually rendezvoused with the Sumilao farmers before they entered Metro Manila. The two groups have very, very similar concerns since they were both engaged in a legal tussle with the food and beverage giant San Miguel Corporation. He, too, looked far more well than I, who had to excuse myself several times whenever I can’t keep myself from coughing. As I finished Augusto’s check up, I wished him well and I verbalized my expression of support to their cause. As a sign of my expectant faith, I told Augusto that I will never forget his name since I will invite myself to a free feast in his own hacienda should I find myself in Calatagan- a thought towards which he replied with a face-splitting smile. Mabuhay ka, Augusto!
I usually begin medical interviews and check-ups with Kumusta po kayo? Ano pong nararamdaman ninyo ngayon? (How are you? How are you feeling now?) Invariably, I would get Ok lang, Doc (I’m okay) which usually prompts me to probe further. Or there would be a patient who launches into his or her list of symptoms right off the bat. But a most curious thing happened to me, one of the handful of times that my question- Kumusta po kayo? Ano pong nararamdaman ninyo ngayon?- was met with a most blessed answer:
Masayang-masaya po. Very, very happy.
That they finally got to Manila.
That their grievances will soon find resolution.
The Sumilao farmers and the farmers who walk with them in their collective quest for justice are simple Filipinos. At first glance, nothing seems to be special about them. But that’s also how they describe the birth of this Somebody, some 2000 years ago. And yet we still celebrate His lowly birth up until this time.
Mabuhay ang mga Magsasakang Pilipino! Katarungan para sa kanila! Kalayaan mula sa mapaniil na pagkakatali sa lupa!