Breaking My Prejudice Through Science in the Service of My People

When I took up Geology, all I ever expected to experience was that I’d travel around, take rock samples, identify rock formations, measure faults and fractures, create geologic maps, and write reports. That’s it. There won’t be a lot of human interactions, at the personal level, whatsoever. Purely professional. No one was allowed to get close to me, or the walls I’ve set around me. I intended to be a robot of science, so help me god.

But things in life, I found, don’t often go as expected. In less than one year of my assignment in Mindano, I gained friends, had adventures with them, had shared stories about me that I swore to never do while in Manila. I learned to embrace the locals’ simple way of life and most especially, their language. The kindness and friendship I’ve forged with my office mates, neighbors, and gym buddies, helped me survive the homesickness and the indescribable loneliness of being too far away from my parents and siblings.

However, like the ignorant city girl that I was, I had a certain amount of prejudice against Muslims. It was so bad that I had a hard time getting along with a colleague. When I was first given an assignment to go on field in the hinterland of Lanao Del Norte, I could not say yes right away. I cried overnight just thinking of my apprehensions about meeting a group of people whose culture and language are totally strange to me. I didn’t want to go, but since I was in Mindanao, it was bound to happen any time, I realized.

A week before that assignment, the mayor of Salvador, Lanao Del Norte, sought our help. One of their small and remote communities in Brgy. Bugtong was reportedly hit by landslide killing six people including two children on its path. Upon checking the map, the area could be accessed by trekking for miles and crossing rivers, within hummocky terrain. If you’re an outdoors person, it would sound like a good adventure. However, the area was also within the “red zone” for peace and order, if you know what I mean. To make things worse, some of my office mates had teased me that some Muslim guy might kidnap me with a gun pointed at my temple to be his wife. Que horror! (Back then, I could not even tell if they were joking or not. I only heard marriage and I went ballistics.)

We hit the road in the morning of February 25, 2008. My team consisted of two geologists, me and my college best friend, a geologic aide, and our driver. It was a ~2.5-hour ride along the Mararlika highway sandwiched by the sea on the north, and the rice fields, forests, and communities on the left. The picturesque scene on the way had calmed me somewhat. When we arrived at the office of the mayor, he wasn’t there, and we were asked to visit him at his house instead. His house was huge, almost palatial, and guarded by several armed men. My impression about Muslims intensified right on the spot. Thankfully, the mayor was kind and hospitable. He offered us refreshments and gently apologized while he told us that the landslide area was far and we had to go on foot most of the way. He also said that 3 of his men will accompany us for our safety. I didn’t even bother asking why the need for security. All I knew then was that the whole province was at high risk in terms of peace and order so a security envoy was welcome. He also requested that we inspect the vicinity and identify other sections of the community susceptible to landslides so that he could prepare his people for evacuation, if needed. That was noble, I remember thinking; and impressed by his words, despite myself. The mayor was smart for requesting for geologists to do the tasks. He obviously knew the right people to call for help.

Tatah, one of the locals whose neighbors died in the deadly debris flow, told us what happened on that fateful night.

The landslide, which was technically a debris flow, happened late at night, and affected two families. Their houses, made of bamboo slits, nipa, and coconut wood which were seating at the foot of a ridge, moved for more than 10 meters due to the onslaught of tons of soil, debris, and water. Some of the bodies were retrieved along the river banks, not far from where their houses used to be, brought there by the debris and water.

A mixture of sleeping mat (“banig”), bamboo, tree stumps, and nipa roof was all that remained where a house used to stand. The 2 children were retrieved right on this spot. 😦
This is a rill, one of the many, observed along the foot of the deadly debris flow. This geologic feature is an evidence that water saturation, after a 9-day deluge, was the main driving force for the debris flow occurrence in Barangay Buntong. This rill was about one meter deep.
In two minutes after the residents heard a bursting sound from the mountainside, the debris flow hit their houses killing 6 people on its path instantly. Bodies were retrieved roughly 10 meters from their original position based on witness account.
We saw more signs of debris flow along the same ridge and nearby hills not too far from where the victims were retrieved but thankfully there were no houses on those sites and only the crops were damaged. Upon closer inspection of several outcrops in the area, we identified that the barangay is underlain primarily by old lahar deposits, a type of rock which tend to loosen up and “flow” when saturated with water.
My team mates used to do this after a fieldwork – shoe bump after a job well done.

My experience at Salvador, Lanao Del Norte was an unforgettable one. I saw how lahar deposits can be very susceptible to debris flow when saturated with water. We had to cross a few streams going to the landslide area and back. My hiking shoes were waterproof but my uniformed escort chose to carry me on this back before crossing the rivers. The teasing of my office mates never left me during the whole trip beside this guy. It turned out I had nothing to fear, the guy was a perfect gentleman. I was so thankful for his kindness, I asked my fellow geologist to take this photo of me and my escort.

My bodyguard who carried me on his back before crossing the rivers.
I thought these two siblings were cute so I took a snapshot while on board a motorcycle (“habal habal”) on our way back to the mayor’s house.

Whatever misconception I had of Muslims before I came to Mindanao was definitely erased after that fieldwork. Our escorts were attentive to us. We also got invited to the wake the locals held to honor the lives of those who died in the debris flow. The wake was similar to ours, solemn and also an opportunity to catch up with loved ones. The elderly asked how our fieldwork went through interpretation by younger relatives. They listened to us raptly. The people were polite and tried to speak in Cebuano while we were there. We were even thanked for coming to their humble abode. My team and escorts were served “sinina”, a spicy beef dish, rice, and drinks in ornate serving pans and cups. I liked how the locals touched their chest before shaking my hands as a sign that they’re asking Allah to bless me. What really stuck to me, after that encounter at the wake, was how our Muslim brothers had been unjustly ostracized by a lot of people.

We reported our findings to the mayor of the town. He then promised to consider our findings by keeping the high risk areas from getting inhabited by people. When my team and I left, I left behind my personal boundaries and prejudices. I also felt relieved that the good people of Salvador was in the hands of such a noble man.

Science has indeed helped me break down my personal boundaries and prejudices.

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