An Accident Of Birth

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I am aboard an airplane bringing me home to Manila after two great days in Iloilo province. It seems that being busy and able to help Yolanda victims somehow mitigates the growing frustration that even I, an active member in the humanitarian work of Gawad Kalinga (GK), have been feeling these last two months. I wonder about those who were devastated, emotionally and materially. I wonder about the needy among them, how being born in the wrong side of the fence can still deserve salt being rubbed into the open wound of poverty.

The first stop was the municipality of Concepcion where a convergence of generosity will establish a new GK village. A landed woman of substance from the town and the Religious of the Assumpta combined their donation of land and funds. Then, Gawad Kalinga provides a vision, a community development template, and a heart ready to embrace the challenge of holding hands with the marginalized towards their freedom from a historical curse. The fruit of this collective endeavor will be families finding security of tenure and decent homes for the first time in their lives, and the first time in their lineage of several centuries.

There was a short program, a groundbreaking, the burying of a time capsule, and short talks by the key players who are making the building of a new community possible. Even I was asked to give an inspiration speech, and I accommodated as representative of GK headquarters. When I stood there, I knew the others who spoke before me had already mentioned the most important features. I really had little to add, and thought of just saying thank you to the donors of the property and the funds for the houses.

As I was standing there, though, I saw the future homeowners who had been listening intently to everything that the VIPs had to say. Quick thoughts flashed in my mind, thoughts that focused on their painful fate for having been born poor. And I quickly knew my fate was a sharp contrast, dictated by circumstances of birth as well.

The next day was our second stop, this time to an island barangay in the municipality of Ajuy, Iloilo. We were scheduled to turn over 55 motorized fishing boats to replace those which Yolanda destroyed last November. The turnover program was short and sweet, with the mayor of Ajuy and barangay chairman of Punta Buri extending their gratitude to the donors of Gawad Kalinga for their new fishing boats. But when the wife of one of the beneficiaries spoke in response, she mentioned that the fishing boats and the hard work of their husbands represented the future of their families, that the fish they caught enabled them to send their children to school, to one day become professionals and forever change the history of their lineage.

Again, I was confronted with the harsh reality who were born from the wrong side of the fence, the vast majority of Filipinos who have had that fate since the colonial times almost 500 years ago. Again, I wondered about the sharp contrast of fates—mine and theirs—all because of an accident of birth.

Does it have to be so? Does it have to continue to be so? No, it should not be so, it should not stay so, and it must not stay a day longer than necessary. An accident of birth cannot condemn tens of millions into poverty. I concede that there will always be differences between people, be it in looks, in talent or families they are born into. But the differences have no right to cast people into poverty, not by circumstance of birth. Not in the 21st century, not in the Republic of the Philippines.

Inherited poverty from inherited landlessness. A historical crime that begs not only for justice but even just mere recognition of a horrible wrong committed against an innocent people. How can a government afflicted with amnesia ever get to rectify a wrong that they are not even aware of? Instead, like me for a long time, we preferred to believe that it is just an accident of birth, that those who have so much were just lucky to be born into that state, while the vast majority were just too unfortunate to be born poor. Because we believe in the toss of a coin to define wealth or poverty, the issue of justice or injustice is not even considered.

It now dawns on me that it is worse than malice or greed that has brought great misery to the majority poor who, with the OFW phenomenon, will still be close to 80-90% of the population. More than the evil in man, it has been his ignorance that has enslaved so many millions in the prison of historical poverty. He just did not know it was wrong to have so many poor in a country so blessed with almost everything. He did not know because he did not care enough to be curious. Then, why would the advantaged rush a social, economic and political reform in order to lose an advantage?

History as it happened must become the most important subject in school. A false history builds an unjust foundation and evolves a crooked values system. By simply extending an accepted assumption that an accident of birth can actually condemn the lives of most Filipinos takes ignorance to the point of stupidity. No, all Filipino children must be taught that right is right, and wrong is wrong, whether it happened in the 16th century or is happening now in the 21st century.

Our poverty is rooted in landlessness, our landlessness is rooted in a landgrab by a Spanish king, the landgrab becomes a forgotten piece of history, the forgetfulness begets the superstition that poverty is an accident of birth, and we cannot resist stupidity from converting a superstition into a fundamental basis of justice?

Wow, naman.

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