Bowed by the weight of centuries

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Too bad I cannot show a special painting here that would have made this article so much more touching.

“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his hoe and gazes on the ground, the emptiness of ages on his face, and on his back the burden of the world.”

So goes the first sentence of the poem entitled “The Man with a Hoe,” written by American poet Edwin Markha. A slightly earlier world-famous great painting inspired the poem by Jean-Francois Millet, which is what I wish I could have shown here.

The story of the peasant slave and industrial laborer started way before the painting and the poem and has since marched into our modern world today in the 21st century. It was a face painted in one moment of time, words written in a series of moments, but the story they captured has gone beyond the painter’s and poet’s intent and imagination. Perhaps, in their artistic angst, they might have wished for that scenario to be ended, corrected, and atoned for.

“O masters, lords and rulers in all lands, is this the handiwork you give to God, this monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?” cried the words of the poet.

“We have cities, yes, but small farmers and fisherfolks still command the dastardly numbers of the poor and hungry. They have been left behind, for sure, and their bodies, lives, and stories are incontrovertible evidence of a sad history. No matter what politicians or businessmen say.”

This August of 2021, 200 years after the painting and the poem, we in the Philippines still debate about poverty and hunger. We have cities, yes, but small farmers and fisherfolks still command the dastardly numbers of the poor and hungry. They have been left behind, for sure, and their bodies, lives, and stories are incontrovertible evidence of a sad history. No matter what politicians or businessmen say.

The pandemic’s impact on our lives, individual and societal, cannot be overstated. The destruction in so many forms has ravaged reality. At the same time, the poor and the hungry have been afflicted from birth, and the pandemic must not be used to cover them up. Before Covid-19, the failure of the powerful and wealthy, the collective decision-makers of our land, simply allowed the pandemic to devastate the poor and hungry even more.

“Before Covid-19, the failure of the powerful and wealthy, the collective decision-makers of our land, simply allowed the pandemic to devastate the poor and hungry even more.”

The situation is quite grotesque. There is no shortage of food. Very few have been the times in our history that the Philippines ever had a shortage of food. Yet, there have never been times without poverty and hunger. It is grotesque because the main producers of the nation’s food have mostly been poor and often hungry. Talk about rubbing salt on open wounds.

In the early course of my adult life, 15 years of professional work in the agricultural industry already introduced me to this anomaly. Because I was inside the industry, I saw the constant attention given to production, especially rice, and many technologies were developed precisely to spark increased volumes.

I was witness to all these in the 70s and 80s. It was difficult to say that there were no focused efforts to address the nation’s food supply – because there was. And as evidence of its long-lasting effects, there remains no food shortage today. Yet, poverty and hunger among small farmers and fisherfolks continue to endure through the decades.

It took me some time to realize what the core problem is. I know many public and private sector friends who have dedicated long years to looking for ways and means. Many have poured resources, including international grants and advanced technologies. Yet, the pace of change has been excruciatingly slow, as though counter forces are blocking meaningful progress. I learned to observe intently and reflect on the small gains and epic failures to understand more clearly.

My work in community development these last 20 years with Gawad Kalinga led me to realize many things. There are building blocks in organizing and nurturing small, poor communities. I saw that focusing on one building block, no matter how important, will not develop a self-sufficient community. There is a bigger context, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is the value system that precedes and actually dictates our developmental priorities.

Poverty and hunger are in the cities, too, just like the rural areas. Everywhere, the value system that our society has adopted over the centuries has failed to dismantle the low regard that it has for the poor. Conversely, there is an automatic obedient response to the rich and powerful. The state of things used to be called feudal and maybe still deserves the term. Because, unless that great divide in worth and dignity is discarded, the rich will grow richer and the poor poorer. There are economic statistics that will still prove this today, inside the pandemic in this 21st century.

“The wiser and smarter among them know that capacity is not the primary function of chronological age; rather, we must measure age by development, by people’s capacity to be productive and self-sufficient.”

The leaders of society are like the elders of a great clan called the Filipino people. The wiser and smarter among them know that capacity is not the primary function of chronological age; rather, we must measure age by development, by people’s capacity to be productive and self-sufficient. Those who have more are mature. Those with much less are no more than children who have yet to grow strong.

Our elders, then, must not let children compete with the mature. Where there is no competition, where too many are poor and weak, and the few in almost total control, society must have its elders and the powerful responsible and accountable for the resources and power they wield. They must transition autocracy to democracy in a more committed and effective manner. Never must they use democracy as an excuse to exploit the weak, citing competition when there is none.

The poem ends aptly with these words:

“How will it be with kingdoms and with kings, to those who shaped him to the thing that he is, when this blind Terror shall reply to God after the silence of centuries?”

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