There’s Another Kind of Poverty That Demands Our Attention

Our common definition of poverty is when people do not meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, that’s when we start calling them poor. An estimated 896 million people or 12.7 of the world’s population fall under that definition, according to the World Bank. We have cut the poverty rate into half between 1990 and 2015. That’s something we should celebrate, something that should encourage us to strengthen our fight against global poverty.

But there is another form of poverty that we rarely talk about. There is no statistics that could tell how prevalent it is, but what I think is that it affects many of us.


Our Poverty of Words

In Indonesia, when one person declares that he’s depressed, it is easy for us to dismiss their state as something of less importance. We think that modern words like galau or baper is the best word to describe what they’re going through.

Galau, by definition, means kacau tidak keruan (pikiran). Many times, I have been told to have gone through kegalauan. Galau, because I don’t look the positive things in life. Galau, because I dwell on painful memories. Galau, because I refuse to move on.

I am impressed by how easy for many people to diagnose what I’m feeling, and I wonder what body of knowledge has turned them into experts in giving unsolicited advice to people suffering from kegalauan.

But of course, as many of you who have experienced kegalauan, galau is not as easy as imagined. In societies where our priority is to fulfil our material needs, there are things that are placed at the sidelines, such as depression, a condition often equated to galau.


My Struggle With Depression

I have been sporadically battling with depression since 2008, the beginning my tumultuous journey with life. Between that that year and 2015, I lost a college friend and a mentor, a colleague, an aunt, and encountered hundreds of families grieving for their loved ones washed away by natural calamities in Southern Philippines. The events happened at short intervals, just right after I thought I have recovered from each of them. In 2012, a month after I got the news that I was awarded a scholarship for a postgraduate study, I was informed by my employer that I have been accused of plagiarising a news report, an act that I denied but somehow people like spreading rumours that plagiarism became an inside joke among people I used to consider as friends. They weren’t.

Sure, I know that while the glass is half-empty, it is also half-full. I tried to look at the positive things of every problem, but depression is a selfish companion that thinks only for himself. There would be mornings where mustering the will to get up is a challenging task. Meeting people was a difficult task. You did not want to meet and talk with people. Your subconscious self refuses to talk. You lose vigour. You wish there wouldn’t be tomorrow so there’s no need to wake up next day.

In developing countries, treating depression does not have the same footing with treating common illnesses. It is understandable. After all, I do not expect much for people to see doctors when they feel they’re suffering from depression (as it may be costly). But, what’s not acceptable is when we try to silence depression, as if it weren’t there.

Depression is “the secret we share,” says American writer Andrew Solomon in his TED Talk. The thing keeping secrets is that it makes understanding even more difficult. Solomon discussed in his speech that people tend to confuse depression, grief, and sadness.

“Grief is explicitly reactive. If you have a loss and you feel incredibly unhappy, and then, six months later, you are deeply sad, but you’re functioning a little better, it’s probably grief, and it will probably ultimately resolve itself in some measure. If you experience a catastrophic loss, and you feel terrible, and six months later you can barely function at all, then it’s probably a depression that was triggered by the catastrophic circumstances.” — Andrew Solomon

Solomon went on to expound on the current state of depression treatment in the world, which he described as appalling. “They’re not very effective. They’re extremely costly. They come with innumerable side effects. They’re a disaster.”

He did not mean that people suffering from depression should not go see a specialist. “But I am so grateful that I live now and not 50 years ago, when there would have been almost nothing to be done.”

Such is true, and what we can also do is to treat depression by exploring such state through language.


‘Poverty’ and Poetry

In 2002, a research published for National Poetry Day said that England’s National Health Service could save nearly £200,000 a year using poems to help people with depression. The report based on 196 people with psychological problems found that 75% found writing poems as an emotional release. Two thirds found reading or listening to poetry helped them be able to relax and feel calm.

Historically, artists have conveyed depression through metaphors. Emily Dickson described it like “a Funeral, in my Brain.”  Bei Dao saw everything as “an endless beginning” and hope “hedged with doubt.”

But fast forward to the present, depression is simplified into galau.

Unlike economic poverty which is an important discourse globally, we do not talk about poverty of words. We might have different international lending institutions like the World Bank, but we do not have Word Bank, a multi-lateral organisation that aims to battle our word famine. That doesn’t mean, however, there is nothing we can do.

In the summer of 2014, I found myself applying for a literary fellowship, where I met some of the Philippines award-winning writers who gave me a deeper understanding of poetry.

For one week, we would listen to lectures, and in the afternoon, the works we submitted before the workshop would be critiqued by these esteemed writers.

The fellows came from different backgrounds. But what was strikingly common was that all of us were facing battles. We were needing a weapon, so when we come back to our normal lives, would have the ability to navigate the complexities of life.

The task of poetry, according to Filipino poet Mikael Co, is to never run out of words. Its task is to let those who battle the spectre of despair become victorious, in an age where people suffering deep inside continue to find the words that best describe their state of mind.

If some of you happen to be in the same predicament as mine, I invite you to enter the world of poetry, and discover what creative language can do for you, in dire situations where you think there is no more reason for you to live.

Because there is. And to support what I believe, let me leave you a poetry that I continue to read, especially when depression creeps.



Also All (in answer to Bei Dao’s “All”)

Not all trees are felled by storms.

Not every seed finds barren soil.

Not all the wings of dream are broken,

nor is all affection doomed

to wither in a desolate heart.

No, not all is as you say.

Not all flames consume themselves,

shedding no ling on other lives.

Not all starts announce the night

and never dawn. Not every song

will drift past every ear and heart.

No, not all is as you say.

Not every cry for help is silenced,

nor every loss beyond recall.

Not every chasm spells disaster.

Not only the weak will be brought to their knees,

nor every soul be trodden under.

It won’t all end in tears and blood.

Today is heavy with tomorrow—

the future was planted yesterday.

Hope is a burden all of us shoulder

though we might stumble under the load.



Photo courtesy of János Csongor Kerekes


Why the yellow star follows me

A lot of people in Indonesia have been asking me whether I’m just pretending to be Filipino. Some people think I’m Indonesian, or Thai, while others, because of this yellow star I bring wherever I go, think I’m Vietnamese.

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Benedict Anderson quotes that changed my world view

I am deeply saddened to learn that Benedict Anderson, the author of Imagined Communities, has passed away on Sunday, December 13, 2015. I caught wind of the news on the same day through Evan Laksamana, moderator of Indonesian Political Science Research Group. At the time, I was attending a lecture at Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang some 10 kilometres away from where Anderson drew his last breath.

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Being brown and “bule” in Indonesia

To say that I feel safe in Indonesia than in my home country is not a statement that should be taken as an elevator pitch. There are other foreigners who have had terrible memories in this part of the world (read Diana’s post on experiencing blatant racism). 

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Ketika “Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke” dinyanyikan anak-anak kecil di Filipina

Apa yang membuat seseorang disebut sebagai orang Indonesia? Saya, Mick Basa, berasal dari Filipina, dan sekarang pindah ke Indonesia. Ini adalah sebuah keputusan yang diawali kisah dan penemuan pribadi yang sangat menyentuh, beberapa tahun yang lampau.

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Who are your ‘true’ friends? An ancient Celtic wisdom might help you find out

Thinkers of ancient civilisations like Aristotle have long laid philosophical civilisations of friendship. That’s thousand of years ago, and today our generation has difficulty of telling which among those we add as ‘friends’ on Facebook are, by our definition, our true friends.

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The Soul Maker

Noy Narciso

Noy Narciso takes a deeper perspective in life by crafting stories and transforming brief moments into images and symbols. He calls this process “soul making.”

The soul maker says that through this, he is able to connect people, understand cultures and embody tolerance and peace.

“Soul making is about drawing out a certain experience of the person and transform this into an image either in a form of painting or a composition or a production,” he says.

And to become a soul maker, he says one does not need to be conscious as to how far one’s masterpieces go.

“My art making is considered soul making because it is not too conscious about the exhibit. It is not too conscious about the price. It is not too conscious about the form.”

Narciso teaches film, theatre and arts for the Humanities and Letters department of the Ateneo de Davao University. He was a member of the Committee on Visual Arts of the National Commission for Culture and Arts from 2004 to 2010.

Tawi-Tawi: Journey to the Philippines’ westernmost frontier

BONGAO, Philippines – Never mind being stuck in an island where electricity and mobile phone network coverage is bleak. In Tawi-Tawi, disconnection from the normal routine is the only path to savour this place endowed with horizons of untouched white shores.

It’s the Philippines’ westernmost frontier and locals can spot first-timers in a breeze: visitors’ faces light up as they gaze at the beaches and the majestic Bongao peak, a sloping stretch of elevated land patched with trees that makes the provincial capital stand out from its two hundred other islands. In early mornings, low clouds cover the hill’s crest that resemble a flower horn cichlid’s forehead, best seen at the Sandbar resort, where facing against the Bongao peak is another breath-taking view of the white sand beach.

Literary named for its geographical isolation from any other places in the country, Tawi-Tawi comes from the Malay word “jauh” which means far. But its moniker no longer holds true today. Travelling to Bongao from Zamboanga City is now a 50-minute journey by air – although many of the locals opt to travel by boat that reaches the Chinese port overnight. Traders bring with them Malaysian noodles, canned goods, cereals and coffee from Zamboanga.

But perhaps its geographic isolation (cartographies ten years ago don’t have a detailed map of Tawi-Tawi) is what makes it exotic and deeply inviting among tourists aside from the ambition to have a picture taken with the sandbar in Panampangan at the background.

There aren’t too many tourists here, Salvacion Pescadera, the province’s tourism head, told us. “People fear Tawi-Tawi because it’s part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.”

What negative notion, I asked. Every people we meet at the market and villages joyfully respond to the Islamic “as-salamu alaykum” greeting. The warm friendly reception is even felt more in mosques where devoutly religious Muslims, such as those at the Sheik Makhdum Mosque, spend most of their time reading the Quran. Islam was said to have first reached here in 1380, manifested by the mosque named after Sheik Karimul Makhdum that humbly stands before Bajau homes perched on stilts.

“Tourism officers in the province work hard to correct the negative notion,” she said.

Hard work must have been reaping rewards for the province. If there aren’t many tourists flocking Tawi-Tawi, then the fully booked Cebu Pacific I rode one Monday morning, which landed Sanga-Sanga airport, could have just been a dream.

Fresh catch at Bongao's wet market
Fresh catch at Bongao’s wet market

And the sight of exotic fresh catch displayed at the Bongao market was equally dream-like. It is amazing to witness how vendors and customers trade without those weighing scales which most people worry it’s helping sellers rip off buyers. Here, Lapu-Lapu is sold for P200 per dozen, Yellow Fin Tuna for P50 per five pieces and Sting Ray for P100 per piece.

Of course, only fools would look forward to seeing concrete jungles in Tawi-Tawi. This isn’t a place to search for man-made structures – except for the sacred Mosques that are marvellous to look at while the Islamic call to prayer fills the air. There are no malls but there are groceries and small trading centres downtown. But majority of the province’s trade happen at the port area where one could find food stalls, pawnshops and currency exchange stalls at every part of the streets.

It’s proximity to Sabah, the Malaysian Borneo, has influenced Tawi-Tawi’s culture. Here, you would find Bahasa Malaysia to be a useful language as many of its people speak it aside from the widely spoken Tausug and Sama.

Tourism in Tawi-Tawi is on its infancy stage, Salvacion tells us, as promoting this group of more than 200 islands to Filipino and foreign tourists are coupled with a laboured explanation that it is, indeed, safe to be here. But this place could be the Philippines’ next top tourist destination when it reaches at the ripe stage. Anyone going here will cherish being the tranquillity of the province, a gift to this place barely reached by many. The absence of urbanity is offset by the warmth of its people, eager to listen to tales of the tourists of how they have fell in love with their hometown at first sight.

For now, this westernmost Philippine frontier shall wait patiently for its influx of tourists whose ambition would be to tick an item off their bucket list.

(Published in M Magazine’s Dec. 2012 issue)

Philippines cancer survivor turns cigarette boxes into rosaries

Elena Mabano turns an empty box of cigarettes into something Catholics may benefit. (Mick Basa)

Gently mounting each bead onto a pin until finally making a loop, Elena S. Mabano is reminded how she has endured life’s painful battles in every rosary she makes.

A devout Catholic, she calls herself, 57-year-old Mabano scours empty cigarette ream cartons, cutting them into long narrow pieces, with each strip rolled into a bead, an unusual material used to make a string of beads to keep count of a religious devotion.

“I don’t really tell them (customers) that it’s made from cigarette boxes because they don’t bother to ask what it’s made of,” she says.

Surviving cancer

Mabano, a cancer survivor, said her only intention of turning the cigarette boxes into rosary is rooted on her belief that not all things that end on garbage are waste.

Diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2008, Mabano had to undergo surgery, only two years after she went under the knife to find treatment for her Lumbar Disk disease.

“Because of my positive outlook, I think I was healed. I went to healing crusades and asked God to be merciful to me,” the mother of seven children recalled.

Second life

Mabano, 57, is a cancer survivor and a devout Catholic. (Mick Basa)

Mabano says she wants her time spent just being thankful for the “second life” she has received after experiencing which she claims a near-death experience during her Lumbark Disk operation in 2006.

“It was a near death experience. I was standing before a view a mountain covered with forest while many people pass by me. I saw one of our neighbors who already passed away. My doctor said I was weeping when I was asleep in the recovery room,” she recalls.

“Now I see this as a mission because the Lord healed me. That’s why I am determined to continue what I started.”

Rubbish turned ‘weapon’

A box of a cigarette ream, she says, makes 10 rosaries. She varies the color of the beads by using different boxes of varying brands, all of which she collected since she started in 2009 from retail stores discarding the boxes like it could no longer be of use.

“Rosary is a weapon against evil,” she told this writer as she connected a crucifix into a chain of uncompleted rosary at her residence on the southern outskirts of Davao City, where she and some her neighbors have formed an all-women association focusing on handicrafts made of rubbish. Among their products, aside from rosaries, include hats, bags and bottle holders made of plastic bags used by grocery stores and malls.


Her group, the Toril Kalambuan Association, started last year and is a beneficiary of the local government’s program to develop women groups to create their own product and make them available in the market.

“We started making rosaries in 2009 but we did not have a market until 2011,” she said.

Their association is yet to pick up profit, she says. “Very few are interested to join crafting the rosaries because it is meticulous job and many want their money earned in an easier way.”

Helping others

But with a desire to help others not only in encouraging other women to join her association, Mabano said she also gives out rosaries to children every Flores de Mayo.

Asked if she had any bitter feeling towards God for the series of painful battles she has gone through despite her being a faithful Catholic, she says: “a faithful Catholic goes through many trials and problems. So that when God calls them, he knows how because he can relate how Jesus suffered on the cross. A life of a Christian is not a purely pleasurable life. There will be tough times.”