Three tragic stories from the Philippines

August 2004

This past weekend I had a conversation with a Filipino man, an influential member of his church. As Filipinos often do, he asked if I were married and how many children I had fathered. I told him that I wasn't married and had no children. He pressed further and so I told him that I had no particular plan to get married, nor to have children. With a concerned look, he informed me that when I died and reached the gates of heaven, St. Peter's first questions would be whether I had been married, and how many children I had produced with my wife. If my answers were no, I would be sent to "the other place."


Yesterday on Olango Island I spoke with a young Filipino woman, a family planning educator on the small, densely populated island. She gives presentations in the community and schools, and helps manage the sale (for extremely low prices) of birth control devices at sari-sari stores on the island. These devices include condoms, birth control pills, and "morning after" pills for use in cases of rape, and when a woman has forgotten or was unable to use birth control the night before. We were sitting in the tiny house of a very poor family with ten children. The parents are too poor to afford birth control devices and the father, a fisherman, is afraid to get a vasectomy because he has been told by various people that the procedure "ruins your chance to have an erection."
She told me that at church the previous week, the Catholic priest had exhorted the congregation about the evils of birth control devices, telling them that their use is equivalent to abortion: a sin against God. Meanwhile, he pointedly glared at this young woman in her pew, so as to leave no doubt in the minds of his faithful parishioners.

The mother with some of her 10 children, noticeably stunted for their age due to malnutrition. Filipino family


Yesterday on Olango Island I also went snorkeling in the beautiful waters of Bohol Strait. I spotted a spear fisherman and swam over to watch him work. He was wearing a t-shirt and jogging pants, swimming goggles, and flip flops, and was armed with a thin metal spear, about three feet long, powered by a simple home-made elastic slingshot. He also carried a bolo knife and had a monofilament line tied around his waist, by which means he pulled a small boat, about three feet long, in which to store his catch while fishing. He was fishing in water that varied between about four and eight feet deep.
His technique was to drop to the bottom, overturn large rocks using his hands and watch to see if any fish swam out, in which case he shot them with his spear gun. He speared very few fish this way, but I noticed that all the rocks were covered with small corals and seaweeds, which undoubtedly died when their homes were overturned on the sea floor. There were not many fish around, and those I saw were small. During the hour I followed the fisherman, he speared about six fish, none larger than three inches long.
The fisherman promptly chopped up any sea urchins he saw, using his bolo. The spewing urchins attracted small crowds of tiny fish who gobbled up the tiny urchin pieces. The fisherman then started shooting at the fish which had been attracted by the "bait."
The visible result of his efforts was a seabed full of hundreds of overturned rocks, dozens of dead sea urchins, and six tiny fish for the evening meal. The catch would have easily fit in the palm of my hand. Such seems to be the state of fishing in the Philippines.


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Filipino children