An unlettered farmer’s legacy

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, December 27, 2013


(This is a reprint, a story I go back to for all seasons, something I find fitting for this New Year. I never had the honor of meeting Nelson Mandela, that great mortal who personified patience, reconciliation and forgiveness. Still, I was lucky enough to have shook hands with an unschooled Ifugao farmer whose quiet selflessness also simply inspires. - RD.)

ONCE in a while, a story comes along that needs to be told and retold - for the human virtue it inspires. It seems easier to find it in fiction than in the real world that tends to breed cynics among us. A good man or woman is really hard to find nowadays, except in paperbacks and in the movies.

I've heard one such story, not in fiction but of one who was flesh and blood. It is about selflessness. It is about one ordinary man with deeds quite extraordinary you'd think he was a fictionist's creation. He existed - and lived a full life. Until now, he's unknown, except in the remote Ifugao community he built and lived in.

The story is no bull. I first heard it from then regional director Stephen Capuyan of the education department. He remembered it the moment we met, perhaps sure that my Igorot blood would trigger my interest to listen to something literally close to the Cordillera.

Manong Steve recalled his disbelief when a farmer appeared in his office at the Teachers' Camp, to seek help in solving a serious, albeit personal, problem. It was about the man's dwindling livestock. He swore only the education department could help in saving whatever remained of his cowherd.

"The moment I heard about cattle, I thought I knew he was barking up the wrong tree," Manong Steve said. "I advised him to direct his woes to the Department of Agriculture."

But the man was unfazed and persistent. He admitted he was losing his cow heads but not his head. He insisted he went to the right office to spill out his grievance over the education department's lack of a sense of urgency regarding agricultural sustainability.

"Dandani maibusen dagiti bakak. Dakayo met koman apo ti agbayad kadagiti agisursuro idiay barangay mi ta awanen ti maisueldok kadakuada (I'm about to lose all my cows. I hope you can now pay the teachers in our barangay as I can no longer shoulder their wages)," the man tried to explain.

Manong Steve's visitor was Mongilit Ligmayo, an unlettered Ifugao farmer. His story began to unfold many years ago in Ambasa, one of the interior barangays of Lamut town in Ifugao. Lakay Ligmayo, originally from Banaue, resettled there as a pioneer farmer. He plowed the remote Ambasa wasteland into a farmland. Gradually, the isolated place drew more farmers and slowly developed into a barangay.

As the farmers produced more rice and more children, Mongilit clearly saw the need for an elementary school. He offered over a hectare of his land for the school site. He knocked on government offices for help. He went on to help build the school with his personal resources, to the extent of fashioning out some of the desks and fixtures.

In no time, the first batch of kids was in the sixth grade. Soon, they would need a high school, but the nearest was in the poblacion and there was hardly a road linking Ambasa to the town proper. Mongilit, then the barangay chief - a position he would hold for 20 years - had to decide again.

He sliced off another two hectares of his land for the high school site. Again, he directly oversaw the construction and, with his sons, again built desks and tables.

But even with an unfinished classroom, there were no teachers. There was no provision in the education budget to hire additional teachers. Again, he offered to bankroll the initial teachers' initial salaries and the first high school class opened.

More students meant more teachers to pay. To keep them and the students in class, the old man started selling some of his cows. One day, when he could hardly count any of his herd, he decided to travel to Baguio.

Manong Steve's story sank in. I was gripped with a yearning to meet and interview the old man. I needed to write a feature, to attempt to do justice to his story that needed to be told and retold. The article would be my deliverance from a newsman's state of jadedness.

My yearning was akin to or bordering on the urge for spiritual purging and renewal of my sense of the sacred. That must be the feeling of those going to spiritual retreat where they cry a river and come out with the purest of intentions Like those coming out of the cursillo or a so-called Values Orientation Workshop for those in government.

"Talaga mit a, makapasangit dayta istolyam, Manong (Truly, your story is a tear-jerker)," I told director Capuyan in flawless Ifugao diction. He laughed. The story hit me like when folksinger Conrad Marzan dished out Gordon Lightfoot's "Second Cup of Coffee" or that time I was reading Maeve Binchy's "The Glass Lake".

And then, fulfillment was at hand. Director Capuyan promised to have me tag along in one of his official visits to Ifugao. Somehow, I forgot about the self-proclaimed mission as fast as dry paper burns. It came back when some of us Baguio journalists were asked to serve as resource speakers in the regional schools press conference in Kiangan.

From Kiangan, my buddy Peewee Agustin and I tried but failed to reach Ambasa. Blocked by the current of the river dividing the village from the rest of Lamut, we detoured to the municipal hall. Lady lawyer and then mayor Linda Bongyo-Chaguile received us and validated what director Capuyan narrated.

"He's here now; let me introduce you to him," she said. After some photographs, we repaired to a carinderia for lunch with Kapitan Mongilit and his wife. I was at a loss for words, unable to figure out the questions. The diminutive fellow was reluctant to talk about his achievements and I did not pursue. Still, I was content, feeling fulfilled and honored having met him in his quiet dignity.

I struggled to shrug off the lurking vanity we newsmen enjoy when rubbing elbows with conventionally greater mortals such as traditional politicians. I basked in his glory when Manong Juan Dacawe, a non-trapo, made it as vice-governor of Ifugao. "Is he your relative?" somebody asked me after the elections. "Did he win?" I asked back. "Yes." "Then he's my relative."

I lost the photographs and again forgot to write. A few years ago, I learned Lakay Mongilit had gone to the farmland of his Maker Kabunian. In 2003, Lamut officials led by Mayor Angelito Guinid renamed the Ambasa Elementary School after the farmer who never learned to read and write. The enabling ordinance, which local legislative secretary Dominador Valenciano took pains to fax me, cited Lakay Mongilit's unwavering doggedness in building the school.

In 2004, Ifugao Representative Solomon Chungalao filed House Bill 01043 that separated the Ambasa annex of the Lawig National High School. The bill renamed it the Mongilit Ligmayo Memorial National High.

The unschooled Kapitan Mongilit never ever thought of recognition, much less aspired for renown. Monuments can never measure true greatness. Yet we need to remember heroes whose sacrifices we need to pass on to our kids, to inspire and nurture in them the sense of community that Lakay Mongilit lived by.

Too late in the day, I thought the unlettered farmer's legacy would give him enormous potential as nominee for a posthumous "Lingkod Bayan" national award under the honor awards program of the Civil Service Commission. The rules, however, disqualify him: Nominations should be made for those who died while in the government service and within 12 months after the death of the nominee.

Still, as novelist Richard Paul Evans observed, "the greatest acts are done without plaque, audience or ceremony." So was Mark Twain right: "It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them." (e-mail:mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments).

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on December 28, 2013.

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