By Maria Diosa Labiste

Kamusta Kayo? Naratibo ng Kababaihang Magbubukid Ngayong Pandemya (How are you? Narratives of Peasant Women During the Pandemic. 2020). Published by Amihan, Rural Women Advocates and Gantala Press. 58 pages.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt was once asked by Günter Gaus, whether she missed pre-Hitler Europe after she went on an exile to the United States.  “What, in your impression, remains and what is irretrievably lost?” asked Gaus. “What remains?” said Arendt. “The language remains.”

I thought of Arendt’s words when I read Kamusta Kayo? Naratibo ng Kababaihang Magbubukid Ngayong Pandemya (How are you? Narratives of Peasant Women During the Pandemic), an e-zine or electronic magazine, published by Amihan, Rural Women Advocates and Gantala Press. Arendt’s experience of fleeing a horror that was Germany under the Nazi regime could provide some parallel moments for rural women in the Philippines, although in a much different time and circumstances.

Arendt had refused to lose her mother tongue because it is where she could access poetry, her lifeline during crisis. But while Arendt was able to physically escape that which terrified her, the same was difficult for the many peasant women in the book, who were immobilized by fear of contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and being subjected to state repression.  

The central theme of the e-zine is fear – of coronavirus, of hunger, of being arrested. Fear can be sensed on the women’s words elicited by the casual greeting: “kamusta na kayo/ how are you?” It is a question that pricked and provoked the women to speak out. Their answers came as vignettes, poems, recipes, and evocative accounts of how they lived through 11 weeks of nationwide lockdown, said to be among the strictest in the world, to prevent the spread of the virus. If they were to be asked of same question as Arendt, on what remains, perhaps the women would say: “The stories remain.”

E-zine cover by Marc Cosico

There were a total of 45 flash narratives in the electronic chapbook coming from 12 areas where Amihan, the peasant women federation, is active. These places are Cagayan, Isabela, Tarlac, Bataan, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Oriental Mindoro, Bicol, Panay and Bohol. These places are found in Luzon and Visayas island groups.  However, although Mindanao was not represented, the lockdown encompassed the whole country, thus it is safe to say that a peasant woman can see herself represented by 45 women speaking in the book, by virtue of her socio-economic class and the shared generality of her suffering.

The government declared a nationwide lockdown on March 16 to prevent COVID-19 cases from spiralling upward fast. At that time, there were only 142 cases recorded and 12 deaths. The quarantine measures include the shutdown of businesses, the halt of air and inter-island travel, and the presence of community roadblocks to prevent people from leaving their homes except for emergencies.

The strict lockdown policy, however, was not matched by quick and compassionate response from the government, like providing adequate food assistance and transportation to bring home those stranded in Metro Manila. Police and army personnel imposed quarantine measures, leading to arrests and jail time for thousands that were then dismissed as pasaway or unruly. The military became the face of the government’s response to the pandemic outbreak, instead of a medical guise.

For example, in Cagayan province in the North Luzon, army soldiers belonging to the 17th Infantry Battalion imposed a hard lockdown that stopped selling and buying in the town centers’ markets. Selling is allowed in barangays or local communities but since there is little money circulating people ended up in debts (utang).

Grace, 35, from Cagayan,with three small kids, appealed for help from the government. Her husband, a construction worker in Manila, lost his job and had to go back home. While scouting around for work, he fell off a truck while hitchhiking.  Grace said, “Kaya sobrang hirap kami ngayong lockdown. Hindi rin ako makapaghanap ng trabaho dahil hindi naman kami puwedeng lumabas at kailangan din ang mag-aalaga sa mga anak namin lalo at maysakit ang asawa ko” (We suffered a lot during the lockdown, I can’t go out and look for a job because we are not allowed to go out and someone has to take care of my children, especially now that my husband is sick).

Rowena, a vendor, also from Cagayan, said she had to stop selling altogether, “Itigil na ang lockdown. Awanen ti ipakan mi ti anak mi” (Stop the lockdown. I have nothing to feed my children).

Scarlett, a single parent with four kids from Bataan, a three-hour drive from the capital, Manila, could no longer sell doormats and potholders when the lockdown started. She received a relief pack from the government consisting of three kilos of rice, three tins of sardines and one pack of instant noodles. The food aid, she said, is simply not enough.

Diane, from Cavite said that sometimes her family would eat only two meals in a day: breakfast and lunch combined and eaten at midday, and then supper at around 5 p.m. “Mahirap maging nanay na hindi maibigay ang hinihingi ng anak,” (It’s not easy to be a mother who cannot give what your kids are asking), she said. To improve their food intake, Diane learned how to turn cassava into a snack food and main dish.

Many women said they received relief packs from their local officials, sometimes twice or thrice during the 11 weeks of lockdown. They were thankful for the food aid, adding that it was better than nothing. However, these food packs were not enough to meet their needs, especially if they have growing children. Gina listed hers, to show how meager it was, despite the several relief waves with two-week intervals:

  • First wave: 2 kilos of rice and a small hand sanitizer;
  • Second wave: 2 kilos of rice, 2 tins of sardines, 1 small pack of instant coffee
  • Third wave: 5 kilos of rice, I tin of corned beef, 1 tin of sardines
  • Fourth wave: 2 kilos of rice, 3 pieces of eggplant, 1 slice of squash, 1 slice of cabbage, 1 scoop of beans

Given the inadequate food assistance, the government should instead allow them to back to work in the fields, the women said. “Hindi kami sanay na naghihintay ng bigay, sanay kami magtrabaho. Mahirap budyetin ang ayuda” (We’re not used to doleouts. We’re used to working. It’s hard to keep the food aid within the household budget), said Nanay Esting.

Comics by Yssa Brila

The lockdown has affected local trading that prices of palay (unhusked rice) went down to PhP18 a kilo from PhP18. Low palay prices were reported in Cagayan, Bicol, Nueva Ecija, Bataan, Isabel, Cavite and Laguna. Prices of other produced dropped as well, including corn, cabbage and other vegetables. Copra and abaca prices, the cash crops in Bicol, were at their lowest during the lockdown. With limited cash circulating in the local economy, many families have little or no means to buy milk for their children, medicines, and soap, among other needs. The latter were not part of the government’s aid.

“Nanay,” (mother), as used in the e-zine, is a term of endearment and respect for older women. It’s common in rural areas where women take on leadership in family and community affairs. When they speak, they often use “we,” to imply that they carry voices of their kind.

From their stories, it appears that rural women are aware of the dangers of COVID-19. Their statements showed that they are fairly well-informed about coronavirus, its beginnings, effects and spread.  For Gretchen and Russel, COVID-19 could bring death and that has changed the way that we run our lives. Their statements suggest that the women have access to media and other sources of information. “Bawal lumabas, natatakot akong may masamang maramdaman sa katawan, kasi baka Covid na. Natatakot din ako para sa aking pitong anak” (Going out is not allowed, I was afraid to get sick because it might be COVID-19. I am also afraid for (the health) of my seven children),” said Nanay Delia, 49.

Nanay Tess wrote a poem on C-19 and the stanzas carried informed insights expressed through verses.

Aside from the complaints of not having enough food, and with the possibility of being infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, many women interviewed in the e-zine were unhappy with the lockdown. A lockdown challenges the use of space by pressing people against each other within a small area. Compared to the conditions that peasant women are used to — moving around and seeing the green expanse of fields, the sky and horizon — the lockdown cancelled out their idea of freedom.

COVID, China daw ang pinagmulan

Ngunit bakit lahat ng bansa ay tinunguhan?

Walang pinipili mahirap man o mayaman,

Pati ang Pilipinas ay ginulantang.

(Covid, China was where it was said to come from

But why did it reach all nations?

It does not make a choice between the rich or poor,

The Philippines was caught unaware.)

The fourth and last stanza addresses authorities to respond to the needs of poor people amid uncertainties.

Ako’y nanawagan sa mga kinauukulan:

Huwag naming kalimutan hikahos na kabayan

Dahil malaking katanungan na wala pang kasagutan

Ang kailan matatapos ang COVID na naturan.

(I am appealing to those concerned:

Do not forget the poor

Because the big question has no answer yet

On when COVID-19 ends.)

Woman against coronavirus by Marc Cosico

Amelia, 68 and a farmer, said she and her husband were not allowed to work on their farm because they are more than 60 years old, or part of those considered vulnerable because of the likely presence of chronic diseases that weaken the body’s defenses. “(D)ahil hindi makalabas, paano na ang aming kabuhayan?” (Because we cannot go out (to the fields), how do we make a living?), she said.

COVID-19 has brought fear on the women, also preventing them from venturing out freely. Weng, from Tarlac said: “Noon, wala kang takot na lumabas. Ngayon, kung maari ayaw ko nang lumabas o ang sinuman sa aking pamilya dahil may takot o pangamba na hindi mawala sa aking isipan.” (Before, I wasn’t afraid to go out. Today, if possible I don’t want to leave our house or anyone from my family because of fear or anxiety in my mind).

Even without the virus, the lockdown also harmed the bodies of women, if we think of bodies in a collective sense that includes both the mind and flesh. A 26-year old farmer said she was diagnosed with some conditions that make her worry excessively and succumb to fits of anger. Under the lockdown, she felt that the stress wore down her mind. Her usual therapy of visiting and talking to friends and relatives is no longer possible. The women said they easily grew tired because they have more housework than their husbands or anyone – the notorious double burden.

Compared to the conditions that peasant women are used to — moving around and seeing the green expanse of fields, the sky and horizon — the lockdown cancelled out their idea of freedom.”

The lockdown has also affected intimacy between Nanay Venus and her husband. Fear has penetrated even their most private moment. “Kagabi, pareho kaming matamlay ng asawa ko. Hindi namin iniisip ang pagtatalik kasi paano kung carrier siya ng COVID?” (Last night, my husband and I weren’t in the mood. We couldn’t even think of making love because what if he is a COVID carrier?) she said.

As women scrambled to cover their families’ basic needs, some of them were targeted by the government’s vilification campaign of red-tagging the grassroots organizations and popular movements, including Amihan and RUWA. Women who decided to help each other, out of what they could share, and for the good of their families and communities, are tagged as communists, and became easy targets of the military for elimination. This is probably the biggest rational anomaly making rural women ask why the government peddles as if it is a good solution to the pandemic.

Miriam, from Cavite, said:  “Pinapabigat pa ang buhay sa mala-martial law na pagharap sa problemang pangkalusugan upang takpan ang kanilang kawalang-kaalamang lutasin ang problema nang naglilingkod sa pinakamaraming uring anakpawis” (The martial law-like conditions to address the medical problem covers up their lack of knowledge to solve the problem and serve the working class.).

Recipe by Yssa Brila

Finally, one of the articles in the e-zine is a reciple for atsara or pickles, made of carrots and cabbage. It takes three days before the vegetables are ready to eat because they have to reach a level of lacto-fermentation. The rural women must have jars of the pickles in their kitchens today because it is what they ate to increase their resistance against sickness during the lockdown.

By the time the e-zine was published, the hard lockdown has started to ease up in many areas. Perhaps another e-zine on peasant women is worth publishing because their voices deserve another chance to be heard. WWW

The e-zine (in pdf) is available from Rural Women Advocates and Gantala Press for PhP200. Please send them a message through their Facebook accounts. Donations are welcome, too.)