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Kapitan Benilda: Barangay Hilaba, Barugo

There’s nothing pretentious about Barangay Captain Benilda’s tiny wooden village store in the Eastern Visayan village of Hilaba. From the roadside, all you can see is the unprepossessing front of a 2 x 2 metre shack. Inside, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of sorts, crammed with the staples of village life: rice, corn, oil, sugar, salt, sachets of coffee. But it takes me less than a few minutes of conversation, sat on a white plastic stool, Benilda stationed where she always is, behind the wooden counter, to realize that the store is very much more than meets the eye.


What the store’s unassuming aspect belies is its extraordinary ‘pop up’ role as a hub underwriting the viability, the sustainability, of day to day life in Hilaba. Pretty soon, I’m flabbergasted. I feel as though I’ve stumbled in upon the someones and somethings of a raw anthropological and sociological study, rich in detail, profound in implication and deeply revealing of life in a rural barangay, the outwardly distinguishing features of which are its patchwork of rice paddies, the grazing carabao, an elementary school, a tiny chapel, and the wooden huts of the villagers.


But behind those anodyne features of the rural Philippines is a practice at once ordinary and yet breathtaking, and which reveals, starkly, how the manifestations of poverty are inscribed in daily life even whilst being hidden from sight. And it’s a poverty which has inveigled itself into daily practices so habituated that it is no longer capable of conjuring up what lies at its heart: that is, a lived in and inescapable shame.


Kapitan Benilda is a benign, soft-faced woman in her late 40s who, soon after an initial and wholly understandable wariness of my intrusion, begins to lead, as I come to learn she always does, with her heart. And it’s that heart, I quickly perceive, which is the indispensable node on which the economic integrity of the village depends. All village paths must at some point in the week lead to her store; all villagers must partake of her largesse; all separate entities that constitute a village cohere not in the tiny chapel nearby, but here, in a chapel of a different sort. It’s Benilda’s store which provides, prosaically, the most elemental succor for the poor. Not in spiritual forms, of course, but in more immediately impressionable tangible forms: in things that can be bagged up and taken home. It is she who dispenses the commodified ‘blessings’ that correlate with, vitally and necessarily, the priest’s hand placed esoterically upon a head or his whispered prayers.


Benilda has a Bible of sorts, too, and it’s that which has me transfixed. Together, we leaf through its dog-eared pages, each one torn from a child’s exercise book and inscribed by her own hand in words that conjure not things transcendent, but earthy, practical, elemental. For here are lists of dry goods and necessities; the things villagers live by and, even perhaps, live for: sugar, rice, matches, oil, a sachet of coffee.


And against each item, in intimidating counterpoint, its price: meagre, perhaps, singly, but when added one to another, in steady accumulation, taking the form of a monster which, inevitably, does what all monsters must do: that is, turn upon and devour the person who creates it.  Or it would, if it were not for Benilda’s patient pacifications. Benilda’s impromptu and constantly tended Bible is made only of chits. I handle them almost reverentially and with a gathering sense of astonishment, because what are they but cries for help in prosaic form; cries rent from the depths of villagers’ hearts, whether man, woman or, more likely, child, sent as a proxy for the parent. Those cries mutate into chits in a form of simple but at the same time wondrous alchemies, and it’s the mutation of distress into a thing mundane that helps to make manageable the heart of the emotionally and psychologically wrought supplicant. Benilda, at such moments a chit is produced, also undergoes a metamorphosis: she’s no longer storekeeper but therapist managing a trauma, deftly, by the simple ritual of converting a villager’s plea – his or her need or want - into its immediate satisfaction: a thing to be pocketed, with sufficient weight and texture to have meaning. A thing, in the end, to live on.


What’s truly remarkable, is that there is no grasping here, no ambition, no crazed expectancy of abundance. The chits show that items are culled from the store in ways that suggest that at the same time as something is needed, or desired, the need must also be partly quelled or quashed, without being expunged entirely, for fear of it metasising into a thing ghastly and unmanageable. The harvesting of items, judging by the chits, is a process at once meagre, pared down, parsimonious. Its characteristic feature is not of the villager’s need, but rather of his or her restraint in the face of that need; his or her paring down of aspirations to their most ascetic form. Hence, the chits reveal that villagers obtain their sugar not by the kilo or half or quarter kilo but by the 2 pesos portion. Their biscuits, singly, not as a packet. Their dried fish, in 5 pesos bundles.  

I ask Benilda, with some trepidation, to select one villager’s chits in their entirety and to add up how much he or she owes. I wait a while, tremulous, as her pen makes its way down the lists, her lips murmuring as if she’s intoning a meditative chant, as if to ward off the bad spirit of indebtedness. It’s no good, though. The total, unavoidable, seems even to surprise her, though later I realize that it could not be so, so used is she to these by now commonplace addings up of what a villager owes: each addition an ingrained and inexpungable fact of village life.  She shows me the total: over 3000 pesos for an almost 2-month period. Notwithstanding the trite and inoffensive cost of a bit of sugar here, a thimblelful of cooking oil there, the final tally feels like a knockout blow despite all the feints and parries that kept it, for a while, at bay.


I look across at the cardboard box from which she drew the chits. She knows what I’m thinking: that the accumulation of chits shows that she’s bankrolling the village, for two month intervals, by up to 30,000 pesos, perhaps more. Her modest store is, then, not modest at all: its ambition is immodest, huge. It sets itself up as a fulcrum upon which the viability of the village is precariously, but at the same time essentially balanced. Without it – without these strings of credit, named from the language of the colonizing Spanish as ‘vale’ but sometimes crudified in English, as ‘good fors’ – what recourse is there for the hungry stomach? What rice in the pot for the child coming home from school at noon?


I thought about that word, ‘vale’ a moment, one of the thousands of linguistic traces of colonization sequeued apparently indelibly into Tagalog and the islands’ multiple local languages. And as I sat with Benilda, I considered if that 350-year period of Spanish conquest and colonization, of avarice and appropriation, were responsible for this: the daily humbling of 21st century rural Filipinos who must swallow what pride they may have had and tread the well-worn paths to her store, seeking a loan. If so, the Filipino in an agricultural barangay is as surely under a Spanish yoke now as ever he or she was before the Philippine islands were ceded, none too soon but not soon enough, by Spain to America.


I looked steadily at Benilda. I asked myself by what means, by what deep and necessary impetus, she had become a Barangay Captain, and, perish the thought, what would be the situation if she were not? It was not the elementary school principal who held sway here, even though he had a position by which he could cultivate an aspirational mindset in each of the children in his care; nor was it the priest or the priest’s assistant who happened to be in the nearby barangay chapel as I sat mesmerized by the pile of chits in my hand, and who, ironically, sent round a bespoke collection box, which I shunned, putting my 1000 pesos offering in Benilda’s cruder cardboard box, instead.  No, it was the Barangay Captain’s sway that was the vital essence of the village. It was she who had the trust of every villager; she who took on the risk; she who, by the voluntary promptings of her heart, dispensed daily benedictions in the form of loans for tablespoons of sugar.


What lies behind it all, I learned from her, as I sat on the stool, was the 4Ps program; a national edifice put in place by the previous administration. And a jolly good job it was. Every 2 months, the municipal hall in Barugo dispenses welfare due to each registered beneficiary, capped at the third child. A right then, sitting in the store, chits in hand, still amazed at the informality and yet the precision of the system, I had the impression that the 4Ps was an act not so much of social welfare, but of last recourse. Without it, indigence. Without it, penury. Without it, every rice pot empty. But I knew, too, that a welfare system which purportedly underwrites the means to subsistence in a Philippine village was working not as a stand-alone (as I imagine it was conceived to) but as an adjunct. To get to that moment when cash was dispensed, villagers were dependent on the Barangay Captain. On her good will. On her long-suffering patience. On her chits. On her Fairy Godmotherdom.


‘And when the ‘vale’ is paid off?’ I asked. But Benilda did not need to answer, and I need not have asked the question. The villagers’ indebtedness and the store as a fixture as central to the village as school or chapel, or as the rice paddies, were both immutably present and intertwined. For the villager, there was no respite from either the debt or the systems by which it was both relieved and then perpetuated. Except, perhaps, I sentimentally thought, in the villagers’ sleep. Unless there, too, it haunted people like an incubus. Because who’s to say that such constant dependency on forms of welfare does not create monsters of anxiety in the rural Filipino’s psyche, ceaselessly prowling and never sated? Who’s to say that the rural Filipino’s mind is not like a fly caught in a web of dendrites down which anxiety courses?


I got up to go. I noticed as I did so on the counter a basket of single garlic cloves, each one bagged in plastic. I thought, whatever index exists to measure poverty, or whatever practice embeds it in experience, from day to day, having the means only to buy a single clove from a whole bulb was probably one of poverty’s starkest and most mocking indicators.


But it was at this point that something strange happened: Benilda began to sob. The story that followed, deeply personal, deeply moving, achingly sad, is for another time, but it made me recall Carl Jung’s comment that only the wounded physician heals. Her tears, and the story that prompted them proved that she was suffering a wound of her own. And so, because of it, she sought to heal, practically, in tiny ministrations and libations of balm.  Invisibly. Without fanfare. Without anyone beyond the village knowing that in fact, two months at a time, she stood in for the government: the largeness of her heart in inverse proportion to that same government’s meagerness.

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