(Note: Last April, I joined Philippine Star's writing contest entitled "My Icon, My Hero." I lost. Here's my entry.)
My icons, my heroes
by Paolo B. Maligaya
It must be anger. Anger and frustration. An overwhelming sense of injustice and feeling of frustration against systems in place and the way they’re run that they feel the need to actively do something about it? Prestige? (Maybe not.)
Or is it plain old love for country?
I’ve always wondered what motivates people to give up their time and source of livelihood to do volunteer work. Being a part of the secretariat team of a volunteer organization like the National Citizen’s Movement for Free Elections or NAMFREL, I am witness to people showing up to perform difficult tasks for which the only form of remuneration is a free lunch, an ID, or the occasional reimbursement of transportation expenses. I’ve met people saying, “okay I’ll be here at 8am tomorrow because I need to make calls to the provincial coordinators and finish a report by evening,” and our reaction would be, “you’ll do that?”
The job of a NAMFREL volunteer is not simple. In fact, it can be complex depending on the kind of work a person does for the organization, which also depends on the set of skills he/she brings to the table.
Take for example a provincial coordinator. This person could be a teacher, a local businessman, a professor, a pastor, a priest, a nun, a housewife, or a second generation volunteer who “inherited” the position from her father, making good on their family’s commitment to free and fair elections. This coordinator would have to convince other people in their area to join his cause, either to be municipal or precinct volunteers, or to help out in logistics and communication. If he lives in a province like Tawi-Tawi or Palawan, this means that he has to travel by land, water, and air to organize volunteers in the different areas, paying for transportation out of their own pockets since the measly (as is often the case) seed money from the national office has not been deposited yet. To augment the expense, he or she has to count on the spirit of bayanihan among Filipinos through sourcing funds from local businesses in his area, often only using his face, track record, and the promise of commitment to uphold fairness in the coming election to secure the much-needed donation.
The job can be perilous. As somebody who has vowed to work for a clean conduct of the electoral process, a NAMFREL volunteer is a target for anybody who would want to disrupt the honest conduct of the process. NAMFREL volunteers have been killed in the line of duty, people like Rodrigo Ponce, Neoldino Del Corro, Abdulhak Balabadan, and others who died while doing what they feel they should do, which is to protect the ballot.
I go back to my question: but why?
I have experienced becoming a NAMFREL volunteer myself. In 2007, I took a leave of absence (without pay) for two weeks from a relatively higher-paying job to volunteer in the national headquarters in La Salle Greenhills. I was met by incredulous stares from colleagues who asked, but why? To be at the other end of this question, frankly I did not know what to say. I may have mumbled something about duty to country or whatever, but the truth was, I didn’t know for sure. Like those Americans who trooped to New York City to donate blood after 9/11, I just felt it was something that I had to do, something that needs to be done, and we could not put words into it. Just.
It’s probably this mishmash of clear yet ambiguous reasons why people have continued to offer themselves to something that they think is bigger than them, but they feel they have to be part of.
The reality is, an election in the Philippines is not just an election, in the way the dictionary or even the UN defines it. For many Filipinos, an election is not simply this party vs. that party (the fact is the Philippines still doesn’t have a mature political party system). For them, it’s more like good vs. evil. How else to explain the heavy presence of bishops, priests, and nuns in the polling precincts, counting centers, and in assemblies? (Do you really expect the priests and nuns to stay idle when they see their flock being cheated, oppressed, or beaten to death?)
For ordinary Filipinos, an election could be a wind of change, a new start, food for the family, the kids finally finishing college, a higher paying job, a way out of this misery. Anything but a mere process of some people getting a bigger number of votes, getting proclaimed as winner, fireworks and cheers. An election in the Philippines is a new lease on life.
The typical NAMFREL volunteer is not a politics geek. He doesn’t go around town thinking that, oh I’m doing this because the political situation in the country is like this or like that or oh I’m doing this because I want to contribute to the democratic process. They do it because they feel deep inside that for some reason, they need to do it, but couldn’t articulate it through words or grand statements about democracy or whatever ideology. More than its national leaders and known supporters, the organization is fueled by nameless, faceless citizens who want nothing more than a decent life but feel they have to actively do something to make it happen. The spirit of volunteerism is exactly that -- a spirit. It’s an invisible force that fuels people into action. You may kill the person, but not the spirit. Which means individual personages don’t define an organization. That is why, when there were some people who tried to discredit NAMFREL by saying that its national leaders are supposedly partisan, it was a slap in the face to its thousands of volunteers. In their provinces, cities, towns, barangays, families, NAMFREL is not the guy in the office in Manila. In their places, they are NAMFREL. And no, you cannot put them down and make them go away.
The NAMFREL volunteer movement is a concrete example of democracy in action, of people coming together by their own free will to strengthen the foundations of their country. People empowering themselves because they feel it is their responsibility as citizens to safeguard the democratic processes of their nation. The movement has inspired and continues to inspire other countries, not just in Asia but around the world, to organize themselves to protect or uphold democratic values. Above all, this national movement of citizens refutes once and for all that Filipinos are “indolent” as the Spanish claimed during their time; Filipinos are a hardworking people who works for their freedom harder.
NGO workers in the country generally don’t earn much, having limited resources for salary and supplies. There’s a feeling among us that it’s unfair that we get paid too little for what we contribute to the country.
But then we come face to face with our volunteers whom we serve and who work harder and contribute more to our cause, but does it for free, and we feel humbled. Along with other ordinary folks like Batangueña public school teacher Filomena Tatlonghari who was killed while protecting a ballot box from snatchers, NAMFREL volunteers use their very own bodies to defend democracy, and they do not ask anything in return after a day’s work other than an honest election process, and perhaps a better life. That is why more than the prominent figures in this country’s history, the unsung, nameless, faceless volunteers of NAMFREL are my icons, my heroes.