The girl who walks the streets at 10 pm, peddling strings of sampaguita, will not sleep tonight. At the end of the streets and the dark is home, but home does not mean solace or rest. Home means buckets of white flowers to string for next day’s sale, it means her neighbors’ laundry, it means the overdue homework she must accomplish in the hour between ironing and preparing her siblings’ next meal bought on credit from the nearby sari-sari store. Home is the hundred obligations her mother and father should undertake but don’t because they are both drug addicts and are hardly ever there, and so, the girl, about ten, must assume the roles of mother, father, and big sister, breadwinner and student, when all she wants to be is a child with a future to look forward to. This is not melodrama, this is reality.
Up the street, on a footbridge, hangs a great banner bearing a politician’s outsized face and words of slavish gratitude for the construction of the bridge. Thank you, oh Madam Ruler, for this footbridge, thank you, thank you—as if the people were indebted to their public servant for spending their money on projects and tasks they hired her to accomplish. The politician’s inflated head with her smug, toothy grin looks ludicrous, as do the words that accompany it, but nobody laughs. This is not comedy, this is tragedy.
WE WILL NOT FORGET NOVEMBER 23, declares a faded poster on a gray lamppost. We will not forget the 57 dead, the mothers and sisters, the journalists and lawyers, the innocents unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the 57 shot point-blank, beheaded, mutilated, buried alive in a big muddy pit with their crushed cars, slaughtered because they posed a threat to the lord of the land. This is not sensationalism, this is fact.
“Culture of violence”, “culture of impunity” have been repeated and reprinted and reiterated so many times that they have lost their sting. In a society where government officials are expected to be corrupt, where dissenting voices are silenced, where movers for change must cower in fear, and when they do not, are ignored or oppressed or labeled outlaws and killed, outrage has more and more become a difficult emotion to incite. The people are used to it and they are tired of it and to stay sane they must deaden their senses to it, look the other way, pretend not to hear.
Who will save this country?
The nationwide search for the next president has begun and nine hopefuls have stepped up, drowning the people in a deluge of TV ads, posters, videos, websites, flyers, fanpages, jingles.
Vote for the man who used to swim in a sea of garbage but now travels in the luxury of his private jet. He will rid the country of poverty (he says); as he secured his own seat atop the great pyramid of cash, so can he ensure prosperity for over 90 million people—as if it were only too easy for him to turn a triangle into a square.
Vote for the scion of socio-political royalty. He will rid the country of corruption (he says), and (says the media queen, his sister) just look at his slate! More than ten years in public office and still untarnished! Just ignore the dearth of accomplishments here (does that really matter?), the smudge of an unresolved massacre there (oh, but that’s nothing!), and see GENUINE CHANGE reflected in those spectacles barely reminiscent of his mother’s and father’s.
Who will save this country?
I will! I am religion.
I will! I am intelligence and capability.
I will! I am your rightful president, unfairly toppled, unjustly jailed!
And the candidates set themselves up as messiahs, the lamb chops of god to the despairing, starving throng, promising that they, and they alone, can revive the nation. And the people sing the candidates’ viral tunes, swallow their promises, and let themselves be washed away by the torrent of ads, the bright smiles and pretty words, because they know nothing of basic marketing.
I will vote for him because he has a fat chance of winning, says one constituent.
I will vote for him because he shook my hand and bopped most winsomely at one of his campaign rallies.
I won’t vote for him because he is old and ugly—look at those wrinkles, the crow’s feet that turn his eyes into slits! That is the look of a corrupt politician!
And the constituents debate the virtues of botox for their presidential bet, because, indeed, the political arena is a cockpit for stately fowl, it is the stage of a 24/7 variety show. The art of politics is the art of show business, because the people long for progress, for change, but they do not demand platform or policy, because they are used to feeding on daydreams. Reality is too costly, and not all are prepared to pay the price.
The child who walked the streets at 10 pm is now home, doing her homework by the light of a low candle while her siblings slept on barely filled bellies. She still believes that education will one day get rid of the buckets of white flowers and their sickening scent.
In the dark, on the footbridge, somebody rips off the banner of the grinning politician.
The 57 dead have been immortalized, in poems and stories, essays and Wikipedia entries. The prime suspect is behind bars. And though the buzz about the massacre is not as great as it was before, the people have not forgotten.