Volcanoes and Ulcers


When I was doing a course on African Literature many centuries ago under Susan Evangelista (a brilliant teacher who happened to be born in the US, married a Filipino, came to live in the Philippines and learned the local language and culture — ok, that was too long for a parenthetical remark!  Isn’t anyone editing this thing?), we discussed a traditional poem called “A Baby is a European.”  At that time I have to admit I was terribly naive and ignorant – or just stupid I suppose (or more stupid then).  I knew very little about imperialism outside of my own country’s experience.

In other words, I had no idea what the poem was about.  But it made me laugh.  It took me a long time and a lot of reading other poetry and some European history to place this poem in its proper context (or some context).  Eureka!  It was funnier than the first time around!

Fast forward to April 2010.  For over a week now world news – even as reported by Al Jazeera! – has been mostly about the volcanic ash clouds from Iceland.  You would think the rest of the world had been frozen, or set to pause like on a dvd player (or blu-ray for you rich kids), and that nothing, oh, nothing else mattered but the woes of poor airline passengers in Europe!

I can understand the inconvenience.  Worse if you were stuck in crowded airports with your small children.  I can imagine the disappointment, the hassles, all magnified by the uncertainty of the situation.

Let’s pull back a bit shall we?

Has anyone died?  Was there massive destruction of property even?  Baggage lost or misplaced perhaps, but really, tell me how bad has it been?

Here is a link to an article from the BBC about the destructive power of this volcanic eruption: “Iceland volcano not  in big league, say experts”

When Mount Pinatubo  in the Philippines erupted in 1991, we in Manila – many safe kilometres away – were treated to an alien landscape – ash covered cars, roads, everything!  The ground was soft and white, I suppose like newly fallen snow – but I wouldn’t know, I’ve never seen snow fall. Sunsets became more spectacular, as if to make up for all the horrors that befell those who were directly affected.

Around the volcano it wasn’t a dreamland.  People were evacuated to safety long before the biggest eruptions started.  If I recall correctly, tens of thousands of people had to be moved out of the danger zone.  Six lives were lost at the time.

The destruction that followed did not end when the volcano had calmed down again.  The indigenous people who lived around that mountain were permanently displaced, many resorted to begging on city streets, some reaching as far down as Manila – reduced to a life that was completely hostile to them.

When the rainy season arrived massive mudslides with volcanic debris swept away houses and farmlands, and in some tragic cases, lives were lost.  Once fertile lands were destroyed.  When the rains and the floods had subsided what was left was eerie to behold.  There was a photograph I remember where the only thing that stuck out of the ground was the cross on top of a church.

One good thing I remember came from that catastrophe.  The US Military Bases in Olongapo and Angeles were finally abandoned after many decades of protests from activists and human rights movements.  Not even a thank you, goodbye.

I ramble.  I meant to say something about this poem and about suffering, something about perspective and sense of helplessness.  But I think I got lost along the way.  So here, then, is one version of that traditional African poem I thought was very funny the first time I read it. (“European” is completely interchangeable with whatever you may think fit.)

A Baby is a European

A Baby is a European
he does not eat our food:
he drinks from his own water pot.

A Baby is a European
he does not speak our tongue:
he is cross when the mother understands him not.

A Baby is a European
he cares very little for others:
he forces his will upon his parents.

A baby is a European
he is always very sensitive:
the slightest scratch on his skin results in an ulcer.

-o-

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About matangmanok

Jim Pascual Agustin writes and translates poetry. Sometimes he tries his hand at essays and stories. In 2011 the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila released BAHA-BAHAGDANG KARUPUKAN (poems in Filipino) and ALIEN TO ANY SKIN (poems in English). The same publisher released his most recent poetry collections SOUND BEFORE WATER and KALMOT NG PUSA SA TAGILIRAN. In 2015 a new poetry collection in English, A THOUSAND EYES was released. His first collection of short stories in Filipino, SANGA SA BASANG LUPA, was released in 2016. UK publisher The Onslaught Press launches his latest poetry collection, WINGS OF SMOKE, worldwide in February 2017. View all posts by matangmanok

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