Hiking home during the ‘Hunger Season’

By Mercy Gawason

My name is Mercy Gawason. I grew up in the mountainous Zamboanga peninsula of northwest Mindanao in the Philippines which is the homeland of the Subanen people. My parents are farmers. My older sister Marilyn and older brother Rolly, are married and are also farmers. My three younger brothers Arnolfo, Jeyar, and Jomar are still at school.

Recently our Subanen Crafts Project acquired a small point-and-shoot camera. With this I can now take you on a photo journey up the trails and rivers to my mountain home, and then, through my pictures, I can more easily explain how the Subanen Crafts Project has helped my family and our farm.

My mother, Lita, my brother, Arnolfo, my sister, Marilyn, and her daughter, Crezlen, joined me on the hike to our home which is about 12 kilometers from the nearest town, Midsalip. We carried heavy bags of food and rice that I had bought in Midsalip. It is the month of May and we are in what people here call ‘ting gutum’ or ‘hunger season’.

The ‘hunger season’ can last five to six months. It begins when a farming family like ours has eaten the last of our harvested rice and corn and ends with our next harvest. I have a steady income and so I can keep my family supplied with food during the ‘hunger season’.

While we carried the food, little two-year-old Crezlen confidently strode beside us with her walking stick. Even at two years of age Subanen children are seasoned hikers. Along the way we had to carefully cross a river over slippery logs. Luckily, the river was not in flood; then crossing it would be impossible. After many hours of hiking we finally arrived home in the late afternoon.

The next day was the beginning of the plowing season for corn. I accompanied my brother Jeyar to our cornfield. When Jeyar is not in school he helps my father on the farm. He skillfully guided our carabao (water buffalo) and plow around the coconut trees. My father and Jeyar will need to plow and re-plow our cornfield for two weeks before it is fully ready for planting. Our family is lucky to still have a carabao. Many Subanen families, especially during the ‘hunger season’, have to sell their farm animals to feed their families or to pay for health emergencies. A serious infection requires antibiotics that cost the same as a large pig. Two days in hospital cost the same as a carabao. Thanks to my work with the Craft Project I have enough income to save for such emergencies.

The following day I joined my father, Robin, in the small rice field that we tend for the owner. My family does all the plowing, planting, weeding, and fertilizing for a share of the harvest. Last year the harvest was poor. After subtracting our expenses, our share was only four sacks of rice.

A sack of rice is PHP750 or US$17.00. Four months of toil in the rice field netted us only PHP1,270 (US$7). We hope that this year’s harvest will be better.

Before leaving home I asked my sister Marilyn to take a photo of me with my three younger brothers and my parents. My two youngest brothers, Jomar and Jeyar, are in high school. High school in the Philippines is free but books, supplies, and uniforms plus the many fees for class projects are too costly for most Subanen families. I send money home so my brothers can stay in high school. My brother Arnolfo is in college studying to be a teacher. I am also helping pay for his tuition and expenses. It is difficult for Subanen youth to stay in school. I am happy to be able to help my bothers’ education. Education will give them more options in life. After taking this last photo I said goodbye to my family and hiked back to Midsalip to catch a bus for Ozamiz.

I am now back in Ozamiz with my co-workers in Subanen Crafts. They too are helping their families survive the ‘hunger season’. We are making Christmas cards. Christmas is six months away but we have to start production early because each card has to be carefully and slowly inlayed with colored paper. This year our cards celebrate the coming of Jesus as God’s gift to all creation. By crafting these cards I am grateful that I can help my family and take care of the little gift of creation that is our farm.

Mercy Gawason joined the Subanen Crafts Project in 2004, a project started by Columban Fr Vincent Busch to help Subanen women support their families by producing and marketing handcrafted items that celebrate God’s Creation. The Crafts Project also sponsored Mercy’s college education and she graduated with an Associate Degree in Office Administration in 2010. Mercy is now the Operations Manager of Subanen Crafts in Ozamiz City.