Life along the borders

BALUT ISLAND, Philippines – “If the waters are calm, we could reach Indonesia in three hours or so,” Alfrede Lahabir points his lips toward the window of his nipa hut, where the Celebes sea can be seen.

“We go to Indonesia at least once a month,” he says in a mixture of Manado Malay and Cebuano, taking a puff of his clove cigarette.

“We buy soap and cigarettes from Matutuang and Bitung and sell it here. In return, we sell kitchenware from the Philippines when we reach those islands.”

Matutuang, a part of Indonesia’s Sangihe group of islands, and the Indonesian city of Bitung, were only three to six hours away where Lahabir lives in Pakeluasu, a small coastline village of around thirty families in Southern Philippines.

Always mistaken for another Filipino, Lahabir, 31, actually belongs to the Sangir tribe of Indonesia, whose parents once braved the waters between Balut Island and Indonesia’s Sangihe Islands to reach and settle here.

Lahabir was born in Sarangani, a province south of mainland Mindanao. Now, he is one of the estimated 6,000 people of Indonesian descent, living in the southern coast of Mindanao, according to Pasali Philippines Foundation, a group the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees(UNHCR) tasked to map out the Indonesians in the Philippines.

Living off the border of his own country excluded Lahabir from the usual privileges enjoyed by other Indonesian citizens. Born and raised in the Philippines, he still looks up to Indonesia as the country where he belongs. Yet, having lived here for so long, he has become estranged from his culture, which he can only access through VCDs and other items brought in here from Indonesia.

Every year each Sangir family member has to pay 150 pesos for the Alien Certificate of Registration (ACR) to the Philippine government for the privilege of staying in the country.

Although the fee is relatively small, the Sangirs have to travel by boat from Pakeluasu to the center of Mabias, on Balut Island, which costs them P500. From Mabias, they had to board a launch to General Santos, which costs them P350 for each person, making it very prohibitive for the whole family to register.

But Lahabir doesn’t mind.

“We just have to comply with the rules – because, after all, we are aliens in this land,” he says.

Now married to a Filipina and a father of two, Lahabir practically lives on fishing. His wife opts for Filipino citizenship for his children, making Lahabir the only Indonesian in the household.

The couple only has simple plans for the future: to let the children finish college. They still don’t know how to go about it. “We don’t dream of getting rich,” Lahabir says. “We just want to have enough to make ends meet.”

Indonesian communities here have its own community liaison officers, called “penghubung.” A penghubung, such as Nuryati Rabika Elarde, 43, is appointed by Indonesian Consulate to coordinate with their community and the consular office.

“Many cannot renew their ACRs because of poverty,” says Elarde, a resident on Sarangani Island.

Elarde volunteers to teach the Sangir children Bahasa Indonesia once a week but as soon as the children return to their own Sangir language, they forget about Bahasa Indonesia for the rest of the week. Just like onnBalut Island, the Sangirs speak Sangir first, and Cebuano, second. Most of them could hardly speak Bahasa Indonesia.

Lahabir’s son Alfreddie, 9, says he’d rather be a Filipino than an Indonesian. He speaks fluent Tagalog, and was very good at it, and told me he did not know how to speak Sangir.

Later, I caught him speaking Sangir among his friends.

“I don’t want to be an Indonesian,” he said in Filipino. “I just don’t want to.”

Alfreddie’s renouncement of his Indonesian roots is betrayed by his presence at a day care learning centre in Pakeluasu every Saturday, where Nerlyn Sasamu Dagcutan, 37, is the “pamong,” an Indonesian term for tutor, one who’s tasked to train the children their national language.

On weekends, the 20-square meter concrete school owned by the Philippine government serves as the time for the Sangir children to learn about their ancestor’s culture – as well as their national language.

The students, all children of the Sangir villagers, bring nothing but themselves. Others, fortunate enough, bring notebooks to jot down what their teacher writes on the chalkboard.

“We don’t have language books nor visual aides so the students learn faster. I keep on repeating the lesson all over again the following week because they keep on forgetting it,” Dagcutan laments.

Here, the kids learn to sing songs of patriotism “Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke (From Sabang to Merauke)” despite never understanding the song’s meaning. For Dagcutan, she says what’s important is that the children learn about Indonesia, their “tanah air (homeland).”

“At least, in my own ways, I have taught them something about our country,” she says. – Published on Rappler

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