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4: The Games of Life

Lee McKenna is a trainer, teacher, writer, facilitator, musician and storyteller with more than 20 years of experience working in Conflict Transformation. Her areas of expertise include non-violence, economics, human rights, ethics, public policy, anthropology and theology. Lee is highly recognized as a Peacemaker and in 2010 was awarded the YMCA Peace Medallion. She holds a MDiv degree and is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

I awaken to the early morning sounds of garbage removal workers outside my window. From the sitting room of the CPU hostel, I look out the window to see men in overalls tipping the week’s rubbish into large open containers on wheels, expecting to see amongst the driveway détritus the emaciated and bloodied corpse of one of the gang of felines engaged in the caterwauling Malthusian struggle of the early evening hours. The air remains heavy from last night’s downpour, which likely put an end to the growling, screaming cacophony below. The clothes I hung last night to dry on my jute clothesline, strung from one grated window to another, have barely lost a drop of their moisture through the night.

I venture out into the street that fronts the University campus in search of a newspaper; 200-point font headlines announce from Kuala Lumpur a Peace Breakthrough! between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The interior pages answer few of the questions that rise up in me.  An above-the-masthead photo depicts a small phalanx of BIFF – Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a dissident faction formerly part of the MILF, their bodies draped in belts of machine-gun shells, handguns and grenades, their AK-47s propped symmetrically down the otherwise rag-tag row of young men. Two have covered their faces with black balaclavas, one wears a toque, another a fedora; they are all shod in flip-flops. ‘Wait and see’, the caption says, taking a position similar to mine.

In the course of the ferry ride across the Ilacaon Channel from Iloilo to the capital city of Negros Occidental, I manage to keep my breakfast where it belongs – unlike the last crossing.  Bacolod is celebrating Maskara, an annual festival that I am thinking commemorates some ancient colonial moment. Not so:  the masques that decorate the streets and stalls and eateries are complex and colourful, laughing, gaudily painted invitations to celebration – and forgetting. One commemorative t-shirt tells the story of the 1980 confluence of disasters – a decimated harvest, monsoon floods and the deaths of hundreds drowned with the sinking of a ferry – that gave rise to the town fathers’ decision to initiate a festival of feeling-good. It’s working; despite the daily downpours, the streets are jammed, jeepneys, tuk-tuks, pedestrians and four-legged scavengers determined to cash in on the fun.  Child beggars are also out in force, working the crowd. Niko, who has staked out the sidewalk in front of our lodging-place, has a battery of persuasions, from charming to scolding. He accompanies us across the street to where a couple at a wooden stall are rolling bananas on sticks in a giant wok filled with a boiling, sweet-smelling, sticky substance. We order five, one for Niko. Very tasty. 

As I sit down to write, flipping through the paper I have collected over the last weeks, I come across the funny and ironic ‘Forty Ways to becoming a Filipino’ piece given to me by one of the participants in the first training. Number 1 says, ‘Always smile. Filipinos are very friendly and will always want to make friends.  They want to talk and get to know you’—which explains why I am constantly under the impression that my Filipina colleagues know everyone, from the vendors on the street in every city and town on every island to the shop girls, jeepney and tricycle drivers. ‘If something happens that is embarrassing or uncomfortable,’ it continues, ‘Filipinos will laugh to ward off the awful feeling...’ 

Number 21 says, ‘Filipinos are a sad people. We laugh a lot but we also cry a lot.  We have so many pains inside of us because of our history.’

La Castellana is a town a couple of hours south of Bacolod. Sixty people eventually gather in the church sanctuary. Someone has leaked the information that this thing happens in a circle and the benches have now been moved into some approximation of that. In the open spaces between the cement floors of the sanctuary and what is likely the parsonage, there is a large narra tree, the leaves of which are large and shiny. But the dominant green is the parasitical ginseng that has taken over, winding its way to the top of the tree and dropping towards the ground its – not sure what to call them – hanging rhizomes, perhaps, which form long curtains of earth-seeking slender roots, the ends of which break, like capillaries, into brilliant pink shoots pregnant with the next generations of ginseng.   Some of the ginseng roots have been plaited into drapes that have then been stuck with plastic flowers and ribbons.

Chairs of Power
Four volunteers have filled the four chairs in the middle of the circle, assuming a posture of ‘power’. One at a time, we travel around the circle, observing what each has done with their body to impart a message of power and then analysing and thinking through possible contexts and scenarios. 

Letty sends mixed messages with her crossed legs and back-against-the-chair position and her fists rolled into her waist, her face pinched in what looks like a kind of questioning anger.  A school teacher! one suggests. A manager with somebody on the carpet. A field manager on a sugar hacienda, says another.  Someone hasn’t pulled their weight today and she’s threatening lost wages or firing! A mangy puppy has sat itself down in front of Letty, unwittingly playing a role in the drama.

Power is economic, then; the kind of fear-making power that can take away your livelihood, your life.

Albert has both feet on the ground, back against the chair, his hands, balled into fists, in his pockets, his arm muscles taut. ‘What’s with the hands in the pockets?’ I ask. The response from the group is quick: ‘There’s money in the left and a gun in the right.’  If one method doesn’t work, the other will. 

Power is wealth, the capacity to buy what and whom you want.  Power is threatened lethality, armed violence.

Lando is leaning back into his chair, his right leg crossing his left at the ankle.  He has a mobile phone in one hand, the index and middle fingers open in a V; the thumb and fingers of the other hand encircle something. ‘He has no worries,’ calls out one. ‘He’s a haciendero,’ suggests another. I give him a name: ‘Cuanco.’ The room erupts in laughter. A cousin of the Aquinos, he owns half of Negros: sugar cane plantations, cock-fighting operations come to mind. One of the 200-family oligarchy that runs this country, in collusion with international plunderers. I suggest that’s a ₱5,000 cigar in the one hand, a ₱6,000 glass of brandy in the other. More laughter. ‘No troubles,’ reiterates one.  ‘There are others out there to do his dirty work for him.  No worries.’ 

Power is wealth beyond imagining, inaccessible, gated, oblivious power. Power is ‘I have no interest in the rest of you cockroaches’. Power is masculinised, violent, distant, disconnected, a game we can’t win.

We role-play out oppressive power: it is Power OVER:  overwhelming, overreaching, consuming, consumptive, violating, violent, dominating, subjugating. In American Sign Language, the word is signed with the left hand cupped on the right bicep, re-affirming our concepts of power:  muscular, masculine, physical. The word is gahúm in Ilonggo – but they recognise the Spanish, poder – both a noun and a verb that are all about capacity, ability: I am able. I can. I have agency.  

The kind of power we talk about here is a different kind of force, a force more powerful than those concepts that have negated all but a few images of human power. The security of oppressive power is, in the end, illusive, and cannot overcome the power of a ‘people who have decided to be free’.  People POWER – a language that reverberated around the world, starting here, successfully and non-violently overthrowing the régime of Ferdinand Marcos – draws on Power WITH – that power of the organised few-to-many, committed in a common enterprise of justice – and Power WITHIN, that which comes with the dignity of one’s own God-affirmed humanity, a power that cannot be taken away from us. They can take away our livelihood, our land, our story, our once commonly-held wealth.  But this – my fist pressed into my solar plexus – can never be negated, even if I am killed. 

People are connecting the dots: mainstreamness and marginality, like power, are the result of a combination of things that are 'essential' - race, sex, nationality and many aspects of personality, for example - and things that are 'constructed' - class, education, environment, early childhood, status, housing, food and employment security, etc. Even 'essentials' are constructed as something:  one race more powerful than another, one gender, one nationality, more powerful than another, their interests universalised and their values seen as normative. Asking questions, being curious, interrogating even the most 'normal' elements of our environment:  that is our task and at the heart of this training. Do people like me present themselves as 'colour blind'? why are the pharmacies here filled with skin-whitening creams, lotions and dyes? what is the impact of denial of privilege? what is the impact of the denial of oppression? and - complicity in that oppression? what is the impact of resignation? What is the solution? From mapping out the contours of power to mapping out the contours of oppression using Paolo Freire's wheel, we interrogate the environment, identify what needs problematising, embark on an intentional journey of conscientisation, preparing for action for change.

Wow. From hilarity to thoughtful murmurs, it's time for a break. The sticky rice empanadas have been placed out on platters under the ginseng, along with our coffee, coke and sprite. The workers pounding nails and hammering tin next door have also taken a break. A brilliant red banty hen wanders in to investigate for falling crumbs, disturbing the puppy, who had stretched out for a nap.

The Human Knot
In the Human Knot, each person is given a half-metre length of rope, knotted at both ends. In circles of seven or eight, the game is set up so that those lengths of rope are now crossed over and under and through and between, creating a knot. The task is to untie it without letting go of either of the knotted ends they have gripped in each of their hands. The four of us observe carefully, watching what happens. It takes close to ten minutes before one group lets out a whoop of success. The others pause only briefly to see what the fuss is about, turning to redouble their efforts at solving the riddle of ropes. 

When all but one group has reached some ‘resolution’, we call the game. Ropes are collected as people resume their seats, animated, talking all at once. So what happened? What did you notice? What helped you to be successful? How did you feel? 

‘We collaborated! We had fun!’

‘We worked together; we helped one another, lowering the rope so people could get over, raising it so people could get under.’

‘We were successful,’ says Nick, ‘because, in our group, we all followed one person’s leadership!’ This is immediately followed by Judy’s ‘No!  Not so. Leadership moved back and forth around the circle.  Sometimes one or more of us couldn’t even see behind us – how could we lead from there? You have to trust that those behind you are taking over – and they did; we did!’ 

So I ask: ‘Which of these feels more accurate for the rest of you: a single leader or multiple, shifting leadership?’ Nick begins to nod, as he hears the others affirm what Judy has said. Even Owen, whom Nick credits with sole leadership in their group, grins as he declines the plaudit. 

‘What else did you notice?’ One ended up with a figure 8; another with two circles. For some groups, that is as far as they can go and the ‘solution’ is seen as equally viable, if not as elegant as the single open circle. ‘Does that mean we settle for something less than what we hoped for or planned for or should have got?’ I toss it back to the group. ‘We worked hard,’ says one, ‘I know we did. It’s OK.  This, also, is a solution!’

Someone says: ‘I notice that we were the ones who got ourselves into the knot in the first place. Can’t even blame anyone else! Even when we have followed what we think are the instructions in our best interests, we end up with a problem. And it’s up to us to try and resolve it.’

Another: 'I noticed that when our group had one small circle, they didn't just go away and leave us to figure it out by ourselves. They leaned into our knot to offer their perspective and advice.'

‘I noticed that a couple of people cheated. Not mentioning any names...!’ The room roars with laughter, with perhaps a couple of exceptions. ‘So what is cheating, anyways?’ 

‘Finding an easier way to get out of a problem.’ ‘A shortcut, but a dishonest one.’ 

‘Of what does that remind you? What is it called here?’

The answer comes readily: ‘Corruption!’ There are street signs, along with those that admonish people not to ‘text while crossing the street’, that say: ‘Fight corruption!  Be honest. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat.  Don’t steal.’ We role-play out familiar scenarios. An international mining company needs a permit to explore – and expropriate and displace and create a private militia – but the Local Government Unit (LGU) five years ago declared a 25-year moratorium on large-scale (20 square hectares or more) mining applications. What do you do? Find a LGU official, the mayor, perhaps, willing to look the other way for a price or willing to find a number of citizens prepared to file, in their own names, ten small-scale applications. What about the mayor not so far up the road, who didn’t like how the judge ruled on a permit application there? The judge was killed. Then there’s the business man who calls in officials from the DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways) demanding that the road-work outside of his business be attended to immediately, taken out of the long queue of jobs to be done and put at the top of the list.  A bit of invisible cash slips from one set of hands to another. 

Is there a price to corruption? Or is it just one more way by which rich people purchase what they want? A victimless crime? Again, the response is immediate. It costs us all. It’s what happens when there are people with too much money at the top and way too many desperate people at the bottom. Public services are not about citizenship but pockets.

The late afternoon air begins to a cool a bit with clouds threatening rain. The closing circle begins with words of peace from the Qur'an and the Bible. It ends with each of the sixty people present offering a word of learning and appreciation symbolised in an upraised thumb; the group responds to each in turn with a loud litany of affirmation: 'You are becoming a peacemaker!' With the last word, we turn our thumbs to the left, tucking thumbs into rolled palms to form a circle. Nothing short of awesome.

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