Many who have visited Simunul in Tawi-tawi would say that aside from visiting the oldest Philippine mosque, there is not much to do in this island. This centuries-old mosque could be Simunul’s strongest tourism card for now, in the absence of the usual beach resorts and budget hotels. But even so, the peaceful island has every potential to be at par with other popular destinations in the country. From the Ubol wharf going to Tubig Indangan, one would easily notice that the coastline is littered with unspoiled white sand beachfronts and crystal clear waters. This is largely unnoticed even by the gentle Sama people, the island’s residents, probably because they have already used to waking up to this beautiful sight for as long as they could remember.
It is rather unfortunate to note how this part of the Philippines ends up as one of the poorest provinces in the country despite its rich cultural heritage and vast natural resources. Electricity is only available for a few hours at night and potable water is hard to source in most areas in the island. The nearest hospital is in Bongao, which is just an hour away via a lantsa, a big wooden boat. But one has to catch the only public transport to Tawi-Tawi’s capital in the morning or else wait for the next one the following day. These development setbacks, I gather, are common in the other provinces in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Despite the present difficulties they are facing, the Sama are very warm and very friendly. My friend and I experienced these when we visited the Philippines’ southernmost province early this month. At Simunul, we met some families who are waiting for their loved ones return from their Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. There is also a hardworking public school teacher whose husband is based in Malaysia. The Sama are indeed not unlike many Filipinos in many ways – deeply religious, have high regard for education and foster strong family ties.
My good friend Kuya Tony could attest to this, after having lived in Simunul for quite a number of years. He was also our contact person for one of our stopovers during our weekend adventures. I personally knew him because we both hail from the same hometown and that we both joined a month-long summer camp in 2001. Back then, I remember that he is sporty, outgoing and funny. I could say that we are exactly opposite in those respects.
I was surprised to know that he is already based in Tawi-tawi, more than 10 years after that camp. He has been teaching the Simunul youth how to play badminton, volleyball and softball – sports which I honestly did not expect to thrive in this part of the Philippines. He was candid to admit though that despite their best efforts, they have not yet won top titles in provincial competitions. He added that their opponents looked like highschool graduates already and that they also lack the adequate training facilities. But it is encouraging to know that the kids are still very eager to hone their skills in each sport despite the unfavorable odds.
He is also looking for generous sponsors to fund the construction of a basic tennis court in Tampakan. This would allow more students to practice their skills at their own community especially right after class hours. The nearest tennis court is in Tourda which is located 4 kilometers away. They may not be able to produce a Rafael Nadal any time soon, but at the very least, the students are given a fighting chance to excel at tennis or any sport in general. For some of the Sama students, this could be their ticket to a better quality of life in the future.
Prior to this trip, I asked Kuya Tony over the phone as to why he chose to live among the Sama in Simunul. At the back of my head, he could have chosen the road that was always taken. He could always be a coach at a private school in our city. He answered that he will explain everything once I’ll be at Tawi-tawi. After spending even a few hours with him in Simunul, I could not think of any reason why he should not in the first place. Aside from doing what he does best, I now consider it an incredible privilege to be working with those who have been neglected for a long time. With that in mind, I am assured that God indeed has beautiful plans for the Sama people. He has never forgotten the young students, the public school teachers and the many families in this small island.
The following day, we woke up to the subhi, the early morning prayer that was simultaneously chanted in all the mosques in the island. I do not understand what each of the lines mean, but just hearing its beautiful melody is strangely pacifying in one way or the other. After a hearty breakfast of juwalan (banana fritters), we bade goodbye to our gracious hosts and caught the morning boat back to Bongao.
Simunul to me now is more than just a tropical island with a very old mosque, crystal clear waters and long stretches of white sand beaches. I am humbled by the hospitality, the stories and the collective hopes of the Sama people. I look forward then to returning to this beautiful place someday to find out that the tennis court is already finished, that more government facilities have already been put up and that the cultural identity of the place is still preserved amidst the rapidly changing times.