Shore of Gibitngil Island after fishing

Gibitingil Island, a small island near the tip of Cebu Province, is a 20-minute boat ride away from the town of Medellin. Because of its geography, most of the residents rely on radios and fisherfolks who return from the mainland, for news and entertainment.

Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by the three female leaders of the island– Nanay Janice, Nanay Evangelyn, and Ate Roxanne. We arrived on a weekday so the three of them were all running around tending to the needs of their families, organizing events, or conceptualizing livelihood projects for their community. Chaya, Relyn and I held meetings with the employees of the barangay (village) hall. We had to pay them a visit to coordinate and align our plans for the next few days on the island. As soon as we finished all our meetings, we wandered around the island and enjoyed Gibitngil’s white powdery sand.

Every Sunday night, the women of the island, gather in front of their houses to drink liquor and share stories of their childhood, experiences during the week, or trivial matters that their neighbors would find amusing. I was lucky to have witnessed this weekly gathering as it revealed the humorous, more unguarded side of these women-leaders. It also provided a great deal of nuanced insight into my understanding of their coastal community.

One of the women of Gibitngil Island

As I inched closer to their table, I was within earshot of most of their conversations. They all conversed in Cebuano, a language used in most provinces of Visayas and Mindanao. As I tried to make sense of their stories, using the little knowledge I had of Cebuano, a favorite topic amongst them is how their ex-mayor’s family built Fantastic Island, a (not-so fantastic) resort along one of their island’s shores.

A fisherfolk heads out to sea

A fisherfolk untangles her net in preparation for the next day.

I remembered an earlier conversation with one of the fisher folks, who mentioned that the ex-mayor ordered his men to bar and harass fisher folks who would try to dock their boats on that side of the island— a great cause of anger and frustration amongst the fisher folks who’ve lived on the island even before their ex-mayor was even born. They said their ex-mayor used the island’s shores as his shooting range and the sounds of gunshots brought fear and anxiety to the townspeople. As I listened more to their conversation, I found out that their source of joy and peace finally came when they heard about their ex-mayor being arrested in 2017 because of the illegal possession of firearms and drug paraphernalia.

Fisherfolks fix their boats before the sun sets

That night, I felt a sense of envy for these women for having a solid sense of community, and for having anchored themselves—their culture and identity so strongly, in their land. I also remember how confused I felt because I desired to be in the same situation— so shielded from all the chaos of the city but at the same time, I felt contempt over the injustices the residents of Gibitngil experienced— who’re dependent on one another for survival yet barely receiving assistance from the government. As I tried to fall asleep that night, I dreaded the feeling of returning to the city, because I knew that all these thoughts and strong emotions will soon be obscured by other thoughts and ideas from the city.

A week ago, memories of my stay in the island came flashing back when I opened my social media. I found the ex-mayor’s face and name plastered in every front page of various news sources. He was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in a private hospital where he was in hospital arrest. Rumors point to the possibility that this was one of the many operations of President Duterte’s ongoing war on drugs—which has now moved most of its operations in Cebu. As I read the news, I remembered the night I shared with the women of Gibitngil, a place that, in my mind, felt distant from chaos and violence. With a small solar bulb as their only source of illumination, the women of Gibitngil bore their souls, laughed, and teased each other before they began a new work week.