Reflections on a life on the sea
Wisdom from the Philippines
As part of our 75th anniversary celebrations, UNICEF’s The Wisdom Project has been interviewing old and young people across the globe to learn what the older generation can impart to young people, and for the younger generation to share their own challenges growing up.
We spoke to four locals, aged 13 to 74, of Pamilacan Island off the southern coast of Bohol in the Philippines from whom we obtained unique and diverse perspectives on fishing, the effects of the pandemic, and education.
The islanders’ deep relationship with the ocean is evident in the name of their home: the word “Pamilacan” meaning either “the resting place of manta rays” or deriving from the word “pamilac” which was a distinctive harpoon used to catch sharks, rays and whales.
“I started fishing with hook and line from the shore when I was seven years old,” says 72-year-old Nazario P. “Ogoy” Valeroso. “When I was eight I would go on boats. But even when I was 4-5 years old, I would play around with the small pole spears but just near the shore.”
“I saw the older guys and wanted to do it too but no one really taught me. When we were kids Pablo was really good so I would go with him and could learn from him.”
Nazario’s young mentor Pablo V. Pioquinto is now 74-years-old and has never left the island. He has similar recollections of his early life at sea.
“I was 8 when I started spearfishing. I was 15 or 16 when I started going on boats regularly. I was so eager to learn but mostly learned by myself. Everything was about the ocean. It was all about fishing. We were completely dependent on the ocean.”
Ogoy returned to the island aged 25 after eight hard years working manual jobs in Manila and Davao where he earned as little as four pesos per day. Around the same time Pablo began hunting whale sharks in a practice that was banned by the Philippines in 1998.
After the ban, tourism proved a valuable alternative income for the island which was drastically affected by Covid-19.
“All the guys who used to work in tourism here have gone back to fishing,” says Pablo. “One of my sons, Cardo, was a boat operator for island hopping tours. He started fishing again, but for now he has taken a job harvesting rice on the mainland.”
The island’s first high school was built in 1997. Before then, children would be required to travel to the mainland school. Because of the cost of transportation, only half of Ogoy’s and Pablo’s children’s received education. Pablo’s daughter, despite wanting to go to school, was dissuaded by the extra money her family would have to spend.
“I would do everything I could to send them to school, as long as they want to,” says Pablo referring to his grandchildren. “But if the boys still want to become fishermen, I would allow that.”
Ogoy, most of whose grandchildren currently study high school and college, expresses more forceful views than his friend.
“I wish parents had been stricter about sending kids to school and that the high school was built earlier,” he says. “I would tell children now to keep studying. If your parents can’t afford to get you into higher education, keep trying, make it work, be a ‘working student’ if you can or get a scholarship and finish college.”
“As long as I am alive, I will do my best to ensure my grandchildren graduate college and live a good life.”
As the high school is completely free most of the island’s children now go to school.
Eugene “Pot Pot” Pioquinto, Pablo’s 13-year-old grandson, lives with his grandparents and uncle. He dreams of going to nautical college and becoming an engineer on a cruise ship.
“I like to go fishing for fun, but I want to go to college. If college doesn’t work out, perhaps I would become a fisherman. But maybe it would still be better to get a simple job in the city. Fishing is so hard and tiring.”
Ricardo “Cardo” Pioquinto, Pot Pot’s uncle and Pablo’s son, says:
“I want him to graduate college. We will try our best but it is very expensive. I think fishing will just get worse for Pot Pot’s generation."
Elsewhere on the island, 22-year-old Alessandro “Sandro” Miculob Pingkian could become the first of his family to graduate from college in June 2022. The pandemic, while extremely challenging for him, has led to some unexpectedly favourable outcomes.
“I haven’t gone to classes for two years due to Covid. Now, everything is online. Before I lived in a boarding house in Tagbilaran but it costs more money and you spend more money in the city. Now, I can study from home, live with the family, save money and go fishing. I am both a student and a fisherman."
“I have to come to the beach to get a good enough internet connection to download my assignments. Sometimes I have to sit on top of one of the beached pump boats or crawl into the tree over there."
Unfortunately Sandro’s sister Analyn was forced to drop out of college after one year as the family could no longer afford it.
“Before my father died, Analyn promised him she would send me to college. So, I promised her I would finish my studies. I am grateful but sometimes I feel sad because she has worked so hard for so long.”
Ogoy no doubt approves of his younger islanders’, and their parents’, focus on education, and offers his community some more passionate, sage advice drawn from his own experience.
“If I could have lived my life differently, I would have finished my studies and followed my dream. I really wanted to be an engineer or a teacher. If I had been able to finish my education, where would I be right now? I regret I couldn’t finish but I am still thankful that I could fish all those years and now, at 72, I can still go fishing.”
“I would always encourage young people to have the same attitude as me and be confident in who they are.”