Banana Leaves

Blog 29, Genice Grace, 2011
Image: “Untitled” by Genice Grace, oil on canvas, 2011

On a highway cutting through a banana grove, a large force of gunmen — reports say around 100 — intercepted the convoy of family members and supporters of Buluan vice-mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, also from a prominent local Muslim clan. They were on their way to the provincial capital to file his candidacy papers for Maguindanao’s governorship in next year’s general elections. It’s a position that Ampatuan’s father had occupied unopposed since 2001 and which Ampatuan planned to contest to keep the seat in the family. The Mangudadatu group was herded to what appears to have been a prepared killing ground in a hilly area a few kilometers from the highway. Television footage showed bullet-ridden bodies sprawled around the vehicles; others had been thrown into a mass grave and covered with earth. There are signs that the killing was done at point-blank range, using high-powered firearms. A mechanical digger at the site was used to bury some of the bodies and vehicles. It is presumed everyone in the group died. – Alastair McIndoe, TIME, November 27, 2009

 Eight years after the murder of 58 people in what is known as the Maguindanao massacre, not one of the 197 accused has been convicted. – Edu Punay, The Philippine Star, November 23, 2017

The Maguindanao Massacre was the single worst mass killing of journalists in history as of 2009, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 34 journalists were known to have died in the massacre. That year, the Philippines was marked the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, surpassing Iraq.


Row row row your boat gently down the stream,

merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream

Row row row your boat gently down the stream,

merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream

Row row row your boat gently down the stream,

merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream

That catchy tune I imagine being sung in cars and jeeps
by an excited caravan on a field trip
to file important papers today
a morning start
while the dreamy voices sing
like happy campers

Row row row your boat gently down the stream . . .

On their way, they pass banana trees,
their long swaying leaves
like bright green fans,
swaying back and forth,
back and forth,

as if inviting you to be held
in the warm arms of your mother

after a long time away from home.

Banana leaves in paksiw
lining the insides of a steaming pot
like a fitted mattress sheet
beneath bodies of pompano or anchovies,
simmering in vinegar, garlic, ginger, and hot chili peppers.

Banana leaves that wrap bibingka or suman
those delicious sticky rice dishes from Ma’s kitchen.

Their waxiness wrapping warm suman
as your fingers peel layers for that first bite.
Their softness on your palms
like holding Mommy’s hand
before crossing the street.

Banana leaves

like shelter
like earth
like womb
like sky.

Banana leaves were never shrouds
not until their bright green leaves blanketed
those happy camper voices

Row row row

and then,
there were no more songs
nothing but their quiet bodies off a hillside


banana leaves: their waxiness now
a fine tarp for the earth
the comfort of their leaves swaddling
those men, those women
to shelter, to earth, to womb, to sky
into the warm arms of our Mother.

Delicate human bones tossed aside like tinik
after flesh has been engorged through and through

faces torn apart
legs spread open
brown skin turned


morsels of flesh forked and slashed
by the dirty-licked fingers of those
guilty and confident to wash their hands
easily blaming Muslim rebels
in exchange for a few weeks in jail.

Jr.’s pudgy fingers wrap the bars of a jail cell
his droopy puppy dog eyes
– a photo opp for the paparazzi
in a cell big enough for ten men
while Jr. is all alone
(such a lucky, lucky man)
and the clans grimace all the while that this will be over soon
while bullet holes        ($ and tears)    ($ and last pleas for mercy)
are blanketed by banana leaves
rows                            and                              rows                            and                              rows
spread forth like Hollywood red carpet
welcoming a cruel, cruel royalty into 2010.

Six months later, the vote is cast.
A new president is elected.
And who is the new mayor in Maguindanao?

In the meantime, after months,


decades have gone by,

will you remember the 58?

It shouldn’t have happened It SHOULDN’T have happened But it did And we let it.

Banana leaves – now, where neither body bag nor cotton blanket
can wrap my slain brothers and sisters so well
only echoes of their silly excited chatters still
pass those lovely banana trees
swaying back and forth off the hillside

while I imagine my brothers and sisters
must have been singing in their cars
like happy campers:

Row row row your boat gently down the stream,

merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream . . .


**A version of this poem originally appeared in TAYO, Issue No. 2, 2010

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