ROMULO TANGBAWAN, “Scribe of the Tribe”

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“What have I done to merit being there? What have I contributed?” was his reply to me when I asked him if I could write an online post about him.

No surprise there for me, because I have known Romulo Tangbawan as a self-effacing fellow, never one who toots his horn for his accomplishments. But since obviously I consider him an inspiring person, I wanted to write about him in hopes that the younger ones among us will find in his life story some guideposts to meaningful living.

“Scribe of the tribe” fits him well, for he has this remarkable ability to keep in memory minute details about village lore, historical facts, geographic information, or genealogical data. At the snap of a finger, he could pack so much stuff in a paragraph. Example? Take this one, from one of his “texts” about one of our tribal heroes:

“As you may have heard, Tubvyan of Saltan was one of the greatest iVanao pangats when our folks were still in the headhunting stage. He was not just a “mingor” (champion) but a leader. In their days, greatness was measured by holding the most peace pacts. Being a peace pact holder was a great responsibility and what i heard is that Tubvyan held 7 peace pacts at the same time, matched only by Gadjawan of Pattikyan. In fact it was said that he and Gadjawan divided the peacepacts between the two of them. Before he died, Tubvyan bequeathed those responsibility to his able nephews. In my calculation, Tubvyan was one or 1 1/2 generations ahead of your grandpa Savuy. My basis for this is that Savuy is the near contemporary of my grandpa Tangviawan, who may have been born circa 1885-1890. I saw your grandpa and he was estimated to have been past 90 when he died. My grandpa Tangviawan is the grandnephew of Tubvyan, who is said to be the brother of Ujani and Ujali. Ujali is the mother of Piyot, who is the mother of Tangviawan, Vianggawan (father of Manuel Banggawan), Jaipan, Jaowan (grandpa of Ernest), Calimgan (grandma of Roger Lingayo) and Guiawan of Talalang. Ujani is the mother of Lubuangon and Jalipog, famous iVanao warriors who were contemporaries of Capitan Puyao. The descendants of Lubuangon include Royce Lingbawan, Benny Kibayen, Donnalbin Wanawan. Jalipog’s descendants include Gabriel Dalipog and others in Evong.” (R. Tangbawan, Facebook Messenger, 30 September 2019)

That’s actually embarrassing for me, because I wear that name but I don’t really know as much about this warrior, and I swear I often couldn’t even put names to familiar faces when I go to our community. It takes people like manong Romy — he is older, but technically I am his __th degree uncle — to tell me who some of our fellow villagers are and how exactly we are nankikinnamit ‘intertwined; blood-related.’

But that’s his talent, and boy am I so glad we got records keepers like him who can enlighten us about our roots. It was his good fortune too, I believe, that this gift of his got nurtured in an indigenous community rich in oral traditions, and later on in an environment that allowed his journalistic skills to blossom.

Romy was born on 21 July 1962 in the village of Balbalasang in western Kalinga, northern Philippines, one of the early mission stations of the Episcopalian/Anglican Church. The Anglicans generally did not have an adversarial policy against native traditions, so the community was able to keep many of its indigenous knowledge, systems and practices while committing to this particular Christian faith. It was in this world — criss-crossed by foreign and native missionaries and educators, raconteurs or bards, medicine women and men, traditional farmers and hunters, mediators and customary law experts — where early in life Romy experienced a rich blend of oral-aural and textual traditions.

He graduated from the Saint Paul’s Memorial High School (SPMHS) for which he would later devote much of his influence and resources through the school’s alumni association. He went on to take his Bachelor of Arts in History from the Trinity University of Asia at the heart of the nation’s capital from 1977-1981.

Returning home a year later, he served as Information officer for the Kalinga Provincial Capitol from September 1982-April 1984. It was during this time that he received his initial training as a journalist. According to him, he “got his first lessons in journalism from the late veteran journalist Augustus Saboy” as part “of the Provincial Development Staff [which] Mr. Saboy headed… concurrently with his main job as provincial administrator.” (Romy Tangbawan, Facebook Messenger, 13 February 2020)

He went back to Manila shortly thereafter to hone his craft at the Asian Institute of Journalism where he would have finished his master’s degree were it not for a more pressing duty: sending his siblings to school. At first, he tried to juggle studies and work when he wrote for the We Forum news magazine in 1985, but then had to give up graduate studies as workload began to catch up on him.

In 1986, he became a full-time reporter for Malaya “covering various beats such as the health, science, agriculture, environment, agrarian reform and social welfare departments, before moving to the political beat.” He also became a founding member and later on the president of the news outfit’s employees union, before getting promoted as news editor. He left Malaya in December 1994 and worked as a reporter for the Manila bureau of The Associated Press from January 1995-August 1996.

Then his career took him to the Middle East where he had served as staff editor for Arab News from September 1996-March 2008. He left for GMANEws online to become an editor from June 2008-October 2009, then returned to Arab News where he now continues to work as online editor for the English edition.

This seemingly seamless journey from the hinterlands of the Far East to the arid sands of the Middle East can trick us into believing that along the way he has had no potholes, fissures, chasms, blockades, detours, sandstorms, or turbulences to negotiate, take, hurdle or bear. It is tempting to think that he had it easy just initially hopping from one job to another. It is tempting, especially for those who did not have to be Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs), to think that he has just been raking in money at an oil-rich country. But only he can tell what uncertainties he had to face when he shifted jobs, how intensive his preparation was to qualify for a position, what work-related difficulties he had to endure, how much adjustments he had to make in a culture not his own and in a land far from home, and who knows what other personal troubles he had to contend with throughout his career.

He once told me: Narigat gayam nu inauna ta. ‘It’s tough when you’re the eldest.’

I don’t pretend to fully empathize with him, for I am the inauji ‘youngest’ among my own siblings, and I was quite spoiled as a child and enjoyed a lot of fine things which my other siblings had not. I have had my own share of life’s woes building a life and career and raising a family, but I sense his own struggles have been markedly different from mine in a lot of ways.

But I can imagine that being the eldest in the family in a culture and economic condition where the inauna is expected to support his younger siblings, Romy had to let go of some of his personal goals. I can imagine that he could have

  • pursued graduate studies and gotten a PhD.
  • published academic papers and written books by now.
  • seen more of the world with his hard-earned money.
  • raised a family.
  • saved enough money for his early retirement.
  • invested in real estate or some small business enterprise.
  • devoted more time sharing his expertise as a journalist to youngsters back home.
  • explored several hobbies other than what he has now.

I am sure though that he is not one who wallows in regrets, and that he finds contentment in having given away a part of his life for others. One must be truly fulfilled when he has

  • sent his younger siblings and other children to school.
  • helped his siblings and other relatives to find work.
  • financially supported and, in other ways, cared for his parents when they could no longer work and were at their journey’s end.
  • provided aid to countless relatives and friends at their deepest time of need.
  • helped create wonderful memories by sponsoring local and foreign trips for relative and friends.
  • contributed to causes that aim to provide a better learning environment for the young.
  • researched on and kept records of his own people’s folklore, history and ancestry.
  • advised students and teachers on their career choices and/or school requirements.

No wonder, one of my cousins, Rhoda Tangbawan, had only superlatives for him:

… awad amin kan siya [jin] kapipintasan un ugalin ji parsua ‘ (Facebook Messenger, 11March 2020) — which might be a bit too much, but which tells you of the impact his kindness has on others.

Like my father had done before, we both would continue the “tradition” of photographing people, places and things in our community. Romy has gone beyond that though, for in his photographic memory he has kept many of our oral traditions and could regale anyone with stories of our past.

He is the only iVanaw who can lay claim to have become the news editor of a national daily in the Philippines and an editor of a foreign news outfit. That is something I am truly proud of.

But I admire him more for his willingness to sacrifice personal goals just to fulfill his familial duty, and for being genuinely happy when those he helped would go on to actualize some dreams which were once his but never got to fulfil.

So what merits him being here? What has he contributed?

I say much more than he is willing to acknowledge.

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