07 June 2013


Option 19: Doctor to the Barrios by Juan M. Flavier
(See the Giveaways page for more information)

. . . "That farmer may look dumb, but he's the smartest guy in the country," my companion from the city commented.

That is a frequent comment about the Filipino farmer. Another is, "You say the farmer is honest, but he cheats whenever he can." Said a scientist, "He may be ignorant, but he is not stupid." Another remarked, "He looks hardy, but he is actually soft inside." And still someone else said, "Yes, he knows many things, but quite a lot of his knowledge is based on superstition and fallacy."

Exactly what is a farmer? To me, he is just another human being. A man with his fears and hopes, his virtues and vices, his hates and his heart. He is just the combination of these in a barrio setting . . .

Before this month, I really liked Dr. Juan Flavier, whom I had known as a hardworking Secretary of Health and later a dedicated senator. Having finally read his book Doctor to the Barrios: Experiences with the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, I now also admire him. A record of the work he did long before he began his career with the government, it shows that he is someone who really "gets it" when it comes to the Philippines.

He also happens to be a fantastic storyteller and a master of the modern parable--a good thing for the many farmers he has worked with over the years. As he points out in one chapter, "It is not easy to talk to farmers. A straight message does not come across immediately. To convey an idea, it is necessary to relate a story with a moral." Whether his endearing style is the fruit of his experiences with them or the seed of his success is beside the point: when he started working in rural reconstruction, he was simply the right man at the right time.

This is also the style in which he wrote Doctor to the Barrios, a memoir with the credentials of a "real" history book.

Do you notice the graceful, stately bamboo? Its strength does not lie in its height but in its hollowness. It means it is ever hungry for knowledge, as there is much to learn. Then, it knows to bend with the wind and does not break. The bamboo is one of the few plants with many uses, like a multi-purpose worker. It is used for housing material, food, furniture, fencing, decoration, tools, and a hundred other things. Then, bamboo cannot stand alone. Branches must support and give strength to one another. That, too, is like rural reconstruction workers.

When Dr. Flavier was first assigned to a barrio, he thought he had come to teach . . . and soon discovered that he had arrived to learn. And if this book contains even a tenth of what he picked up, then he learned a lot.

Take the reason tetanus cases among infants were once so numerous in rural areas. Dr. Flavier found that it was because midwives would cut a newborn baby's umbilical cord with a sharp piece of bamboo taken directly from the ground. So he instructed them to use a sterilised pair of scissors instead, then patted himself on the back because of how quickly he, with his city schooling, had "modernised" a backwards barrio practice. Six months later, the tetanus rate among babies remained the same. Dr. Flavier realised he had to dig deeper . . . and that was how he learned that the famers believed that unless a baby's umbilical cord were cut with something natural and local, like bamboo from the barrio, he would grow up to be disloyal to his family. Not a single mother in the barrio was willing to risk that by letting an "unnatural" instrument like factory-made scissors anywhere near her baby! Eventually, Dr. Flavier and the farmers reached a compromise: he instructed them to boil the piece of bamboo for at least three minutes before using it . . . and tetanus stopped being a problem.

These short stories are fun to read, and I would have added Doctor to the Barrios to the giveaway pool if those were all it had; but what really sets it apart is Dr. Flavier's look at Philippine culture's biggest stumbling block: its own values

Yes, rural reconstruction needs a lot of resources. It also needs funds, volunteers, and government support. From the barrio people themselves, it requires basic literacy, civic responsibility, and responsible family planning. (The chapter on "birth control" blew my bourgeois mind.) All of these are factors, of course, but none of the friends and colleagues to whom I've been recommending this book were surprised when I said Doctor to the Barrios suggests that you could have all of these and achieve nothing, if certain Filipino values, like hiya (or saving face), still carry the day.

The ways in which farmers in particular "save face" are something else. Dr. Flavier knew at least one farmer who spent all night fishing in the river and all morning selling his catch at the market, to have enough money to buy canned sardines. Why? Because stuff "imported" from the city is considered better than anything the country has. (City people are no better. Local industries are hurting because we buy stuff imported from abroad.) In another odd twist, if I ever get around to writing a Philippine-set retelling of The Golden Goose, the main character will be a farmer who kills his badly needed New Hampshire cockerel in order to serve the best dinner possible to an important guest. He would "lose face" if he offered anything that seemed only "second best." 

Now, I like Doctor to the Barrios very much. And I respect it for its honesty and its optimism. But I have to admit that it first came out over forty years ago, a time when everything was going well for the country. Since then, we have been under martial law, deposed a dictator, weathered several coups d'etat, seen a volcanic eruption devastate thousands of rural families, tried to impeach a president, and sent millions of workers abroad because we couldn't create jobs for them here. What impact did these events have on the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement? The answer to that question is an essential part of the story, but the latest edition of Doctor to the Barrios, printed in 2007, includes no new introduction or afterword. And so this book remains a sunny time capsule from 1970--one that is nonetheless wonderful to open and to read.

You should choose this book in the giveaway if . . . you've ever wondered about the best way to help the Third World poor.

Now, for your convenience, the 2013 Rafflecopter . . .

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Image Source: Bamboo grove


DMS said...

I have never heard of this book. I liked hearing your take on it. :)

DMS said...

Oh- and thanks for the giveaway. How cool! So many interesting books.

I also meant to mention- the forward for the new copy sounds like a good idea. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for entering the giveaway, Jess! Good luck! =)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

This does sound like a fascinating book.

I just looked at the giveaway page and now my brain is in overload. Booklists! It reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Po-On with Reading for Believers. I'd love to read more books about the Philippines.

Also, am I really one of your top commenters? I guess my binge commenting on your Little House series must have put me over the top. Also, why does my computer put a wiggly red line under the word commenter? I guess it is a neologism? Funny.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thank you for entering the giveaway as well, Melanie! I think that your comments in the Little House readalong definitely had a lot to do with your Top Commenter status. =)

Each year, I design this giveaway so that those who are most interactive on my blog get the most entries; and this year, I'm very glad you're one of them!

Entropy said...

This is all fascinating. It seems to me, the ways in which farmers "save face" are no different than the ways in which 1st world-ers "keep up with the Joneses."

I love the anecdote about the bamboo. It perfectly illustrates how difficult it is to "save" people that don't think they need saving. ;)

I think you might like a non-fiction infotainment book called Poor Economics which analyzes why the poor make the choices they do. Why they often ignore what would (from the outside) be "best." The economics of being poor are complicated!

I've entered the giveaway but I'm going to see if my library has this one!

Enbrethiliel said...


"Infotaiment" is a great word! =D

Thanks for the recommendation. I struck gold with The Other F Word, so I'm sure that Poor Economics will be a winner as well. =)

And thanks for entering the giveaway! Good luck!