The Malunggay Tree
By Apolinario Villalobos
I have a friend who is 78 years old and lives near a slum. By slum, I mean, the “houses” of the informal settlers are the lean-to type…leaning on the high concrete fence of a compound. I estimated the number of small shacks to be about forty. Across the street where the informal settlers live was the house of my friend whom I met in an occasion hosted by his nephew whom I knew. For the duration of the party, he just stayed alone in a corner, obviously aloof. We became acquaintance when I helped him with his juice, the glass of which he could barely hold due to his shaky hand. He found out about my writing and he got interested when I told him that I am also into biography writing. He set a meeting at his house for the following week.
His house, unrenovated despite its antiquity was protected with a fence made of cyclone wire. I noticed the malunggay tree standing majestically in one corner, heavy with the elongated fruit and dense with leaves. I mentioned this to him, in admiration. He told me that he planned to cut it down because he had no use for it anyway. He lived alone, being a widower and his three children, all with families of their own were in the United States where he also lived for a while after his retirement. A housekeeper who doubled as laundrywoman visited him three times a week. He cooked his own food.
While having coffee, he told me about his interest to have his biography written down for perpetuation. I learned that he was a retired general. I told him about the difficulty of its publication if he wanted it that way because some people who hated the man he worked for were still alive. When he said that it would just be for the consumption of his family, I agreed to do the project. After closing the deal with him, I promised to be back the following day to start my interview and checking on whatever he has about his life that were still in his file.
On my way out to the main street, I passed by the makeshift shacks, outside one of which was a group of men enjoying rounds of gin. They invited me and the thick accent of the guy who asked me join them, made me presume that they were Visayans. I refused the drink but offered to buy another bottle of gin. I found out that they were from Samar. And, when they found out that I came from the house of the “matandang masungit” (snooty old man), they got curious how I was able to get his trust when he could not even part with a few stems of his malunggay. I was surprised by this revelation, obviously too, they hated the man.
During my meeting with my new friend the following day, I dissuaded him from cutting down his malunggay tree. I told him that Visayans consider it as a “goodwill tree” aside from being a “reservoir” of health benefits. I shared with him all I know about the benefits that could be derived from the tree, most especially, if he would share it with his Visayan neighbors. I asked him if it was okey that I just trim the tree and for him to allow me to distribute the stems and fruits among his neighbors. He agreed. I immediately asked for a bolo and started the job. It took me less than a hour to reduce its height, so that its leafy stems and fruits could be easily harvested later on. I brought the stems to my friends in the slum to be divided among them. I asked those present to go back with me to the house of my friend so that they could thank him personally on behalf of the rest of their neighbors. Before I left my friend that afternoon, I planted the rest of the cuttings along the length of the fence.
Every time I visited my friend for the duration of the biography project, I would cook malunggay for him that he appreciated. I did not tell him what his neighbors told me about their impression of him as being snooty. Meanwhile, I asked his neighbors to be nice to him. To make my friend feel at ease with his newfound friends, I would invite some of them to cook Visayan dishes for our lunch. He loved the “ flying fish kinilaw ” (sashimi or fresh flying fish marinated in vinegar, ginger and soy sauce). I finished writing his biography in two months. My friend learned to trust his neighbors, such that, on weekends, some of their kids helped him with the cleaning of his surroundings and garden, for a fee.
Sharing breeds goodwill, and that is how the malunggay tree played its role. By the way, in some countries, malunggay is called “moringa”.