Of Narratives and Obamalegacies

Ms. Añonuevo recently did voluntary development work in Mali. She is one of the young fellows of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph). This article was published in the January 19, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Slumdog Millionaire isn’t for wussies. Its opening torture scene, boy-covered-in-shit schtick, and the necessary gang bang-bang-bangs are for those who are able to open their eyes even if what they see are not all ducks and rabbits.

One of the best films of 2008, SM’s grand wave of a narrative reminded me that the best stories are usually the untamed crazy ones—tales that take you for a ride and make you feel that every triumph and every loss is necessary, almost preordained.

Being a bookworm with high standards, I am used to such magical threads. But this year threw me an unexpected ball of compelling yarn.   Unexpected because it’s actually a true story; compelling because it continues to draw me into its folds even after a year of fascination.

Obama’s story has inspired Obamania not just in Obamanation; even in the forgotten corner of Bamako, this little Filipina was Barackified—Barackupied with a special all-nighter to anticipate, and then celebrate, with the rest of the world, the Obamalicious Obamariffic Obamawin.

But the Obama epic isn’t grand because of Obama buzzwords, nor is its value limited to the intense-but-fleeting Obamaphoria. Unlike other narratives that move because they mirror our internal dramas, Obama’s improbable tale is powerful precisely because it is different.

With change as its banner, the great Obama story reminds us that dream worlds can come true.  But more than that, more than the relief that the all-mighty USA will soon be in better hands, more than the sense of progress and promise, and more than the slightly envious kind of wishful thinking, the unfolding events have given something much more enduring to me.

From a ballad of broken stories (for example, an idealism diminished by long-distance loves and Metro Manila’s urban ick), I now have a brighter, shinier new narrative.

Government can be sexy. And I want to be part of this possibility.

Picture this: a 28-year-old semi-volunteer doesn’t even notice the potholes of Dabola (a town in Guinea, West Africa) because she is busy grinning as she imagines being more involved in Philippine civil society and slowly inching her way towards the land of education reforms.

Maybe it’s a bit of a fairytale, but I don’t mind.  Yes, there are institutional barriers, like the heavy reliance on foreign funding and the lack of a unifying education reform agenda, but I’d like to think of these as challenges—part and parcel of any problem-solving endeavor.

Of course being part of government is not the only way to be part of the solution.  My most important lesson for 2008 is actually how NGOs can be beyond effective, from using existing ‘grins’ (groups not unlike our ‘barkadas’) to teach the youth about reproductive health (in Mali) to celebrating adult education and emphasizing how fun lifelong learning is (in the UK).  We can even contribute as individuals, like Life of Pi author Yann Martel’s brilliant idea of suggesting and actually sending books to Canadian PM Stephen Harper because politicians’ imagination should be accountable to us (although GMA is probably beyond saving that even the wisest, most lyrical of books will do her no good.)

But as much as I am excited by the prospect of being involved in NGOs and coming up with cool projects for promoting literacy and self-regulated learning, my ideal end is still a government post.  Because I think that it is with a government post that I can influence the most.  Plus, changing government’s image to a more palatable one is appealing because it seems so huge a task.  Everyone’s so cynical about Philippine governance that just trying to somehow put a dent on that cynicism brings its unique thrill.

Speaking of demonstrating good leadership in our country, I recently picked up Extraordinary: Stories for Aspiring Leaders.  I haven’t finished it yet, but the fact that the book features outstanding Filipino leaders and the fact that it targets the Filipino youth automatically make it a laudable effort.  Having grown up in UP’s Department of Psychology, my renewed interest in leadership automatically steered me towards journal articles.  While finding out what the latest research says is always necessary, Extraordinary made me realize that awe and encouragement are easier found in anecdotes showcasing “the quality and the capacity of contemporary Filipino leadership.”

Better than reading about outstanding leadership, of course, is actually experiencing it.  Obama has been a spark of sorts, but my favorite leaders are still the ones I have actually worked with.  Obama’s range of inspirational acts is indeed a wide one, but, in the end, my mentors here have had a deeper, more long-lasting impact.

In other words, on Obama’s inauguration, while I will definitely be celebrating with another special White House pajama party, this time with the obligatory tub of popcorn and CNN (or BBC) coverage of the historic event, I won’t have the overwhelming desire to actually be in Washington, D.C.

Here is just fine.

Because, in the end, my story as a leader is here.

With my pulsating desire to be a more proactive citizen and my determination to embark on a deliberate leadership development initiative, I know I am in the right place.

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