Rice conservation through storytelling
Los Baños, Laguna—Like the young seedlings in the book, the children chuckled as storyteller Oscar Laborem Garcia slumped down on the floor like a palay grain being dropped into a bed of warm mud.
They gamely sang, danced and bended over like Mang Isidro, the rice farmer, laughed and yelped as Garcia mimicked the fierce Mr. Locust and the swooping Maya bird.
Shrieks filled the auditorium of Lopez National High School in Los Baños, Laguna, on Oct. 7 as a class of Grade 4 pupils listened to the story of Gabby Ghas, a young rice grain character who wanted to know his place in the world.
The story titled “The Adventures of Gabby Ghas,” written by Virna Karla Sebastian, Erika Thea Ajes and Aya Arce, won first prize in a story writing contest organized by the Asia Rice Foundation (ARF) and the Alpha Phi Omega Sorority in 2006. The authors were then high school students of Calamba Institute in Calamba City, also in Laguna.
In 2009, the ARF, a nonprofit organization promoting sustainable agriculture, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute, jointly published the book, with illustrations from University of the Philippines Los Baños computer artist Eisen Bernard Bernardo.
The ARF then started the Gabby Ghas reading session to pupils, aged 9-12 years. To date, it has reached 14 schools in Laguna and Manila.
“It’s not just anymore telling a kid to finish the food on his plate because other children are starving,” said freelance storyteller Garcia of the Batlaya (free spirit) Arts Collective.
Commissioned by the ARF to read the story, Garcia, 27, believed the book is a new way to make children feel and realize the value of rice as a staple food.
The story follows Gabby Ghas (a play of the Tagalog expression “ga-bigas” or “the size of a grain”), who loses his way in the rice field and meets Hermes, a snail.
On their way around the farm, the two encounter a band of rice seedlings, escape from predatory insects, and find help from pesticide officers.
In the end, Gabby finds his way to the mill and ends up on a hungry boy’s plate, fulfilling his life’s purpose.
Retired scientist and ARF chair Dr. Benito Vergara said reading the story live to the children stimulated actual interaction with them and thus became a more effective means to impart the values.
Garcia made the story even more animated, changing his voice to suit the characters of a ferocious Maya that threatens to eat Gabby and a giant hissing snake that protects the rice field from rodents.
He also injected portions of the popular rice-planting Tagalog folk song, “Magtanim Ay ’Di Biro,” to emphasize the taxing job of a farmer.
“There was this school (where the book was read) that sent an email after the reading session. The teachers said that after hearing the story, their pupils started to really take an effort to finish their rice ‘baon,’” Garcia said.
“Most of the children, when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, would not wish to become a farmer. They do not realize what a farmer has to go through to produce rice—from planting to harvest and until their parents buy them in the market,” ARF volunteer and also retired scientist Dr. Carmen Paule said.
Just like sowing a grain of palay, Paule said that instilling rice conservation in the minds of the young children would eventually grow into an awareness that would help address rice insufficiency and rice importation in the country.
The Philippines remains a top importer of rice in Asia. A key midterm goal of the government is to achieve a total rice sufficiency by 2013. “We want the government to know that in our own little way as retired scientists we are doing our part (to achieve this target),” Paule said.