In Search of Lice
August 2013: After two hours of navigating the scenic, winding road away from Davao City towards the mountainous villages southeast of the city; we arrived at Barangay Salumay, a sleepy community inhabited by some of the indigenous peoples of the region.
Having caught our breath from a brief stop, we then turned away from the main road and started negotiating a tire track that apparently has not seen much traffic in recent years. The local leaders, excited about our visit, bulldozed the difficult sections of the track the previous day but a heavy rain the night before only managed to turn the track into an obstacle course of knee-deep quagmire. For almost an hour, I pushed the 4×4 truck I was driving through the alternating mud and rocks over the hills and alongside deep ravines until we arrived at a small community of Matigsalugs. Sitio Contract.
The Matigsalugs are a gentle people of Malayo-Polynesian origin. It is said that they originally inhabited the mouth of Salug River, which is now Davao City, but frequent raids by passing pirates forced the tribe to move further upstream and then, when the Muslims and other groups of Indonesian origin came and harassed them, they moved further inland and further up the mountains where, in earlier years, they practiced a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle with minimal agriculture efforts. It was only very recently, through the influence of migrant farmers and visiting traders, when the Matigsalugs shifted to sedentary land cultivation with more or less permanent villages.
I was with a group of doctors, dentists, nurses, ministers, and volunteers of a local church. Our mission in the area was to deliver medical, dental, and other services to the Matigsalug tribe. Advance groups have been deployed to the area before we arrived and so the whole village, Sitio Contract, was ready and warmly welcomed us when we arrived.
Surrounded by mountains and magnificent scenery, the village was composed of a few dozen houses, a village center with a basketball court, a few sari-sari stores, and a 5 classroom elementary school. Being in a very high elevation, the village climate was cold despite the bright sun and the atmosphere was festive with the presence of visitors from the big city.
We were ushered to the school premises where the services were to be rendered. There was a queue for each type of service. Elderly and sick village folks trooped to the area where medical services were being provided. An occasional groan can be heard from a classroom where some dentists were extracting teeth or filling cavities. In another corner, ministers’ wives were providing hot nutritious meals to young kids and their mothers. And, at the back of a classroom overlooking a grand view of the surrounding mountains, young men waited for their turn to get a much-needed haircut. While taking photos, I silently wished my barber’s window had this majestic view.
Roaming around the school compound with my camera, I noticed a crowd of kids in another section of the school ground. Surprisingly, the service provided in that section was for treating lice — those tiny, creepy creatures that thrive on blood and body fluids and inhabit the shady surfaces of the human scalp. Even more surprising to me was the fact that almost all the young boys and girls congregated in this section. All of them had lice!
And there I met Ana, a pretty young girl who had a dark, curly hair and who looked more mature than her age. Ana and her friends were teary-eyed as they listened to a nurse tell stories about lice and how to prevent them. Their facial expressions not only struck my photographic eye but also touched my heart. At this time and age where the modern world is bombarded by overrated health and hygiene products, some remote areas are still struggling with issues as basic as lice treatment and prevention.
A louse is a parasite. They are scavengers, feeding on skin and other debris found on the host’s body, but some species feed on sebaceous secretions and blood. In humans, different species of louse inhabit the scalp and pubic hair. While they are not that dangerous and they don’t spread disease, they are contagious, unhygienic,, extremely annoying, and heir bites may cause a child’s scalp to become itchy and inflamed, and persistent scratching may lead to skin irritation and even infection. Treating lice can be difficult. A louse’s egg, commonly called a nit, attach their eggs to their host’s hair with specialized saliva or hair bond which is very difficult to sever without specialized products.
The Matigsalug kids, after a brief talk with the nurses and volunteers, quickly became comfortable with the idea of submitting themselves for lice treatment. Having lice is a persistent problem which affects them all and for which they were all eager to find a solution. Boys and girls registered for the service and queued for the treatment. The sight of them with their heads wrapped in plastic bags while waiting for their hair to get washed was amusing but also telling of their simplicity and sincere interest in getting treatment. And then, when it was time to get the shower, I saw in their faces the happiness of being cared for by somebody else other than their mothers. It was a heartwarming sight. And when the treatment was over, they joyfully went back to their kiddie chores and giggly games, as if it was a totally new day. In my eyes, it seemed that each has become more of a child than he or she already was.