Bakya Mo Neneng: An Ilongga OFW’s Death in Kuwait Proves Why This Song is Still Relevant

By joseph batcagan

People have this notion that Ilonggos are gentle people because of our lilting accents. Said accent, it also must be said, can mask a wide array of emotions including sadness, rage, and frustration at the cards life’s hand dealt us with.

In this regard, this is probably why folk songs, no matter if younger people treat the art form like an archaic relic from a slower time, are still popular among many Ilonggos. You could hear strains of it from live folk performances that AM stations broadcast every Sundays, or from a group of men singing along to one while drinking Gold Eagle after a hard day’s work.

Bakya Mo Neneng” is one of those folk songs we’ve certainly encountered before. Ulihing Tubu, a local folk rock troupe which multimedia artist Momo Dalisay counts as a member of, is widely credited for repurposing this Tagalog folk song of the same title. At first listen, it sounds like just about any other folk song: gentle, lilting, relatively harmless. However, also just like every other folk song, it takes a closer parsing of the lyrics to realize how bleak its message is:

The song’s story is about ‘Neneng’, a woman from a nondescript province who went to Saudi Arabia to work as a household worker so she could provide for her younger siblings. Sung from the perspective of a third-party narrator, the song also details her rape at the hands of her employer. She eventually flees, but without a passport and her things, she roamed the Saudi streets without anyone recognizing or bothering to help her.

The song then ends with the following questions: “Pila pa ka Neneng ang bakya bayaan? Pila pa ka Neneng ang paga-himuslan?” [How many Nenengs would have to leave their slippers behind? How many Nenengs would still be raped?]

I was reminded of this over the weekend when news broke about Joanna Daniela Demafelis, a domestic helper from Sara whose murdered body was found inside an apartment freezer in Kuwait, and initial investigations point out that she was kept there for close to a year already. Once again, this event spotlighted the risks various OFW communities face overseas to support their families back home while also highlighting the responses made by the Philippine government. So far, all of it has been reactionary.

Bakya”, which was recorded probably between the late ‘80s or the early ‘90s, reflected the increasing feminization of the OFW workforce from that era. As it turned out, Ulihing Tubu made a song that is still highly topical, considering that the Philippines’ top export today is not goods, but people: The latest figures tout females as our top source of migrant laborers, and the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency recently revealed that domestic workers still rank as one of the top job orders for Filipinos working abroad.

On the flipside, the agency also recognized that “Household service workers, in particular, face more hazards, particularly maltreatment, non-compliance with Philippine minimum salary, and lack of airfare or air tickets from employers for repatriation even when they finish their contracts.”

I recall Momo, before performing “Bakya” at our first Urban Baylehan in 2016, saying he’s not opposed to Ilonggas going abroad to work; rather, he just doesn’t want them to work as domestic helpers. I figure the data above will give him little comfort once he becomes aware of it.

Despite the song’s lament that Neneng didn’t receive any justice for what was done to her (i.e. “wala sang hustisya” in the song’s stanza), the government did made some advances to protect and support migrant workers in the host countries and upon coming back to the Philippines. However, it would do us well to remember that said advances were propelled in the first place by the deaths of domestic helpers Delia Maga and Flor Contemplacion, who was executed in Singapore for allegedly murdering the former, with the passing of Republic Act 8042 or the “Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995”.

Even back then, the problem was addressed in a reactionary manner.

Regardless, situations like the Kuwait murder forcibly reminds us that the dangers OFWs face working in foreign lands or waters are very real. The blanket ban for Pinoys going to Kuwait this time around may have been created with the best intentions in mind, but that won’t stop them from going to Kuwait–or just about anywhere else they feel will pay them better than working in a home country where their best efforts at creating lives for their families are routinely disregarded.

As long as it’s difficult for the average Filipino to earn a living-wage salary in the country, we can still expect domestic workers being imprisoned for drug trafficking, engineers and construction workers being stuck in Saudi Arabia because their corporations cannot pay them due to mismanagement, seafarers being abducted from their ships, or desperate dairy workers being forced to work in dangerous situations in New Zealand.

Otherwise, expect some Nenengs to go home in boxes to their families, only to be replaced by future Nenengs and Totongs. Songs will be sung about their sacrifices, and that is the only consolation their families can have for now.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.