“I never thought I would go to Marawi and love it as my own.”
Born in Balilihan, Bohol, Joseph Gieward “Ondoy” Layao, a 40-year old coach and sports leader of Mindanao State University (MSU) in Marawi City, has planted his roots firmly upon the shores of Lake Lanao. His passion for basketball helped to ease his transition into Meranaw country where the sport is beyond popular. In the Mindanao Peace Games (MPG) he found what he was looking for to multiply his community building efforts. “The MPG template is to develop leaders for the future, not just coaches. I didn’t see anyone doing that in Marawi. MPG paved the way for change.”
MPG is a Mindanao-wide movement of schools of universities from all six regions that strives to create a better sports culture that is carried by transformational community leaders. Layao’s first encounter with the movement came in 2016 at the Discovery Leadership Program when he was studying his master’s degree in Human Movement Science at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Quezon City through a scholarship grant of MSU. “Since I was already in Manila, the chairman of the MSU department of athletics asked me to represent him there as he had an equally important family commitment. I was supposed to attend a ‘Dribble Drive’ basketball coaching clinic of NBA coach Vance Walberg but decided to participate in the MPG leadership summit instead. Little did I know then, that this decision would turn out to be one of the best I’ve ever made.”
Quarrels about religion
His journey into sports and community development started in Balilihan where Layao and his family lived until they were forced to leave Bohol when he was in grade 5. “One day, the police station just across the street from our house got raided by the NPA. This was during the Marcos martial law days. We had experienced evacuation many times but this time my parents decided to move to Kumalarang, Zamboanga del Sur to live with my grandparents on my mother’s side. After 5 months, we relocated to Agusan del Sur. My dad got a job offer there from a distant relative as a truck driver delivering agricultural products.”
Growing up in Bohol, Layao and his two brothers—a fourth son would be born a few years later in Agusan del Sur—were brought up catholic. But with a catholic father and born-again protestant mother, the boys would often hear their parents quarrel about religion. One thing they did agree on was their perception of Muslims as the bad guys. “In our neighborhood there were these long-existing and seemingly automatic stereotypes about Mindanao as a warzone and about Muslims as war-like, barbaric people that could not be trusted. I mean, these were my thoughts growing up in Bohol.”
After high school Layao went to MSU Marawi to study physical education. A visit to the main campus to attend the graduation of his friend’s two daughters convinced him of his choice for MSU. “I remember the infrastructure, the golf course, and the views overlooking Lake Lanao and Marawi City. I was also fascinated by the sports complex with the grandstand, swimming pool, and tennis courts. I had never seen anything like it. Most importantly, I felt safe. People in our neighborhood had told me not to look someone in Marawi in the eye because they would get angry. What a foolish prejudice.”
Foolish it may be, but prejudices like this one are still commonplace. According to Layao, that’s what the Mindanao Peace Games is trying to change. “It may not happen right away, but it will help. We need more engagement between Muslims and Christians. Sports will provide those opportunities as often as we want. The majority of Christians in Mindanao don’t have a lot of chances to engage with Muslims and Muslims themselves feel discriminated. We need to bridge this gap of understanding and sports can be a good vehicle for these engagements.”
He admits to having thought about leaving Marawi with his family, especially around the time of the siege, but Layao cannot leave his friends, colleagues, and students. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get to know these people on a deeper level. They are real, they are humans like us, they also are peace-loving and they inspire me. And when we do sports we don’t talk about religion. Whatever your faith, it’s the sense of humanity that prevails. We can go beyond religion.”
Hopping all over the region
After graduating, Layao stayed at MSU where he would soon meet his future wife. Originally from Butuan City, she had moved to Marawi to study at MSU and then joined as a faculty member in the same college where Layao was employed. The first 10 years Layao worked in different roles. “I taught basic PE and major subjects while at the same time coaching the varsity basketball program. I was a college secretary for 3 years and then became the chairman of the athletics department. In 2007, I decided to simplify my life and focus exclusively on teaching and coaching. I didn’t see meaning in my job as an administrator. I wanted to stay close to my students and my athletes and help them develop. As a coach you have the unique opportunity to transform beginner athletes into star athletes and then into good persons. It’s enormously fulfilling to see your players do well on and off the court.”
In 2013 there was a three-year scholarship stint at UP Diliman for a master’s degree, but Layao has since stepped up his community building efforts through sports. “I am responsible for almost all basketball tournaments at MSU and at the provincial level, especially during Araw ng Lanao del Sur and summer breaks. I’ve been organizing tournaments, conducting clinics regularly, and also as a varsity coach I’ve been bringing my teams off-campus for competitions held in our neighboring provinces and the regions of Mindanao. In spite of all of this, I felt something was lacking in my efforts.”
In search for the missing piece of the puzzle, Layao attended the 2016 Discovery Leadership Program and heard Noli Ayo, athletics director of Ateneo de Davao University, and other sports directors speak about going beyond sports, transformational leadership, women empowerment and community building. He realized he had found what he was looking for.
“I needed to multiply myself, as simple as that. To develop coaches who share my vision and have similar passion to help. All the events that make up MPG, such as the annual MPG leadership summit and the regular coaches’ forums have taught me lessons that I could apply in developing more coaches and leaders while growing as a leader myself. Just last month I organized the first MSU Varsity General Assembly that included an athletes’ forum for all MSU varsity athletes. I tapped 3 of our own homegrown coaches as speakers. In this way, we are creating a culture in sports that is more than just figuring out how to win a game. MPG has given us experiences that go beyond that, yet, are so relevant to what we are trying to promote in sports. MPG creates and provides memories outside of sports. Because once you have memories worth treasuring, you will want to relive them over and over again.”
Layao hopes MPG will continue for many years to come. “There is no other organization like it that integrates shared experiences among student-athletes and coaches from all over Mindanao. It’s out of the box, first of its kind. Thinking of sports in terms other than ‘to compete’ used to be unheard of. I’m glad the mindset is slowly changing and a new sports culture in Mindanao is now gradually growing strong and healthy.”
The Mindanao Peace Games (MPG) is a joint initiative of schools and universities from all six regions of Mindanao that aims to create platforms in sports through which to develop empowered women who will be inspiring and transformational leaders in initiating better and peaceful communities in Mindanao. The fourth edition of MPG took place in Butuan City from October 27 to 30. You can follow MPG on Twitter (@MPG2018) and Instagram (mindanao_peace_games).