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Zamboanga Reimagined

By David Haldane

March 11, 2024



Hanging out at the mall.

That’s how thousands of Zamboaguenos spend their weekends these days. You see them buying groceries or strolling along the corridors with children in tow. Often elderly men gather in groups to sip coffee while loudly discussing the news of the day.

The malls are so crowded that finding a place to park on Sunday afternoon is akin to navigating traffic at Los Angeles International Airport. But they do it because they can. And because most of the malls are brand-spanking new.

In fact, Zamboanga City’s economy is the fastest growing on the Zamboanga Peninsula, according to the City Development Council. Last year, it reached an all-time high of P139.47 billion, dramatically up from the pre-pandemic level of P125.05 billion. And much of that can be seen in the many malls opened since 2015, with another major opening scheduled later this year.

Al Jacinto, a long-time friend I recently visited there, attributes Zamboanga’s flowering abundance largely to the harmony achieved by the 2014 Bangsamoro peace agreement that provided the framework for what eventually became the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“Lots of Muslims came to Zamboanga from neighboring islands with money to invest,” says Jacinto, a seasoned journalist who’s spent decades covering the region for this and other newspapers. “Inevitably, the city grew.”

Indeed, Zamboanga’s population of 977,000—a 1.77 percent increase from 2023—is now nearly 40 percent Muslim, up from 30 percent when I first visited there two decades ago. My most vivid memory of that trip is interviewing a woman in a house pierced by hundreds of bullet holes from a nearby shootout that had killed 30 Muslim rebels.

“My kids have never been here because they’re too scared,” explained Susan Camins Sanz, a Zamboanga native who’d returned to her hometown after 34 years in California where she’d raised a family. “This is my home. You can’t let fear rule your life.”

Fear had nonetheless inflicted major damage. Absent the tourism that once sustained the city, Zamboanga had become something of a ghost town in which residents kept their distance and streets brimmed with beggars. As one of the few foreigners there in 2003, I stayed mostly at my hotel, closely watched by armed security guards. And always followed the advice of local friends who warned me never to go out alone.

“When I visited Zamboanga City in the 1990s,” an American friend recently confessed, “it was as if it wasn’t part of the Philippines.” He doesn’t visit any more, he said, because his Filipino wife won’t let him. In fact, he says, he’d like to make the trip, but “if we were captured and beheaded, I’d die of shame for having so stupidly ignored everyone’s advice and common sense.”

Indeed, that “common sense” persists to this day. Waiting to board my flight at the airport two weeks ago, I ran into another foreigner who described my, uh, testicles as “big ones” upon discovering where I was going. “I sure wouldn’t go there,” he confidently assured me.

But I went anyway and am extremely glad I did. Because what I saw can only be described as inspiring. A brand-new seaside Boulevard teeming with street vendors selling halal food to people who’d probably never tried it. A pleasant array of women wearing hijabs among those with their hair blowing free. And dinners at Muslim-owned restaurants with nary a pork dish on the menu.

“The restaurants shut down during Ramadan,” warned Jacinto, referring to the Muslim holy month of fasting beginning this week.

My earlier visit to Zamboanga culminated in a Los Angeles Times piece chronicling the journey of 1,700 former Zamboaguenos returning from around the globe “to show the world that it’s safe to go [home],” an organizer explained.

What he was trying to tell us then may finally be true now.





David Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.



  1. tempmail says:

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  2. I am so grateful for your article.Thanks Again. Really Cool.

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