Exploring “Experience and Expressions” in Climate Change Anthropology

Lake Sebu at dusk

 

The truth is, I have never heard of Wilhelm Dilthey until I’ve read “The Anthropology of Experience” edited by Victor Turner and Edward Bruner – and I am a Philosophy major. In his introduction to the book, Bruner presented him as a German thinker when Kantianism was the trend in Philosophy.  This is palpable in the way he critiqued the philosophy of a priori principles, meaning-complexes and absolute value norms, in his theory that assumes that all thought processes arise out of experience (erlebnis – what has been “lived through”) and derive their meaning from their relation into experience, and therefore critiquing the Kantian a priori.  For Dilthey, “reality only exists for us in the facts of consciousness given by inner experience” (as cited in Bruner, 1986: 4).

Dilthey asserted that experience is the ”foundation of the whole edifice of knowledge” going on further to say that it is “only by reference to experience that we can define what we mean by saying that anything ‘exists’” (Hodges, 1952). Bruner worked on Dilthey’s notion of experience to expound on an “Anthropology of Experience” where lived experience, “as thought and desire, as word and image, is the primary reality” (Bruner, 1986: 5).  As lived and embodied, experience becomes a critical focus of anthropology because it is a causal point for personal and community action which directly affects persons, outcomes and therefore cultures.

Reading Bruner talk about Dilthey’s notion of experience brings me back to my proposed study of climate change in the T’boli community of Klubi; a study on “experience and expressions of climate change”. Climate change, as a reality in the sense of something actually existing outside of the knowing self and in opposition to a notional idea, demands that social scientists turn their focus on how it is experienced and expressed especially in indigenous communities who are considered most vulnerable to climate perturbations. How is it represented in the language of our research partners? How is it told? What are the emerging expressions of this global phenomenon in the local communities that are the traditional partners of anthropologists? Are expressions related to climate perturbations becoming part of the dominant narratives? And as the peoples’ “articulations, formulations, and representations of their own experience” (1986: 9) how is climate change adaptation or response appropriated in those articulations?

Bruner expanded the concept of experience by including “feelings and expectations” (4), “images and impressions”, (5) as sources of experience. It comes to us not just verbally but also from the richer sphere of images and feelings, which goes beyond languages. We may say that given the ‘reality’ of climate change – of existing perturbations in the weather and unreliable traditional agricultural calendars as in the case of the T’boli – feelings, expectations, thoughts, images and impressions are also actively imprinted in the mind, which in turn are expressed, articulated in different modes.

Bruner accepted the idea that experience is “self-referential” – reality is experienced only by the person and that we can never completely know the experiences of another. Basically a study of the other, this then became the problematic in the anthropological study of experience. How can the anthropologist study another’s experience? He states:

 How, then, do we overcome the limitations of individual experience? Dilthey’s (1976: 230) answer was that we “transcend the narrow sphere of experience by interpreting expressions.” By “interpreting” Dilthey meant understanding, interpretation, and the methodology of hermeneutics; by “expressions” he meant representations, performances, objectifications, or texts. (1986: 5)

In my study of climate change experience and expressions among the T’boli S’bu, I start with the different experiences, but these can only be culled out from their own articulations of the changing weather patterns, inconsistencies with the agricultural calendar, their ‘feelings’ in the changing temperature, and the images that comes to mind given these perturbations. These expressions that include Bruner’s “representations, performances, objectifications or texts” encapsulate the experiences of the T’boli S’bu.

Questions on expressions and articulations of climate change may be asked: How are their mythologies appropriated in these perceived weather patterns? What rituals are employed to ‘fix’ these inconsistencies in the agricultural calendar vis-à-vis the weather? What are their impressions and desires in the midst of these uncertainties? What structures and episodes in their narratives of folk heroes and heroines help them in decisions related to agriculture and weather perturbations?

Bruner further clarified the relationship between experience and expressions:

 The relationship is clearly dialogic and dialectical, for experience structures expressions, in that we understand other people and their expressions on the basis of our own experience and understanding. But expressions also structure experience, in that dominant narratives of a historical era, important rituals and festivals, and classic works of art define and illuminate inner experience. (1986: 6)

One example, to further understand this experience-expressions relationship, is the k’mohung and seselong connection. K’mohung is the T’boli term for the “fish kills” that regularly happen in Lake Sebu. Several perspectives on the k’mohung are evidenced in the narratives related to it.

One narrative suggests that it is a curse. In this story, a T’boli cursed the Ilonggo fishermen, saying that the T’boli are the guardians of the Lake and that their fishes will die, unless they give the fish to the T’boli. Indeed, according to an informant, whenever there is a fish kill, the fish pen owners will give the dead fish to the T’boli or sell them at a much lower price.

Another perspective views it as a gift from Fu S’bu, owner/spirit of the lake. My informant described a time before the Ilonggo settlers put up their fish pens and when the lake was still covered by water lilies and lotus plants. She shared that whenever there is a k’mohung , people would see fish and shrimps floating in the surface, but not quite dead, “as if they were dizzy”. They can easily “pick these fish and shrimps with their bare hands,” she said. Indeed, outside Western, Modern Science, one will view this as a gift from the lake, almost congruent to the biblical “manna from heaven”. This idea of a gift clearly opposes that notion of a “disaster” and in fact, it only became widely-known as a “disaster” when the Ilonggos came and put up their fishery industry in the lake. The disaster-gift dichotomy clearly delineates not only economic valuations of the lake, but also belief or supernatural categorizations of the natural world.

Here, the experience of the k’mohung is expressed in different narratives that show polar notions between the curse-gift discourse based on different circumstances and point of views – differing but still constituting peoples’ articulations, formulations and representations of the experience. On one hand the experience is akin to sacredness, as a gift from the spirits, while the other as curse to their livelihood. Expressions are indeed “rooted in a social situation with real persons in a particular culture in a given historical era” (1986: 7).  Bruner manifested this rich array of expressions, saying “every telling is an arbitrary imposition of meaning on the flow of memory, in that we highlight some causes and discount other; that is, every telling is interpretive.” (7)

These narrative expressions of a singular ‘reality’ but of plural experiences, continue on to shape a particular cultural action – that of the seselong.

The Focus Group Discussion I conducted in Brgy. Klubi on March 30, 2013 described the k’mohung and seselong in this way: after a leme-et, a type of weather defined by occasional strong rains and wind coming from the north, and then suddenly clearing (my informant likened the leme-et to an impending typhoon), T’boli in the uplands would then gather their rootcrops and other produce from their gardens to prepare for a seselong, a system of barter trading between the upland-living T’boli and the lake-side dwelling T’boli. During the leme-et, people surrounding the lake would also prepare for the seselong by observing the lake for the telltale signs of the k’mohung. My informants shared that there are no celebrations or rituals conducted during the seselong, something that I didn’t foresee especially in the case of an event that may be deemed supernatural or an event that gathers people from the upland and lakeside. The seselong becomes an opportunity for the lakeside dwellers to trade their gathered fish in exchange for the rootcrops of the upland T’boli.

This pattern in the activities and interaction of the upland and lakeside T’boli, provided by the seselong, may be viewed as a distribution of resources and exchanges of protein and carbohydrates-rich food between the two groups of T’boli. This intertwining of the natural world and the cultural aspect of the T’boli seselong may be viewed as one of the solutions to what I assume is an imbalance in the protein and carbohydrate diet of the two groups. In the old days when the T’boli were still exclusively hunters and gatherers, this system of exchange provides an easy source of protein for the upland T’boli whose main protein source are the animals that they hunt in the forest, in exchange for their carbohydrates-rich rootcrops. In turn, the lakeside T’boli whose diet consists mainly of protein from the fish caught in the lake, exchange their fish for the upland T’boli’s rootcrops.

The T’boli’s experience of the  k’mohung also turns our attention to indigenous meaning-generation. By studying the different expressions of narratives and the system of seselong that springs from the experience, I can engage with Bruner’s method of starting with expressions to understand the experience because the “basic units of analysis are established by the people we study rather by the anthropologist as alien observer” (9). Anthropological understanding of climate change adaptations and responses of the T’boli S’bu may also use this approach.

Bruner’s interpretive approach of the experience-expression relations operates on two levels:

 The people we study interpret their own experiences in expressive forms, and we, in turn, through our fieldwork, interpret these expressions for a home audience of other anthropologists. Our anthropological productions are our stories about their stories; we are interpreting the people as they are interpreting themselves. (10)

Although I disagree with Bruner when he says that anthropological studies are intended for a “home audience of other anthropologists”, believing that the ultimate audience of the anthropologist are his/her community partners, I still agree in this bi-level operation of cognition where people interpret their own experience while the anthropologist interprets those expressions to gain access to the original experience. In once instance, for example, I was invited to attend a tutul (chants) performance of several master-chanters of Klubi, Lamdalag and Lamcade. Several times, community members listening to the stories would cut the singing and comment on the story’s episodes relating them to contemporary issues, such as mining in T’boli municipality or treasure hunting in Lake Holon, yet the story itself (of the hero Tudbulul) is of mythological time, a story outside time, indeed serving as “meaning-generating devices which frame the present within a hypothetical past and an anticipated future” (1986: 18). Their own interpretations of the age-old stories, relating them to contemporary problems and issues give me adequate hope that among those stories and tutul performances, I may perhaps glean the hows, and whys of the T’boli S’bu mind in the ‘reality’ of climate change and from these expressions – of performed texts and dormant meanings in folk narratives – I may catch, even for a brief moment, a T’boli S’bu ‘experience’ of climate change.

 

References:

 

Hodges, H. A. The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey. Routledge & Kegan Paul (1952).

Bruner, Edward and Turner, Victor eds. The Anthropology of Experience. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986).

“To be” in Klubi

_MG_3597 _MG_3579 1 6 5 4 3 2 7 8 9 10 11 13 12 19 16

[All photos were taken in Sitio Lamkua, Barangay Klubi, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, Southern Philippines, with permissions from the elders of Klubi. Photography by Mr. Nikki Ayubo]

For more on  T’boli ethnography please visit: Blotik Ehek (Star of the Sharpening Stone) and Climate Change: When Traditional Knowledge Becomes Unreliable and also K’mohung and Seselong: Cultural Adaptation of the T’boli S’bu to the Fish Kill Phenomenon in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. 

Blotik Éhék (Star of the Sharpening Stone) and Climate Change: When Traditional Knowledge Becomes Unreliable

Introduction

 Several studies conducted by anthropologists have already substantially concluded the effects of existing, anthropogenic climate change and how it compounds indigenous peoples’ vulnerabilities adding to “existing challenges, including political and economic marginalization, land and resource encroachments, human rights violations and discrimination” (Crate 2009). These studies underline the importance of using ecological and landscape approaches to climate studies, strongly relying on the emic point of view or the local people’s knowledge of their environment, geography and ecology.

Susan Crate used this approach successfully in her study[1] on the effects of climate change to the sub-Arctic Viliu Sakha communities in northeastern Siberia, Russia and noted the transformations of “both symbolic cultures and subsistence cultures […] reframe the implications of unprecented global climate change (Crate 2009).” Sarah Strauss[2], working with the community of Leukerbad in Switzerland, described and shared Leukerbadners’ stories of retreating glaciers in the Alps and warned anthropologists and scientists that “we are all feeling the effects, both long term and short term, of a changing climate, but the solutions that will be applicable to the global problem cannot be cast from a single mold.” Indeed, as landscapes, geography and cultures diversely vary on our planet, the challenge is to also diversify solutions to climate change to consider each local community’s socioeconomic and cultural capacities, resilience and vulnerability. This challenge falls particularly to anthropologists who “seek to understand and translate, helping make the experiences of one place/time/people intelligible to those who inhabit different lifeworlds (Strauss 2009)”.

In this study, focus is given to the T’boli people whose traditional domains include the highland lake complex of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, the Daguma mountain range, Allah River, the crater lake of Holon in Mt. Melibengoy and the coastal communities of Kiamba and Maasim in Sarangani, Southern Philippines.  Particularly, the setting is in Barangay Klubi, Lake Sebu municipality, South Cotabato with a total land area of 509 hectares, the only barangay in Lake Sebu considered “100% tribal area” [3]. Klubi is 4. 59% of the total land area of the Municipality of Lake Sebu. Particular interest was given to the area for its mountainous “hilly to steep hilly”  (Socioeconomic Profile of Lake Sebu 2010) topography and to contribute a mountainous, tropical and agricultural setting to climate studies whose noticeable main body of concern are the Arctic, coastal and glacial regions.

The T’boli are listed in ethnographies (cf Cultural Center of the Philippines Enyclopedia of Philippine Art 1994) as “a people in the mature hunting-gathering stage with horticulturalists”. While this maybe true when the ethnographic research was conducted, contemporary T’bolis have already cultivated vast hectares of agricultural land devoted to rice and corn. As a matter of fact, from the 89,138 hectares total land area of Lake Sebu, 24,404 hectares is appropriated as agricultural (Socioeconomic Profile of Lake Sebu 2010). Many of the T’bolis still use traditional methods of planting corn and upland rice, relying mostly on astronomical bodies (sun, moon and stars, specially the blotik éhék) and geographic markers (mountains) to tell the season for planting and harvesting. But with the changes in climate and weather patterns, they are also increasingly experiencing difficulties in following any agricultural calendar. Field interviews with farmers describe March and April as the traditional months for planting, when there is no rain that may otherwise bring the farmers’ woes of forager and cutter insects and also the burrowing worms which eat the newly planted stalks. Some of the farmers, experiencing these difficulties, turn to non-traditional ways of planting like the use of fertilizers and planting hybrid rice and corn, just to secure their harvest and feed their families.

This study aims to describe their present-day agricultural practices, most specifically in the planting of corn and rice, and also to describe the climate-related challenges experienced by the T’boli farmers.

For this objective, this paper uses ethnoecology for its conceptual framework. Ethnoecology, generally speaking, is the study of what local people know about their environment, how they classify that information, and how they use it – an attempt toward the understanding of local understanding about a realm of experience.

In this paper, we try to describe and understand the T’boli’s natural resource management in agriculture and how local knowledge of the terrain, weather, climate and astronomical bodies inform their agricultural practices. The interactions of traditional agricultural knowledge with the effects of climate change will be analyzed to understand how changes in the natural system will revise (or has already revised) current practices in T’boli agriculture. Methods used in this study include individual interviews, archival research and participant observation.

This paper adds to the growing number of studies on climate and indigenous peoples and seeks to understand how indigenous peoples in mountainous habitats with an agricultural-based economy, are experiencing climate perturbations and how they are responding to the risks brought by climate change. By investigating their agricultural practices, the inconsistencies of traditional knowledge with their landscape and weather, and their perception on climate change, policymakers, advocates and planners may better understand how to inform, update and apprise the T’boli S’bu on the realities of climate change.

Ethnoecology as Situated Knowledge

The seminal work which introduced ethnoscience/ethnoecology to the humanities and social sciences is Harold Conklin’s The Relation of the Hanunuo Culture to the Plant World (1954) which was to “dismantle the dominant view on shifting cultivating as a haphazard, destructive, and primitive way of making a living” (Nazarea 2006). If Clifford Geertz underlined anthropology’s work of “understanding others’ understanding”, ethnoecology rests on the imperative that anthropological inquiry must increasingly seek to understand local understanding (the so-called native point of view) about a realm of experience. This includes systematically documenting and analysing folk classification and paradigms pertaining to plants, animals, color,weather, soils, water, illness and the human body until “only the most incorrigible remain unimpressed by the logic, complexity and sophistication of local knowledge” (Nazarea 2006).

Ethnoecology springs from the cognitive approach of studying peoples’ conception of events and objects, asserting that “culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind.”[4] This focus on the interaction between the society/culture and the mind seeks to understand and explain essential components of human social behavior.  The concept of a “Native Science” is also related to the understanding of the role of the environment intertwined with the meaning/s humans place upon their lives.

Linguistics, or the study of language, is integral to ethnoecology. Understanding the language and the native people’s linguistic system is one method to understand a native people’s system of knowledge of organization. Not only is there categorization for things pertaining to nature and culture thought language, but more importantly and complex is the relationship between environment and culture. Ethnoecology looks at the intricacies of the connection between culture and its surrounding environment.

This system of understanding local people’s understanding takes into account the social and cultural embeddedness of knowledge, technologies and practices inherent to natural resource management and “recognizes the plurality of forms of knowledge, world views and the ethical values connected to them within different social and cultural groups”. We take for example the T’boli’s complex system of classifying rice according to their color, size and shape of the kernels. Halay is the generic term for unhusked rice but more specific upland varieties abound in their language: éfél (small white kernels inside a mottled black and yellow husk resembling the color of the éfél ‘bumblebee’), kedegsan (medium-sized white kernels inside a yellowish-colored husk), alì (long, medium sized white kernels inside a dark red husk) or the sendangan (large, stubby kernels inside a yellowish-colored husk covered with tiny thistles).[5]

This unique (particular to a given group) system of classifying their material and social universe in turn, according to ethnoecology, becomes a means of gaining insight not only into the nature of man but also into the nature of culture.

Traditional Domain of the T’boli S’bu

The T’boli, also known as Tboli, Tiboli and Tagabili, are indigenous peoples of Mindanao concentrated in South Cotabato where the southwest coast range and the Cotabato mountains merge to form the Tiruray highlands, in an area circumscribed by the towns of Surallah, Polomolok Maitum and Kiamba. As settlers from other Philippine islands arrived, the T’boli gradually withdrew to the mountain slopes and lived in scattered villages. Their cultural heartland lies in the highland lake complex of Sebu, Seloton, and Lahit. Lake Holon in Mt. Melibengoy (formerly Lake Maughan of Mt. Parker) in T’boli municipality, South Cotabato is also an important body of water in the T’boli traditional territory.

The T’boli are usually divided into the coastal-dwelling peoples, the T’boli Mohin of Maitum, Kiamba and Maasim, and the mountain-dwelling T’boli S’bu of the municipalities of T’boli and Lake Sebu, all in South Cotabato, Philippines.

The T’boli S’bu are mostly located in the municipality of Lake Sebu in the Province of South Cotabato. It is approximately 40 kilometers away from Koronadal, the provincial capital of South Cotabato. Lake Sebu is approximately 6 hours away from Cotabato City, the Regional center of Region XII. It is bounded on the North by the Municipality of Surallah; on the Southwest by the Municipality of Kiamba and Maitum; in the East by the Municipality of T’boli and in the West by Palimbang of the Province of Sultan Kudarat. It is located at 6”10” N Latitude and 124”44”E Longitude.

The Total area of Lake Sebu is 89,138 hectares or approximately 11.59% of the total land of South Cotabato. Its biggest barangay is Ned with 41,247 hectares or 46.3 % of the Municipality. The smallest barangay is Lahit with only 528 hectares or 0.6% of the municipality’s land area. (Socioeconomic Profile of Lake Sebu 2010)

The T’boli and Ubo Ancestral domain cover a total area of 39,852 hectares or 44.70% of Lake Sebu, including 18 barangay out of 19 Barangays, namely: Hanoon, Lower Maculan, Upper Maculan, Halilan, Denlag, Lamcade, Klubi, Lamdalag, Lamlahak, T’konel, Seloton, Poblacion, Lahit, Talisay, Bacdulong, Lamfugon, Tasiman and Luhib. The only barangay outside the domain is baranggay Ned. The largest portion of the domain, which is 20%, is within Barangay Lamfugon, Barangay Lamlahak and Tasiman equally covering 12% each, T’konel, Lamdalag and Klubi, 10% each. Upper Maculan 4%, Lower Maculaan, Hanoon and Lamcade 3% each, Luhib, Halilan and Poblacion 2% each. The barangays with the smallest land area are Seloton, Lahit, Bacdulong 1% each.

The climate of Lake Sebu belongs to the Fourth type where rainfall is evenly distributed throughout the year. Its temperature is relatively cool like that of Baguio City. The dry season usually falls during the month of March to April. Significantly, however, showers usually occur during the afternoons between the month of February and May.

Lake Sebu has a rugged terrain. It is surrounded by mountain ranges, including Daguma and Talihik along its eastern portion, Mt. Busa in the south-eastern portion with an elevation of 2,064 meters; Pitot Kalabao Peak along the central portion with an elevation of 1,6000 meters and Mt. Talili in the eastern portion with an elevation of 1,410 meters. Barangay Poblacion of Lake Sebu itself is estimated to be 700 meters above sea level.

The Lake Sebu Watershed Forest Reserve is a protected landscape under Proclamation no. 65 signed on August 4 1966, covering a total of 9,900 hectares. Lake Sebu (S’bu is the T’boli word for lake) is a natural lake in the municipality of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato and within the Allah Valley Watershed Landscape region. The lake itself and the rivers that drain from it is part of the Allah Valley Watershed which covers South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The Allah Valley Watershed is the southernmost tributary of the Pulangi River that drains in Illana Bay in Cotabato City. (Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance 2007)

The total delineated area of the Allah Valley Watershed is 252,034 has. that extends to the Province of Maguindanao. Surface waters that are drained along the Allah and Banga rivers subsequently find their way into the Liguasan marsh, the second largest in the country. The Allah Valley Watershed is a major sub-watershed unit of the Cotabato-Agusan river basin in Mindanao. It covers the jurisdictions of the Province of South Cotabato (Municipalities of Lake Sebu, T’boli, Surallah, and Sto. Nino, Banga, Norala) and the Province of Sultan Kudarat (City of Tacurong and Municipalities of Isulan, Esperanza, Lambayong and Bagumbayan). (Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance 2007)

The 3 lakes of Sebu, Seloton and Lahit (all part of the Allah Valley Watershed) are fed by underground springs in the mountain ranges of Daguma and surrounding mountains that made up mostly of porous sedimentary rocks that store and catch rainwater. Water from the lakes then cascades down the 7 waterfalls namely: Hikong Alu (passage), Hikong Bente (immeasurable), Hikong B’lebel (zigzag), Hikong Lowig (booth), Hikong Kefo-i (wild flower), Hikong Ukok (short), and Hikong Tonok (soil). The water then travels down the Allah River that combines with the Banga River finally joining the bigger Pulangi River and Liguasan Marsh to drain in Illana Bay.

Agricultural Practices of the T’boli in Klubi: Blotik Éhék (Star of the Sharpening Stone) and the Fu (Spirit Owners)

The study is set in Barangay Klubi, Lake Sebu. The topography of Brgy. Klubi is hilly to steep to very steep (30% – up slope range). One would easily notice that there is considerable forest loss due to conversion of forest land to agricultural purposes. Going up from Korononadal City, capital of South Cotabato, to Lake Sebu, it is plain to see that many areas have been converted to rice and corn farms. Surallah, an important trading center between Lake Sebu and Koronadal, is considered a rice granary because of its wide valleys planted with rice, corn and other products. Surallah is predominantly inhabited by settlers from the Visayan islands, mostly Ilonggo, and as a matter of fact, the T’boli of Lake Sebu have to learn the Ilonggo language for them to be able to communicate with the settlers (most of them merchants) and for them to study in schools (most teachers are Ilonggo-speaking).

Going up Barangay Klubi from the Poblacion of Lake Sebu, commuters will have to hire a habal-habal motorcycle for P50 and go up a steep dirt road. This makes it also hard for the farmers who have to transport their produce from their farms up and down the mountains and explains why they opt to plant corn and rice instead of vegetables, as vegetables will not be able to stay fresh in this arduous trek down the mountain-farms.

Houses in Klubi are set in a compound of 1 family, usually numbering more than 5 houses but not exceeding 10 in a compound. The Sulan Family’s compound (research partner) has 7 houses not including their grinding center, the LASIWWAI office and the gono bong (long house), currently used as a Designers’ House for the women weavers.

The following are the neighbors in the Sulan Compound:

  1. Sitio Malun
  2. Sharon Gumatao
  3. Rio Sulan
  4. Rey Sulan
  5. Jenita Eko
  6. Eko Sulan
  7. Stephen Bihan
  8. Semlon Landayong
  9. Rodrigo Lamdayong
  10. Waning Lugong
  11. Ugon Nalon
  12. Dima Abid
  13. Lendi Tinggal

All of the neighboring families are involved in farming, directly planting and harvesting or helping in the marketing of produce.

Another noticeable feature of Klubi is the abundant water flowing in creeks and springs. A few meters of digging a hole would already tap in the aquifer as in the case of the planned septic tank for the Day Care center that they had to abandon due to the restrictions of the elders. Some families’ compound has a fishpond fed by this underground aquifer or a spring. At this point, it is worthwhile to note how the T’bolis of Klubi believe in the fun (owner or spirit). Several fu are said to reside and own certain natural resources like water (‘el), abaca (kdungon), rice (halay), forests (dlag koyu), wild animals (Taha Kilang – or in some chants , Tud Bulul and Taha Kilang are the same), Lake Sebu (S’bu), mountains (bulul) and others. My host family’s fishpond is believed to be inhabited by one of these spirits. The patriarch Eko Sulan used to give offerings near the fishpond to appease this spirit due to the belief that it claims human victims, in some accident or another.

The farm of the Sulan family was divided equally (even among women) among the sisters and brothers. This farm is located in Sitio Datal Sbuyon, Barangay Klubi mostly hilly to steep. Datal Sbuyon is a 45-minute hike from Sitio Lamkua, Barangay Klubi. Facing south of the farm is the mountain of Te Tofuk, and facing east is Meli Botu. They get water for their farms from the spring Sboyun, named after the spirit/owner (fu) of the water that comes from the aquifers of Te Tofuk. It is believed, by the people interviewed, that this fu is fickle and is regularly appeased with demsu or offering. ‘Fickle’ because there are times when the springs become dry and the farmers have to look for another source of water, and also because of the belief that disrespecting fu sboyun will also cause illness to the farmers.

The soil within the forest areas is classified as undifferentiated mountain soil, which has no agricultural importance at present. Along the flat lands, the soil classification belongs to silty loam and sandy, which range from very good land to moderately good land for cultivation.[6]  Soil in the rice and corn farm is dry while the abaca farms are moist, dark humus shaded by tall trees. The T’boli also believe that the soil is owned by fu tonok (lit. owner of the earth). This general belief in the fu may point to the local people’s cognition that resources are not theirs to exploit but as something borrowed from the ‘owners’ hence the rituals of asking for permission to use those resources.

Land ownership is considered communal. The watershed, forests, river systems, farm and pasture lands are considered communal properties and therefore their use and conservation are the responsibility of the whole community. Lake Sebu is an ancestral domain with a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC) Nos. 003 and 004 facilitated through the Lake Sebu Ancestral Domain Claim Association (LASADCA). The 2 CADCS (CADC 003 for the Ubo tribes and CADC 004 for the T’boli tribes) have a total land area of 19,377 and 20,475 hectares respectively (Logong 2000). In the case of the Sulan family, their farms are in the ancestral domain claim and no title from the government has been issued to them. According to an interview, the farm lands were acquired through the uncle of the patriarch Eko Sulan. His own father was a hunter and had no hand for farming. It was Eko Sulan who first cultivated the land and then passed it on to his daughters and sons. Jelly Escarlote, a farmer who manages a farm in Datal Sboyun and Lamkadi talked about land ownership in an interview:

Yung sa amin, sa tatay ko mismo tapos namana niya na rin sa lolo namin… Ang pag-aari ng lupa ay depende sa sipag mo. Kung gaano ang sipag niya, yun na rin ang lupa na mapa-sakanya. At sa ngayon, dahil hindi pa ito napatituluhan, kasi ancestral domain, mabagal siguro ang pag-ano ng NCIP.  Kahit yung assessment nila, parang on the table pa lang. (6 May 2013, 2:33pm)

T’meba or slash-and-burn is done to clear forests in preparation for planting. This is usually done during the beginning of March. Before, they used to clear small patches of forests to plant rootcrops and transfer to other locations for the next planting cycle, but in contemporary time, they no longer practice this due mainly to decreasing availability of land and increasing number of families who owns land. Land ownership is through clearing and planting. If a person clears a forest and plants it, then that land would be his or hers. During the time of Eko Sulan’s father, they would move on to another land after harvesting and let the soil rest. T’meba is done in another area where they would plant again. But this time, they are using the same plot of land and never let it rest for the entire year. Eko Sulan said that because of this they have lesser and lesser harvest each year.

Farmers are both men and women, and starting from a very young age, children are exposed to the farm life. Traditionally, farming is the exclusive domain of the men, but in contemporary time, women are now helping and even owning their farms as in the case of Jelly Escarlote and Jenita Eko. In the case of Jenita Eko, she is the 2nd child from the 1st wife of Eko Sulan. According to her, because of her father’s frustrations of not having a son, she was brought up like one by her father and so was exposed to hunting, farming and other men’s activities, most interesting is her involvement in conflict mediation. Her father and is one of the mediators in the tribe or tau mugut kokum.  Bo-i Diwa (a celebrated tau mugut kokum) is the aunt of her mother.

Jelly Escarlote is a farmer and member of Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI). She is also a pastor of the Alliance Church in Klubi. In an interview, she was introduced to farming through her father who would bring her to their farm in Lamkadi and taught her through hands-on experience.

Bata pa ako, sumama na ako sa papa ko lalo na sa pagtatanim ng palay. Mga ano siguro ako, Grade 4, nagoobserve na ako kung paano magtanim ng palay at paano rin magtrabaho sa palayan. (6 May 2013)

The T’boli S’bu were described in ethnographies as hunting-gathering societies, with swidden farms, and not until recently did they plant rice, corn and other agricultural products. Several interviews suggest that the great grandfathers of the current generation (i.e. Jenita Eko and Eunice Sulan’s) are still exclusively planting rootcrops and hunting for their food. The generation of Eko Sulan may be the first farmers of rice and corn in the area.

Planting may be considered organic, although there are already instances when they have to use insecticides. Jelly reasoned that when adjacent farms use insecticides, pests would transfer to their own farm giving them no choice but to also use insecticides. As much as possible, Jelly shared, they never use synthetic insecticides. Traditional organic means of killing insects include placing fak binuten (frog with warts, i.e. Hawaiian frog) in the farms to eat the insects, and wong (spiders) are also left to make their webs in the farm to eat insects.

Another method is to create boundaries of bamboo forests in between corn/rice and the abaca farms. The bamboos serve as natural screens for flying insects that might bring diseases from the corn to the abaca or vice versa. Madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium) bark is also used as insecticide by soaking it for 3 days then mixing with chili pepper (capsicum frutescens) and detergent powder. This is then sprayed to the corns to kill the worms that eat the corn stalks. In an interview with Eko Sulan, he said that there were no rat infestations before because they used to eat the field mice by setting different traps in the farm. He shared that when migrants increasingly brought in their different varieties of corn and rice, the diseases and pests have also increased

Melem éhék is a ritual done to call for rain. A sharpening stone is placed in the river and is said to call for rain within a few days. The symbolization, according to Jelly Escarlote, is that a sharpening stone always feels cool and it becomes wet when being used. The coolness and the wetness symbolize rain. The person making this ritual must bathe several times every day until the rain comes. Jelly shared that when she went to a place in CARAGA, Mindanao, there was also a similar ritual done by the family who housed them. A sharpening stone was placed in the river and then placed at the edge of the roof.

Several plants are planted in the gardens of the Sulan compound. This include: taro, garlic, malabar spinach (alugbati, Basella alba), Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa), cabbage (Brassica oleracea), cassava, eggplant, okra and sweet potato. While crops planted in the Datal Sboyun farm are: corn (sweet corn variety, Zea mays), upland rice (different varieties) and abaca.

The following are varieties of upland rice cultivated by the T’boli (Awed, et al 2004):

halay – unhusked rice, generic

halay awot – (a Visayan variety) short, round, white kernels, matures early

halay blabud – brown, semi-round, large kernels

halay blibóy – white, elongated kernels

halay blinow – smallest, white kernels

halay blogo – large kernels, nice for making puffed rice

halay fut – striped skinned, white kernels and heavy

halay hegna/hlóng – a variety of very fast growth

halay hulô gunù – red skinned, white kernels

halay kambing – brown skinned, whiskered, white kernels

halay kbahù – red skinned, small, white kernels

halay kmagi – red skinned, elongated, white kernels

halay kmamang – white skin and kernels, heads are scattered instead of in clusters

halay nadal – yellow skinned, white kernels

halay nongul – any kind of rice that is not glutinous

halay óngô – very small, white kernels

halay sendangan – large, yellow skinned with fuzz, brown kernels, very good for soup

halay sgandal – striped skinned, long, white kernels

halay swani – yellow, small, elongated skinned, white kernels

halay teng – large, elongated, black skinned, white kernels

halay tugom – very small, short, brown skinned, white kernels

hulut asam – black and white striped skin, red kernels, very small, glutinous

hulut balut – striped skinned, red kernels, glutinous kernels

hulut dlong – brown, large variety, red, glutinous

hulut koti – dark skinned, black, glutinous kernels

hulut wak – glutinous, dark purple skin and kernels

Animals domesticated by the T’boli in Klubi: dogs, cats, carabaos, cows, chickens, horses, ducks, goats and turkeys.

The following are the harvesting and planting implements of the T’boli in Klubi:

Alab/galab ­– sickle

Asay – hatchet

Badung – bolo with a curved, wide blade

Bakbak – hammer

Bangkung – work bolo

Beyung – long-handled axe

Blis – sharpened piece of bamboo used for harvesting corn

Dadu – plow

Dulis – scraper or knife used to scrape the burned hair off a pig or deer hide

Dwél – prybar

Egel – sharpened stick used for making holes in the ground when planting corn

Ehek – dibble stick, a pointed stick used to dig holes for planting rice

Ehek tefak – dibble-stick with a noise maker on the top so that it makes a clapping sound as the holes are made

Éhék –  sharpening stone

Fala – shovel

Fat dangaw – four-handspan long bolo used in bartering at weddings.

Fiku – pickaxe

Gbut – long work bolo, but accidentally broken off, with about one-fourth left at the base

Get – handsaw

Hokol – short wide-bladed bolo

Hotuk – hatchet or axe of the T’boli before World War II

Kadas – harrow used in field work

Kbahù – small all-purpose knife used by men

Kdang – type of work bolo

Kleng huhed – fancy knife (bolo/kris)

Klo – weeding tool

Klut – saw-toothed piece of rounded metal used for scraping and grating coconut out of the shell

Kongò – large bolo having a curved end

Lebaha – razor blade

Legadaw – sickle

Legadì – file

Lendasan – anvil

Lenggaman – rice harvesting knife

Limbas – iron file used to sharpen metal

Lumak – scabbard

Okol – digging stick

Sanggut – hoe with a pointed blade

Sokul – hoe

Sudeng – kris, a dagger with a serpentine blade used for trading between chiefs and worn by the bridegroom at weddings

Suk – bolo, generic

Tabas – bolo with a long curved blade

Tahù – blade of an abaca stripper

Tefek – largest work bolo

Teksì – tool (knife) used to strip abaca from the plant

Tiba – bolo used for cutting tall grass

Tók – bolo with a long blade

Tumba – large, thin, wide sharp bolo

The T’boli in Klubi uses the the phases of the moon, positions of stars and directions of sunrise, sunset, mooonrise and moonset to guide them in planting and harvesting.

Awed, et al described the phases of the moon in relation to rice planting:

This is specifically for the months of March sélél  and April, tdanan hotuk, the months for rice planting.

nengel ohu – it’s in the ground, can’t be seen. New Moon.

uluk lanab – it appears just above the ocean as large as a wild pig’s tusk. New Moon.

sebwól tikung – it is one handspanc above the ocean, red in appearance.

lulón klembew – it appears over the tops of the mountains.

nù lem léhéken – it appears halfways between earth and sky. Crescent. (Poor harvest if planted at this phase.)

slafin – it appears at the highest point of the sky. First Quarter. (Excellent harvest if planted at this phase, when the moon and blotik ehek ‘star for planting’ are in direct line, one above the other).

deng semfóyón – it has just passed the sky’s highest point.

stileng – it is halfway down the sky (by daylight reckoning), beginning to be large. Gibbous. (Poor harvest if planted at this phase, because the moon and the blotik ehek have passed each other).

mangu ­– becoming larger. (Not good to plant at this phase).

saif – Usually the best time for planting. Last Quarter.

tngel – Full moon.

kbit – still very large.

sotu knifuhen – ‘first night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up.

lewu knifuhen – ‘second night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up.

tlu knifuhen – ‘third night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up.

limu knifuhen – ‘fifth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as kifu lóbô ‘night of the wild things’ as animals, snakes. (Good harvest only if the owners themselves do the planting).

nem knifuhen – ‘sixth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as kifu likò ‘night of being afraid’ (because the darkness is so intense). [According to Jenita Eko, it is the ‘night of being afraid’ because the T’boli believe that many bad things happen during this night, most especially ‘robbery resulting to homicide’ committed by the Ubo tribe.

hitu knifuhen – ‘seventh night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as tanay ketfesen or tfes udì. (Good harvest if planted at this phase).

wolu knifuhen – ‘eight night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as tfes sumy or tfes bong. (Good harvest is planted at this phase).

syóm knifuhen – ‘ninth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as yewen bong; half of the moon is seen. Third/Last Quarter.

sfolò knifuhen - tenth night with a (time of) darkness’ before moon comes up, known as yewen udì; only a small part of moon is seen. Crescent.

sudù kdaw – Moon is no longer seen it sets the same time the sun comes up. New Moon.

limu butengen mbut bulón glimun ­ - ‘five nights until the fifth month starts (i.e. May 1, the last chance to plant rice).

sélél – month of March

stileng – month of July

tdanan hotuk bulón – the dry season, usually from the last week of February through March, after the field has been cleared while waiting for it to be dry enough to be burned (lit. time of resting).

In an interview with Eko Sulan, he shared that they should only plant banana when it’s a full moon and when the moon rises from the east. Rice and corn are planted during the full moons of March and April. Eko Sulan explained that when the moon rises from the ‘sea’ (this was explained as a metaphor for sea of mountains surrounding Klubi) or geographic west, accompanied by the star blotik éhék while it rises, is the proper time to plant rice and corn because the earth will be dry (hence no worms) and maya birds will not eat the corn and rice.

The star blotik éhék literally means the ‘star of the sharpening stone’. It is a celestial marker for T’boli agriculture not unlike the star Sirius in ancient Egyptian agriculture that marks the annual flooding of the Nile River. Éhék is the stone used to sharpen knives, tok or sudeng and other implements. Whetstones or water stones are hard rocks, and according to Eko Sulan, are also very hard to find. This star’s name, marking the agricultural planting season, may also be interpreted as preparing the farming tools for the coming planting season. When this star rises together with the moon, as if riding on the moon’s back, then that month is the lunar month for March-April.

Lake Sebu Municipality is a Type IV climate according to the standards and categories of the the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) which is characterized by “a more or less evenly distributed rainfall througout the year.” Climate data for a representative city, General Santos City[7], show that the lowest recorded precipitation in a year is during the months of March and April, 1.6 and 1.9 inches respectively. Annual average precipitation is 42.2 inches, with June having the highest average precipitation at 4.8 inches. This scientific data validates the practice of planting during the dry season to avert pests that multiply during the rainy season.

Another detail here: Eko Sulan added that the blotik éhék must not be flickering so much because this will also mean a bad harvest. Stellar scintillation is caused by “small-scale fluctuations in air density related to temperature gradients”[8]. This marker shared by Eko Sulan is part of the compendium of traditional knowledge on agriculture that, seen through the lenses of western, modern science, considers atmospheric conditions that are essential to a good harvest.

One of the striking observations during the interviews and fieldwork in Klubi was the increasing unreliability of these astronomical markers in the agricultural practices of the T’boli. Jelly Escarlote put it succinctly:

Noon, sinasabi nila, oh buwan ng Marso, buwan ng Abril, kahit hindi mo tingnan ang araw, kahit hindi mo tingnan kung saan siya magsikat o ano, basta yan na buwan, mabilang ng mga matatanda, yan ang buwan na maganda ang harvest, maganda ang lahat ng mga produkto, pero sa ngayon dahil sa pagbabago ng panahon, mahirapan na kami. Kasi hindi mo na ma-ano, hindi mo na mabibilang sa kalendaryo na ito pagmag-tanim ako ngayon, bilangin ko lang hanggang, isa, dalawa hanggang pitong araw, hindi pa yan tutubo ang mga damo, pero sa ngayon kahit ilang araw lang maya-maya uulan nanaman. So malaking epekto, nahihirapan kaming mag-timing sa pagtatanim ngayon. Kung minsan, ano na lang, sinusunod pa rin namin ang mga buwan na sinasabi ng mga matatanda na ganito, maganda ang pagtanim, pero ang problema, may deperensya talaga sa produkto tapos, sa tayo ng mga halaman. Kagaya nito (points to the corn field),  ito sinunod namin ang buwan ng pagtatanim ng mais dito, pero tingnan mo, kinain ng mga uod. Kaya kita mo doon sa baba, hindi nalinisan ng mabuti, kasi kung maulan doon lalabas yung uuod. Ulan tapos mainit nanaman, biglang uulan, biglang iinit. Yun lalabas yung mga uod. (6 May 2013, 2:33pm)

Erratic weather systems have been blamed by the informants for the confusions in the planting calendar. Although the stars, moon, sun and mountains are still there to tell them when to plant, the weather tells a different story. When the elders tell them that it is the right time to plant, as it is the dry season, it suddenly rains and brings with it pests that eats the newly planted corn stalks. In a Focus Group Discussion conducted on 30 March 2013 in Klubi, several of the elders answered that they will not change their planting calendar believing that the seasons will go back to normal. They shared the story of the long drought experience by the generation of Eko Sulan’s grandfather when there was no rain for months and all their crops failed. They said that eventually the rains came and the seasons ‘normalized’. This attitude may not be shared by all the farmers in Klubi, many of whom are no longer following the traditional methods of planting, but the elders are still thinking along these lines of ‘it will get better soon’.

One sees in these events the dilemma of following the old, static cultural system (illustrated here as the traditional knowledge in agriculture) in the face of a very dynamic natural system, but certainly any researcher must take into consideration the capabilities of a society to adapt and undertake “actions necessary to maintain the capacity to deal with future change or perturbations to a social-ecological system without undergoing significant changes in function, structural identity, or feedbacks of that system while maintaining the option to develop” (Nelson, Adger, and Brown 2007). Indeed, ethnographies of many different indigenous groups reveal their resilience in the face of adversities, human or environmental. But here, one is reminded of the synergy of a resilient ecosystem reinforcing the resilience of the social system (and vice versa). Indigenous place-based resilience requires understanding the traditions and sustained relationships with the land. Relationships are embedded in the land. This becomes tied to the personal identity, spiritual development of people, and their overall relationships with others. Can maintenance of community relationships be part of indigenous resilience? How can this be realized when place-based traditions are already being compromised by climatic perturbations? How can this relationship to the land be guaranteed when most are already leaving the mountains for the cities? Can the T’boli of Klubi be resilient to anthropogenic climate change, compounded by other “existing challenges, including political and economic marginalization, land and resource encroachments, human rights violations and discrimination?

The now unreliable blotik éhék may have a stark future as just another star against the millions twinkling in the night sky of the month of sélél. No one knows for sure, if the blotik riding the moon of a cloudless night, will still call the T’boli to prepare the okol, fiku or the tok, the sharpening stone eager in a dark corner.

References:

Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance. Watershed Resources Management in the Allah Valley Landscape. Koronadal City, Issue Poster no. 2 series of 2007.

Awed S., Underwood L., and Van Wynen V. 2004. T’boli-English Dictionary. Manila: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Crate, S. Gone the Bull of Winter? Contemplating Climate Change’s Cultural Implications in Northeastern Siberia, Russia, In Anthropology and Climate Change, eds. Crate, S., and Nuttal, M. California: Left Coast Press.  2009.

Logong D. L. 2000. Experiences and Challenges of the Indigenour People in Co-managing Forest Resources: The Lake Sebu Ancestral Domain Community Association, In Decentralization and Devolution of Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific, eds. Enters, T., Durst, P. B., and M. Victor. RECOFTC Report N. 18 and RAP Publication 2000/1. Bangkok, Thailand.

Nazarea, V. The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture and Sustainable Living, eds. Haenn, N. and Wilk, R. New York: New York University Press. 2005.

Nelson, D. R., W. N. Adger, and K. Brown. 2007. Adaptation to environmental change: Contributions of a resilience framework. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 32 (11): 113.

Office of the Municipal Planning and Development Coordinator of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. Lake Sebu Socioeconomic Profile 2010.

Simova, B., Robertson, T., and Beasley, D. 2012. Cognitive Anthropology, http://anthropology.ua.edu, retrieved August 30, 2012.

Strauss, S. Global Models, Local Risks: Responding to Climate Change in the Swiss Alps, In Anthropology and Climate Change, eds. Crate, S., and Nuttal, M. California: Left Coast Press.  2009.

Weatherbase. General Santos, Philippines. http://www.weatherbase.com/weather/weather.php3?s=15889&cityname=General -Santos-Philippines.com, retrieved on 27 May 2013.

Wikipedia. Lake Sebu. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Sebu, retrieved August 24, 2012.

Wikipedia. Scintillation. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scintillation_(astronomy), retrieved on 27 May 2013.


[1] See Gone the Bull of Winter? Contemplating Climate Change’s Cultural Implications in Northeastern Siberia, Russia.

[2] See Global Models, Local Risks: Responding to Climate Change in the Swiss Alps.

[3] Interview with Municipal Planning and Development Coordinator dated May 2, 2013.

[4] Bobby Simova, Tara Robertson and Duke Beasley, Cognitive Anthropology, http://anthropology.ua.edu, retrieved August 30, 2012.

[5] Silin Awed et. al, “T’boli-English Dictionary” as validated by Jelly Escarlote in an interview dated May 5, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.weatherbase.com/weather/weather.php3?s=15889&cityname=General -Santos-Philippines, retrieved on 27 May 2013.

[8] Scintillation. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scintillation_(astronomy), retrieved on 27 May 2013.

K’mohung and Seselong: Cultural Adaptation of the T’boli S’bu to the Fish Kill Phenomenon in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

It is worthwhile to note, even in a partial ethnography, that in the highland lake complex of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato,  Southern Philippines, the T’boli people integrated into their culture a special system of adaptation to the fish kill phenomenon that naturally occurs in the lake. “Naturally”, of course, is taken in the etic point of view, denoting information culled out from external and varying reports of “rising temperature”[1] and “oxygen depletion”[2] in the lake that kills fish and other freshwater organisms like shrimps.  “Naturally” also emphasizes on the fact that the fish kills in Lake Sebu are not recent phenomena and, until recently, human-induced, brought externally by the proliferation of tilapia aquaculture, but a culturally-embedded, and so antiquated, phenomenon evidenced by the presence of the word for this “annual”[3] occurrence in their vocabulary: K’mohung.

This paper is an attempt to explore the cultural adaptations of the T’boli people surrounding Lake Sebu to k’mohung using the anthropological lens of Cultural Ecology.  It seeks to describe the k’mohung as explained to me in a focus group discussion (FGD) conducted on March 30, 2013 in Brgy. Klubi, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, and focusing on local understanding of the phenomenon and activities connected to k’mohung. This brief paper on Cultural Ecology uses the approaches of Julian Steward in studying the interaction between culture and environment. These approaches are: “(1) an explanation of culture in terms of the environment where it existed, rather than just a geographic association with economy; (2) the relationship between culture and environment as a process (not just a correlation); (3) a consideration of small-scale environment, rather than culture-area-sized regions; and (4) the connection of ecology and multi-linear cultural evolution.” [4] (Sutton and Anderson, 2010)

I first chanced upon the word k’mohung (other literature spells it as ‘kamahong’) from a conversation with Dr. Leah Vidal, chairperson of the Anthropology Department of the Ateneo de Davao University. She was discussing about the climate change studies of the Ateneo Institute of Anthropology in collaboration with the other institutes of the university when she mentioned about the presence of the word k’mohung among the T’boli surrounding Lake Sebu. This indicated, among other things, that the occurrence of the fish kills has been deeply embedded in the lives of the T’boli that they have to conceive a signifier, a word for the signified, that is, the fish kills.  This greatly interested me because before that conversation I thought the fish kills were a recent “disaster” to the fishermen and fish pen owners of Lake Sebu. My recent FGD in Lake Sebu verified my assumptions that even before tilapia aquaculture in the lake, fish kills are regular occurrences and that they can even predict when it would happen.

Hydrogeology of Lake Sebu

Before going to a discussion on the k’mohung, a short introduction to the geography of the area. Lake Sebu (6° 10.45’ N and 124° 43.95’ E) lies about 700 m above sea level and is located in the mountainous Municipality of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato (Socio-economic profile 1995). The Lake Sebu Watershed Forest Reserve is a protected landscape under Proclamation no. 65 signed on August 4 1966, covering a total of 9,900 hectares. Lake Sebu (S’bu is the T’boli word for lake) is a natural lake in the municipality of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato and within the Allah Valley Watershed Landscape region.[5] The lake itself and the rivers that drain from it is part of the Allah Valley Watershed which covers South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The Allah Valley Watershed is the southernmost tributary of the Pulangi River that drains in Illana Bay in Cotabato City.[6]

The total delineated area of the Allah Valley Watershed is 252,034 has. that extends to the Province of Maguindanao. Surface waters that are drained along the Allah and Banga rivers subsequently find their way into the Liguasan marsh, the second largest in the country. The Allah Valley Watershed is a major sub-watershed unit of the Cotabato-Agusan river basin in Mindanao. It covers the jurisdictions of the Province of South Cotabato (Municipalities of Lake Sebu, T’boli, Surallah, and Sto. Nino, Banga, Norala) and the Province of Sultan Kudarat (City of Tacurong and Municipalities of Isulan, Esperanza, Lambayong and Bagumbayan).[7]

More than 700,000 people depend on the land and water resources of the Allah Valley Watershed. The river valley and mid-stream section of the watershed support agricultural production for rice, corn, banana, pineapple and oil palm. The National Irrigation Administration (NIA) is tapping about 1.5 billion cubic meters surface water to supply the water requirements of 27,000 hectares of irrigated rice fields. Although the forest land cover of the Allah Valley Watershed is decreasing, the peak of the Daguma mountain range on the western side of the watershed still contains fragments of primary forest that is a vital component of any watershed. This constitutes part of the remaining closed canopy tropical forest in Southern Mindanao. As per DENR-12 reports, about 97 floral species and 59 faunal species including the famous Philippine Eagle and tarsier are found in the mountain ranges. The Allah Valley Watershed has also rich mineral deposits such as gold, copper, and silver. It includes the three lakes and seven falls of Lake Sebu and Lake Holon (Maughan) of T’boli.[8]

The 3 lakes of Sebu, Seloton and Lahit are fed by underground springs in the mountain ranges of Daguma and surrounding mountains that made up mostly of porous sedimentary rocks that store and catch rainwater. Water from the lakes then cascades down the 7 waterfalls namely: Hikong Alu (passage), Hikong Bente (immeasurable), Hikong B’lebel (zigzag), Hikong Lowig (booth), Hikong K’fo-i (wild flower), Hikong Ukok (short), and Hikong Tonok (soil). The water then travels down the Allah River that combines with the Banga River finally joining the bigger Pulangi river and Liguasan Marsh to drain in Illana Bay.

The current use of the lake is fishing and recreation (such as boating). It is also identified as a prime habitat and spawning ground areas for various species of fish. There are no manufacturing plants around the lake but it is the receiver of all fertilizers and pesticide run-offs from the different plantations around Lake Sebu. The presence of uncontrolled installation of fish pens, application of feeds and communities dwelling along the lake, generally affect the physical and chemical condition of the lake.

The first tilapia introduced in the lake was Mozambique tilapia Oreochromis mossambicus brought by Mr. Cesar Freyra in 1956[9]. A few years after its introduction, the tilapia grew in number. In 1972, a fish pen project was initiated by Dr. Jose Velasquez from Manila. Many Ilonggo immigrants followed him. Almost in the same year, farming of tilapia in fish cages was introduced by Mr. Freyra. Nile tilapia O. niloticus, a better species, was introduced in the mid 70’s. (Beniga 2001)

The Nile tilapia was cultured for 4 months without supplemental feeding and harvested when they reached 300-500 g each. The tilapia industry grew fast and is considered today as the backbone of the economy and the major propeller of Lake Sebu’s development. The industry contributes more than 50% of the annual municipal income and employs 10% of its total labor force (Beniga quoting Loco 1994).

The local government of the municipality of Lake Sebu has adopted several measures to protect and conserve its water resources. Reforestation is implemented as part of watershed management. Municipal ordinance No. 01, S. 1994 sets guidelines for the establishment of fish cages in the lake. This ordinance requires a 20-m wide passageway along the lake shore for any type of water vehicle. Construction of cages in this area is prohibited. Beyond the 20-m passageway, a 100-m wide belt offshore is allowed for fish cages. Lastly, 10 m is apportioned for the construction of secondary fence. A 2-m wide passageway is required between farms. The remaining central part of the lake is a free fishing zone. (Beniga 2001)

The Seven Waterfalls have been developed as an eco-tourism attraction by the Province of South Cotabato. Resorts, ziplines and other tourist attractions are now a common sight in the so-called “Baguio of the Southern Philippines”.

 

K’mohung and Seselong

The latest massive fish kill on the first week of August, 2012, downed 8,000 kilograms[10] of tilapia in a single week. This was considered a “disaster” to the local fish pen owners, the Local Government Units, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, even media reports paint a grim event in the fishery industry of the municipality, a view solely founded on its economic value. But local T’boli I interviewed see it otherwise. One narrative suggests that it is a curse. In this story, a T’boli cursed the Ilonggo fishermen, saying that the T’boli are the guardians of the Lake and that their fishes will die, unless they give the fish to the T’boli. Indeed, according to an informant, whenever there is a fish kill, the fish pond owners will give the dead fish to the T’boli or sell them at a much lower price.

Another perspective views it as a gift from Fun S’bu, owner/spirit of the lake. My informant described a time before the Ilonggo settlers put up their fish pens and when the lake was still covered by water lilies and lotus plants. She shared that whenever there is a k’mohung ,people would see fish and shrimps floating in the surface, but not quite dead, “as if they were dizzy”. They can easily “pick these fish and shrimps with their bare hands,” she said. Indeed, outside Western, Modern Science, one will view this as a gift from the lake, almost congruent to the biblical “manna from heaven”. Imagine, after a hard day’s work of fishing, farming and hunting, one sees fish almost beckoning to be picked up. This idea of a gift clearly opposes that notion of a “disaster” and in fact, it only became widely-known as a “disaster” when the Ilonggos came and put up their fishery industry in the lake. The disaster-gift dichotomy clearly delineates not only economic valuations of the lake, but also belief or supernatural categorizations of the natural world.

The story of the T’boli cursing the owners of the fishponds may not be on the level of mythology but surely forms part of the compendium on narratives regarding Lake Sebu. It is the absolute pronouncement that the T’boli are the guardians and protectors of the lake. It shows that to them, the lake is not merely a source of economy but also a part of their political and cultural identity. It is inherited from their ancestors and it is their responsibility to take care of and to maintain; should they not take care of the lake their ancestors may get angry and bad luck may come. It is more than a pronouncement of collective ownership; it is also a declaration of stewardship.

The FGD in Brgy. Klubi described the k’mohung in this way: after a leme-et, a type of weather defined by occasional strong rains and wind coming from the north, and then suddenly clearing (my informant likened the leme-et to an impending typhoon), T’boli in the uplands would then gather their rootcrops and other produce from their gardens to prepare for a seselong, a system of barter trading between the upland-living T’boli and the lake-side dwelling T’boli. During the leme-et, people surrounding the lake would also prepare for the seselong  by observing the lake for the telltale signs of the k’mohung. My informants shared that there are no celebrations or rituals conducted during the seselong, something that I didn’t foresee especially in the case of an event that may be deemed supernatural or an event that gathers people from the upland and lakeside. The seselong becomes an opportunity for the lakeside dwellers to trade their gathered fish in exchange for the rootcrops of the upland T’boli.

This pattern in the activities and interaction of the upland and lakeside T’boli, provided by the seselong, may be viewed as a distribution of resources and exchanges of protein and carbohydrates-rich food between the two groups of T’boli. This intertwining of the natural world and the cultural aspect of the T’boli seselong may be viewed as one of the solutions to what I assume is an imbalance in the protein and carbohydrate diet of the two groups. In the old days when the T’boli were still exclusively hunters and gatherers, this system of exchange provides an easy source of protein for the upland T’boli whose main protein source are the animals that they hunt in the forest, in exchange for their carbohydrates-rich rootcrops. In turn, the lakeside T’boli whose diet consists mainly of protein from the fish caught in the lake, exchange their fish for the upland T’boli’s rootcrops.

Traditional rootcrops[11] of the T’boli include: biking (wild root plant which is much like sweet potato), bok (wild yam), kleb (taro), klut (wild root plant that is extremely poisonous but can be eaten if prepared right), legasing (peanuts), lembong (wild tuber plant), likón (wild, edible tuber plant), tlahid (a kind of taro), ubi (sweet potato), ubi koyu (cassava, manioc). Freshwater fish and other organisms found in Lake Sebu include[12]: alù (mudfish), betulù (a kind of small round fish), blanak (a kind of large, reddish, scaly fish that appears at the time of harvesting the early rich), blinow (tiny fish), bonol (a kind of fish , brown, white-bellied, scaly, very tasty but spoils easily), ilaw (a kind of white-speckled fish with pointed nose and mouth), kéténg (any of various edible, bivalve mollusks as clams and oysters and their shells), kili (eel), kléngé (crab), kulóng (large shrimp), óngô (kind of fresh water fish that is small and somewhat round, resembling the mudfish but is about the size of one’s index finger) and tikung (small shrimp). 

These rootcrops and fish listed in the dictionary of Awed et. al., may well be the products exchanged during a seselong. In the absence of any ethnographic data dating to when seselong was still practiced before agriculture and aquaculture were introduced in Lake Sebu, one can only deduced to what products were actually exchanged based on available linguistic information as compiled by Awed et. al. The dictionary (the only extensive dictionary of the T’boli language) itself proves to be problematic in studying the language of Lake Sebu T’boli, for it does not include the k’mohung and seselong. This may be explained by the fact that the dictionary was compiled by missionaries residing in the municipality of T’boli, and hence miles from the T’boli groups experiencing the k’mohung. In this light then, we can cautiously surmise that the seselong is exclusive to the T’boli surrounding the lake.

I have described seselong functioning as a cultural device for the exchange of food all within the event of a k’mohung, and this corresponds to Steward’s recognition that the ecology of humans have both distinct biological and cultural aspects. Societies could adapt, as demonstrated by how the T’boli S’bu adapted to the k’mohung and the protein-carbohydrate disparity between upland and lakeside groups,  in any number of possible directions, rather than being subject to environmental determinism. In fact, the seselong may also viewed under the lenses of the rational choice theory in which people decide how to achieve their goals on the basis of their “deliberate, individual consideration of all available information”[13] such that this cultural practice of exchange was adopted because it seemed, at one time, the most rational thing to do under the existing circumstance of the k’mohung.

Steward suggested that “all adaptations are short lived and are constantly adjusting to changing environments.”[14] This is indeed the case of the seselong in Lake Sebu and although the k’mohung persists in the natural environment of the T’boli S’bu, the practice now belongs only to the dark corners of memory. With the changes in the uses of Lake Sebu, the cultural practice of seselong may have been transmuted to other forms and expressions.

Here the story of the man cursing the fish pen owners becomes a lucid expression of the indigenous people’s call for the reclamation of old ways and still older gods.


[1] Williamor Magbanua and Jeoffrey Maitem, “Massive fishkill in Lake Sebu leads to decline in fish sales”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 31, 2011.

[2] Allen V. Estabillo, “Fish kill hits Lake Sebu anew; officials push for regulations”, Mindanews, August 9, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson, “Introduction to Cultural Ecology”, (Altamira Press: UK), p. 22.

[6] Allah Valley Landscape Development Alliance, “Watershed Resources Management in the Allah Valley Landscape”, Koronadal City, Issue Poster no. 2 series of 2007.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Zosipat M. Beniga, “The Status of Tilapia Aquaculture in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato” in CB Santiago, ML Cuvin-Aralar and ZU Basiao (Eds.), Conservation and Ecological Management of Philippine Lakes in Relation to Fisheries and Aquaculture, pp. 95-98.

[10] Estabillo, Ibid.

[11] Silin A. Awed, Lillian B. Underwood and Vivian M. Van Wynen, “T’boli-English Dictionary”, (Summer Institute of Linguistics: Manila, 2004) p. 618.

[12] Ibid., p. 627.

[13] Sutton, p. 25.

[14] Ibid., p. 22.

In T’boli Land, at World’s End

I never completely imagined myself doing some field work in the hinterlands where the nearest restroom is the most un-glamorous bush, or the only use of the cellphone is anything other than communicating, where comfort means a patched-up mosquito net or an extra pillow made from who-knows-what. The city has always been my jungle, and its sights, smells, sounds and textures have been the limits of my comfort and discomfort. My only inkling of what life was there in the wild mountains lay in the impressions of media that glossed over some lost treasure of Zinj a la Crichton’s Congo, stories from fieldworkers too who spoke of their Indiana Jones adventures, or maybe from books  with their colored descriptions of magical rituals that called the rain from its sleep and people wearing dead animals over their shoulders. I was young then (or maybe still young now) and childhood’s egoism backed up my notion that I define the world as I sensed it.

All’s well that ends well. I suppose that maxim holds truth, but in my case my beginning may also be appropriate, at least as I see it now. What better way to begin than with apprehensions and doubts, right? Those queasy moments between the red light and the green. In truth, I found the same spirit of adventure out of the insipid comings and goings in the city and the ‘comforts’ accorded/afforded to its citizens. Yes, the hinterlands await, but a little boy inside me was still caught between the red and the green light, shuddering, wait!

Now that I’m in the second semester of my Anthropology class, more or less having heard and having finally been exposed to a different version of anthropologists’ experiences from the field (worlds away from my initial notion of it), I found a new courage to face the uncomfortable: to maybe learn how to take a leak (or more) in the nearest bush or find the right angle of the rigid pillow, to ignore that whining little boy in my head. I thought, if those geriatric westerners, with their delicate sensibilities in much hostile tribes did it, I can certainly do it also. I imagined them in their winter-ready melanin traversing the Sahara in search of the Tuareg and the Nuer, or imagined Geertz, with his obviously foreign head sticking out of a Balinese crowd, and all of a sudden living for months with a Filipino indigenous group did not sound hard after at all. That became my motivation.

While thinking of a research proposal for my thesis, Bikol was always on my mind – to continue with my interest in the Bikolano people’s way of life, to unravel their hidden connections with other cultures, and to demystify their weltanschauung which I perceived was firmly grounded on deep-seated faith and belief. But working fulltime in Davao and doing my research in Bikol didn’t seem to be the brightest idea in the solar system. So I was caught between personal interest and rationality. I had to find another group of people that  I can certainly relate to, and make the whole process easier for reasons that I am indeed, fully interested in studying them.

The answer came as a surprise, when during my first month in Mindanao, I was introduced to Jenita Eko, a partner of Ateneo de Davao’s Campus Ministry at that time. Jenita Eko is the President of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI) herself a T’boli from Brgy. Klubi in Lake Sebu. On several occasions during my first few months here in Davao, I had a chance to talk to her about her organization – until she invited me to visit Lake Sebu on purely recreational purposes and on that first visit, there and then I felt that the T’boli of Lake Sebu could be a good research subject.

I remember the first time I saw the documentary film “Dreamweavers” back in our Sociology class in college. It featured the T’boli tribe of Lake Sebu in Southern Mindanao and how they weave their cloths inspired by spirits in their dreams. I was amazed watching that film, fascinated at how these people give value to their traditions and at how pre-Catholic animism surfaces in all their arts and crafts even if they have been baptized Christians by early Mindanao missionaries. The T’nalak cloth of the T’boli already captivated me when I first saw that film. It was for me a romantic remembering of our past before the cross gave us a new persona. I thought to myself that maybe this people, with their own arts, worldview, rituals and traditions, hold the answer to that elusive mystery of the Filipino identity. And I longed for that answer.

The T’boli it is then.

I have been fortunate in my work to be able to travel to areas in Mindanao. It wasn’t just a dream-come-true for me but a real chance to see these “original” inhabitants. I would consider it then that fate brought me to Mindanao and to Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. At last, I will be in that lake surrounded by clouds and forests, where people tell the stories of creation in songs and in their weavings.

But then my first visit to Lake Sebu almost brought me to tears. Lake Sebu is no longer the mysterious and charmed place I’ve imagined from that “Dreamweavers” documentary. Fish pens of tilapia crowd the lake and surrounding mountains are almost denuded. A number of resorts have also dotted the lakeside. And yet, there’s still a barely perceptible charm, almost like the humming of a mother’s lullaby.  It is certainly there in the sweeping breeze that tickles the lake’s surface. The sun still bathes the lake with a golden warmth each morning. The mist still covers the mountains and for a moment, houses and resorts are obscured, the lake exhales ancient songs. It was certainly not my imagined Lake Sebu but already a place where the modern world and its many wonders and appeals have slowly crept to the homes of the T’boli people. I have come to a Lake Sebu where people have already embraced the modern tides – with its television shows, capitalist attitudes and current flairs.  I have to ask: did they have a choice or were they pushed in a corner with nowhere to run but to modernity and its lifestyle?

My second visit to Lake Sebu, sometime on the last quarter of 2011, was the more formal moment that I had a chance to talk to Jenita Eko on my plans for research. Initially, I wanted to write about the t’nalak enterprise among their association, in line with discourses on women empowerment. I wanted to be more formal, and so I gave her a copy of my proposal. She shared that she was genuinely interested about this partnership as she was also working on a ‘source book’ on t’nalak weaving. She gave me a copy of the source book and asked me if I can help her edit the book, and of course I said yes, it would be my honor to help her. But to cut the long story short, I had to change my intended research topic to one that fits the ‘environmental agenda’ of the department (yes, there are so many ways on how to kill a plan) and I opted to do a study on climate change and the T’boli.

On that visit, Jenita Eko introduced me to some members of the women weavers association. They told me all about the beginnings and the nature/goals of LASIWWAI, and the more I knew about them, the more my interest in partnering with them grew.

A brief background on LASIWWAI: The Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association. Inc. ( LASIWWAI ) is a non-profit community-based organization that envisions T’nalak enterprise to grow, be appreciated and be endorsed in the market through social entreprenuership. They promote t’nalak weaving not only as a source of livelihood for indigenous women but also as an integral part of the T’boli’s rich culture and tradition. The organization, aside from being entrepreneurial, seeks to address the unequal opportunities given to T’boli women by empowering them economically, in planning for their organization and in decision-making. They shared that this was a breakthrough as T’boli society is still patriarchal and ‘feudal’, a term often used in my conversations with Jenita. This may pertain to how T’boli give high regard to the class system of Datu (ruling class), Tau Sool (middles class) and Tau Dok (slaves).

Of course, I still believe that the t’nalak research would have been a perfect study with LASIWWAI but I had to find an alternative that considers the thrusts of AdDU’s Department of Anthropology. And there I was looking piteously at the once-majestic lake of Sebu, and I thought  “why not write about the Waters of Sebu?”, investigate the effects of climate change not only on perceived changes in the weather patterns but also on the cognitive aspect, on how the T’boli re/cognizes, and eventually translate climate change in their behaviour. The lake-dwelling people, mostly living on agricultural means, can share their experiences of climate change, and I can dig deeper, interpret their modes of cognition through myths.

So finally I had a ‘problem’ I can work on. I had another chance to visit Lake Sebu, this time with a group of German visitors from Bavaria. During that visit, I laid out my plan to Jenita. I told her I wanted to do a research on climate change and the T’boli, specifically of Brgy. Klubi in Lake Sebu, and I was mildly surprised to find her genuinely interested in my proposition. She said that I can do the climate change research in her barangay and also get a glimpse on how t’nalak is made by their women weavers – two birds with one stone.

This visit also offered me a chance to talk to their elders in the gono bong (long house, literally big house). It was my first time to be in a circle of elders, barefoot, surrounded by men and women in their traditional attire (most probably because I was with German guests at that time), with the whole gono bong pulsating rhythmically in the beat of the agung. The elders shared that there were only 3 ‘master artists’ living and teaching in the School of Living Tradition and that this school is right below us in the gono bong, hardened clay floor with little educational materials. One of the master artists was a skilled dancer and chanter and he  showed us the kadal tahaw or dance of the bird. The whole house shook with the graceful movements of his feet, mimicking the fast leg and wing gestures of the tahaw bird, with others joining him in the dance. The other elders explained that he was one of the few dancers who teach the traditional dances in the fashion that was passed down to them. They also shared that the only living mewa nga (healer) in their area was already on her deathbed and was not able to pass down her knowledge of herbs and healing to others. I thought that this was sad, frustrating and disappointing to not be able to document her knowledge and to think that all of it, generations of traditional wisdom, will be down the drain. This became a motivation for me – to be able to help, even in my littlest capacity – a dying, or actually, an evolving culture, by documenting as much as possible, this changing way of life.

On April 17, 2012 I was invited to document an international conference on Ikat Weaving.  Ikat is a method of weaving where strands are tied before they are dyed giving them their distinct patterns. One of the most highly regarded ikat fabrics in the southeast Asian region is the t’nalak of the T’bolis – hence the conference was held in Lake Sebu and I was again at its shore longing for imagined worlds and occasionally craving for its delicious tilapia.

In this conference I met Kevin, a graduate of the Ateneo de Davao University and a T’boli of Lake Sebu. He was very patient with my questions about his being a T’boli, their struggles and his dreams not only for himself but also for his people. He also shared with me the same story of this bygone Lake Sebu, when there were no fences yet in the lake and anyone can fish or swim in its water.

Thinking about the stories of old-world beauty and magic, it was very timely when he taught me a traditional song (we were all told to give a short presentation during the cultural night of the conference and Kevin chose this song). He said that it was usually sung during weddings and celebrations, and is about an edenic paradise that may be a fitting reference to Lake Sebu but also an allusion to all paradises lost to the inanity of mankind. The T’bolis call this paradise Lemlunay, and the song goes:

Lemlunay gono setifun ne Lemlunay gono sesotu.

Lemlunay gono kemulo ne Lemlunay gono setambul

e se waten uni sembakung e Lemlunay tey lemobun.

Kevin helped me do a rough translation and we came up with this: Lemlunay is a place where the people are gathered and united and we are all beckoned by the sounds of festivities, the beating of gongs and drums welcome us to this paradise hidden in mists.

This archetypal paradise calls to mind our dreams of a perfect place where differences are set aside and we celebrate our oneness with creation. I asked if this is the T’boli heaven and Kevin answered no, it was a place comparable to the Biblical Eden yet there is no mention of a parting from this Eden, from Lemlunay, because of a sin or transgression. We can only assume that Lemlunay faded to dreams, to the world of mists. I thought that the modern world was surely no place for this Lemlunay.

I would like to believe that Lake Sebu was once Lemlunay and human folly has pushed it to the plane of the mythical, a world that can now only be accessed through songs but is still physically present in the slowly congesting lake of Sebu. In looking for my imagined Lake Sebu brought by that documentary I’ve watched in college, I was also searching for our identity as a people. If I have to be honest, I was looking for my self. Take away all the western, borrowed cultures from my system, what is left of me? Who am I in this sea of foreign cultures? Of modern gadgets and western language? Who are we as a people, tortured and brought to our knees by colonizers? We have become ‘modern,’ parting from our indigenous selves, embracing western, foreign cultures, but who is this indigenous self?

I don’t have the answers right now. Perhaps the journey is still unfolding before me, in my thesis and all the forks in the road that I may walk on. Maybe the answers are in Lemlunay, maybe in Lake Sebu – in their songs, music, in their t’nalak, or their stories.  But I have to constantly remind my self that in this search, I maybe searching for a lost past, a mere fuzzy dreamland of the imagination. What I would like to do is to better understand where we failed in our past in order to build a better future.  The hidden Lemlunay is but a metaphor of what we’ve lost but also of what lies before us.

If only we can part the mists shrouding our vision. Maybe we can find Lemlunay – the sound of gongs and drums welcoming us to our land, to our self, to our identity, to our future even.

Ye Kumu [T'boli T'nalak ]

Ye Kumu 6 Ye Kumu 23

This Ye Kumu, or ceremonial T’nalak cloth often used for weddings, was painstakingly crafted by weavers of the Lake Sebu Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI) in Brgy. Ned, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. [With permissions from Ms Jenita Eko, President of LASIWWAI].

To purchase t’nalak from LASIWWAI, please email me at radabueza@gmail.com for details.

Matung (Abortion), Moral Claims and the T’boli Woman Or More Questions Thereof

 

 

“The T’boli have no compunction performing matung or abortion. A woman resorts to abortion for various reasons, such as: her husband has abandoned her and refuses to give support; she has more children than can be fed adequately; her honor has been stained; she merely wants to be spared the difficulties of delivery. The woman goes to the tao matunga or abortionist who gives her concoctions. Failure of the latter usually results in drastic measures such as mutilation or walking around with heavy stones tied to the womb. The extreme abortion technique is suicide.”[1]

Our oftentimes “civilized” (or whatever we think of being “civil” is, i.e. Judeo-Christian, mainland/lowland/colonized Filipino) sensibilities become uneasy when subjected to concepts and ideas far from our own zone of comfortable familiars – a culture shock. One that lifts us by the collars and shakes the few cubic centimeters of our brain. When travelling in an unfamiliar country, for example, we are bombarded by languages, values, beliefs, gestures or fashion completely different and at times diametrically opposite ours. A nod may mean “no” when it means “yes” for us. But we let it by. Gradually we overcome the sense of culture shock, we start speaking their language, we don their fashion, and a nod eventually becomes a “no”. We gradually get to grasp societal norms, those prescribed behaviors that are considered “proper and fitting”, “appropriate” or “recommended” in given situations.

Yet this is not the case when we are confronted by alien and foreign mores. We do not easily conform to other people’s mores when faced with dilemmas of moral dimension – that is, norms that demand action in accordance with the ideal vision and goal of a society, judged as either “right or wrong”, “good or bad”,  and are “morally binding and obligatory”.  Moral norms, more specifically, ethico-religious norms, are not easily replaced, superseded nor transplanted as easily as societal norms. They stem from something much more adamant, indelible and deep-rooted as religion, ideology, worldview, dogma or revelation – all these, in one way or another, are elements of culture.

The study of ethics then is not in the sole domain of Philosophy.  Anthropology has much to offer in the study of the dynamics played by the elements of culture and in explaining  how a given society develops and maintains standards of morals and prescribed behaviors. There are many approaches that we can use to study this dynamics, but one approach that might be applicable (and also interesting) in the study of anthropology is to use feminist anthropology in the discourse of moral claims, relativism and gender. The most obvious reason is that this approach gives importance to the most basic difference in the human species, that of sex.

The marked delineation and interaction of the sexes in any society must be one of the fundamental bases or strands on any culture’s webs of significance. Many anthropologists have suggested and shared many different things that make up these webs of significance that shape culture – language, environment or energy conservation to name some. But the difference in sex and gender stratification, I believe must be fundamental, if not, central to how culture is and how cultures become.

We may even be right when we assume that the recognition of the differences in sex (male or female) develops in human babies first before we even recognize between right and wrong, or moral standards.  If the assumption is proved correct, then differences in sex and gender (i.e. roles and social expectations/behaviors) informs every aspect of social life, even morals, by its primacy and centrality in our being human. We can go further and ask: are moral claims relative to sex? Is it possible that a woman’s “right”, is a man’s “wrong”?

Is it right to assume that there is moral relativism between the genders [which is also cultural], that moral judgments are subjective and also sex-oriented? A toy gun, for instance, is good (appropriate) for a boy but bad for a girl, but a doll is bad for a boy yet good for a girl or it is alright for a man to date several women, but a woman who dates several men is a flirt. A double standard in gender, a symptom of moral relativism. It all depends on your sex, or in my example, gender. Feminists would argue that the sex who has the upper hand in the society decides and controls what the moral standards of that society are. A patriarchal society (e.g. Taliban-Afghanistan) have moral standards decided and controlled by men, hence the suppression of women’s claim to what is moral. A power play between the sexes.

We can take as an example, the moral dimensions of the T’boli people’s matung or abortion to further deepen this assertion.

The T’boli women, at least as shown in early ethnographies, practice abortion. A hotly debated issue in ethics is whether this is a practice in the freedom of choice or an act of murder (infanticide), the right to choose versus the fetus’s right to live. This may be contentious because we have to ask, do the T’boli believe that fetuses already have a life? Yet we see an acceptance to the open practice of abortion in T’boli [early?] society. The article actually mentions the phrase “without compunction”, which means that without any regret they will resort to abortion. If the ethnographies upon which the Cultural Center of the Philippines Almanac based its report, are accurate, matung is thus an act out of necessity but categorically noted as a resortor an alternative if other measures fail.

We have to list down some of the reasons that are socially acceptable for abortion: “her husband has abandoned her and refuses to give support; she has more children than can be fed adequately; her honor has been stained; she merely wants to be spared the difficulties of delivery.” We can map these reasons and the key decision-makers as follows:

Reasons Woman Man Family/Society
Her husband has abandoned her and refuses to give support;  X  X
She has more children than can be fed adequately;  X  X
Her honor has been stained;  X  X  X
She merely wants to be spared the difficulties of delivery;  X

The third reason is a little more complicated. We can specify it further as:

The woman was raped;  X  X
The woman committed adultery[1];  X  X

The tables above, although merely a sketch, nevertheless show a significant role of the woman in deciding for an abortion. The woman has [albeit not full] control over her body. She can decide if she wants an abortion or not. The tables also show that a T’boli woman’s moral claims to abortion are pragmatic, almost gearing towards the amoral, and not founded on any religious belief but on desperate economic or social reasons.

T’boli society also accepts [or tolerates?] the practice which suggests that among the “non-negotiables” of the society, maintaining social cohesion and family honor are primary. This can be averred by how T’boli society is included as a key element in the decision-making for abortion, which leads us to assume how society reacts and stigmatizes abandoned wives, families that cannot support their children, or children out of wedlock. Adulterous women too have been known to be killed on the spot as was the case of Ye’Dadang in one of their songs, a married woman hacked to pieces by her husband when he caught her and her lover[3].

We come back to our earlier assertion that men’s moral decisions may differ from that of women’s even if there are philosophical claims [Kantian Categorical Imperative] to the universality of morality. Men do not get pregnant and men do not suffer the pains of pregnancy and childbirth. Decisions and moral claims are thus dictated by the most fundamental difference of the sexes. A man may see it as immoral to kill an unborn child, but a woman may believe that it is more immoral to have a child and not to be able to feed it, or the man just leaves the decision to the woman. Yet we still have to ask ourselves: is it really the woman deciding or are her options already dictated and limited by the norms of her society?

Matung is a cultural phenomenon that seemingly floats above a highly patriarchal society. Feminists argue that societies practicing polygamy, patrilocation, bride wealth, dowry and child marriage, like the T’boli, are patriarchal. On the one hand, a woman has control over her body [at least with abortion] yet her decisions, based on social norms and mores in the level of the family and the tribe, are still mostly made and controlled by men.While the seemingly lax moral standards in the practice of abortion may sound like “women empowerment” in the language of feminists, it still exists within the larger context of a power struggle between males and females. Deeply-held morality is but among the precipitations of this male-female struggle. 

The outsider’s initial culture shock when confronted by the matung may be cured when he reads the tabloids or visits the back alleys of his city. Although considered a criminal offense under our penal code, abortions are happening at a staggering rate. These very codes and laws are themselves the battleground of the male-female dichotomy.

The city woman no longer suffers by “walking around with heavy stones tied to the womb,” but a swift, and still almost certainly, dangerous operation.  As opposed to the T’boli woman, in which the process is socially accepted and sometimes recommended, these women do it in the safety of darkness – where only the dark eye of guilt looks on unblinking.


[1] Cultural Center of the Philippines, Volume II of Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, People of the Philippines, Kalinga to Yakan (Manila: CCP Special Publications Office, 1994), 397.

[2] This needs more ethnographic data as we do not know if the woman who has committed adultery will voluntarily ask for an abortion or if T’boli norms will compel her to have one.

[3] Cultural Center of the Philippines, 400.

Pagpapakabuluhang Ekolohikal sa Talinghaga ng Lemlunay

May umiiral na diin patungo sa makaluntiang kamalayan at makakalikasang kalinangan na nagaganap sa bayan. Ito ay pinatutunayan ng mga nagsisisulputang batas na nagbabawal sa plastik, paninigarilyo, o ‘di kaya’y ang mainit na pagtutunggalian (sa lebel ng propaganda, adbokasiya, o sa lakas ng ingay) ng mga pabor at hindi pabor sa pagmimina. Nagsimulang umusbong noong dekada-sisenta nang magkaroon ng eskandalo sa mga nakalalasong pamatay-peste na dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane o DDT sa Estados Unidos hanggang sa nasalin ang mga argumentong ekolohikal sa iba’t ibang mapanirang pamamaraan, halimbawa sa agrikultura, pagmimina, sa mga naglalakihang pagaawan at pabrika, hanggang sa pagpapalagom ng makakalikasang agenda sa mismong pansariling pamumuhay.

Pati na sa larangan ng antropolohiya ay nakapasok rin ang pamamaraang ekolohikal sa mga teorya at usaping pangkultura, na siyang nagdagdag ng bagong pananaw sa diskurso ng ‘pagkaka-kultura’ kung saan sinasabi na ang kapaligiran ang siyang nagdidikta at nagkakahon sa kung anong kultura meron ang isang tribo o kumunidad. Kaya naman napapanahon ang pag-aaral na ito, hindi lamang dahil sa nararamdamang epekto ng pagbabagong-klima (climate change) kundi pati na rin sa mga nakapanlulumong mga pang-aabuso sa mga katutubo na siyang napapagitna sa mga diskursong (o promesang) sustainable development at kaliwa’t kanang mga polisiya patungkol sa kanila o sa kanilang lupaing sakop – kadalasan ay ang huli. Hindi maikakait na dapat pagtuunan ng pansin ang mga pakikipagbuno ng mga katutubo sa panahong ito kung kelan mabilis, panakaw at ganap ang mga pagbabago sa kanilang kultura.

Nang nakalipas na linggo, nagsulat ako ng isang mala-paghuhukay sa mga naipababawang mga pagpapakahulugan (hindi malayo sa isang arkeyolohiko) sa mitolohiya ng mga T’boli, bukod tangi sa kwento ni Boi Henwu at Lawa ng Sebu. Napatotoohan natin na ang mga mito ay may nilalamang mga istrukturang panlipunan ng tribong nagmamay-ari nito. Ang mga istrukturang ito na nasa kanilang mga mitolohiya ay para bagang mga bakas ng kanilang kultura, na walang malay na napaloob dito – naglakad sila sa baybayin ng mga matalinhagang mitolohiya, at naiwan ang mga bakas na siya ring marka ng kanilang pagiging sila. Ngunit sa ganoong pagsusuri, nakakaligtaang pagtuunan ng pansin ang mga elementong labas sa lipunan, ang kapaligiran ng tribo, ang mga hindi hawak ng tao. Isang awit ng mga T’boli ang nagpaalala nito sa akin – ang awit sa paghahanap ng Lemlunay. Makikita at madarama dito ang kapaligirang ginagalawan ng mga T’boli at kung paano nila inaasam-asam ang pagbabalik sa lugar ng lemlunay.

Ngunit bago tayo pumunta sa lemlunay, dumako muna tayo sa aking bayan sakay ng Bikol Express.

May naalala akong ritwal na ginagawa sa amin tuwing mag-aalas diyes ng gabi sa araw ng Biyernes Santo. Tinatawag namin itong ‘soledad’ sa Bikol na hango sa salitang espanyol at nangangahulugang kalungkutan. Ang imahe ng Mahal na Birhen Dolorosa ay ipinuprusisyon sa buong bayan, sinusundan ang direksyon ng mga ‘altares’ o ang way of the cross, kasama ang grupo ng mga kababaihan na umaawit ng patangis.  At bakit naman sumagi itong ritwal sa aking isip? Sapagkat sa aking mga limitasyon at kahong ginagawalan (bilang isang Bikolano na magdadalawang taon pa lamang sa Mindanao) nangangailangan ako ng mga bagay na maari kong balikan sa paghahalintulad ng mga saloobin, emosyon o mga pangyayari. Nais kong ihalintulad ang kalungkutan na madadama sa soledad sa isang awit ng mga T’boli na aking narinig sa Lake Sebu, at kahit na nga magmumukha akong tanga sa paggamit ng isang talinhagang naiiba naman sa teksto at konteksto ng mga T’boli, mainam na ibahagi ko ang aking nakaugaliang lasa at dama ng soledad sa paghahambing ng isang awit ng T’boli.

Sa pagnanais ng mga pantas ng agham-pantao na mailarawan ng sapat, tapat at ganap ang ano mang lipunan o grupo ng tao, hindi pa rin maikukubli ang mga personal na damdamin, saloobin, opinyon o haka-haka sa kanilang pagsusulat. At ganito marahil ang aking punto: kahit gaanong pilit nating gawing objective ang pagsasanaysay, dahil gumagalaw ang manunulat-antropologo sa kanyang kinapapaloobang lipunan, ideolohiya at relihiyon, hindi mai-aalis ang mga pansariling pananaw sa kanyang mga gawa. Samakatuwid, tama si Clifford Geertz sa kaniyang sinabi na ang antropolohiya daw ay hindi isang agham, na sumusunod sa pamamaraang siyentipiko, kundi isang pag-aaral ng mga kahulugang napapaloob sa kultura gamit ang pamamaraang pagpapakahulugan (interpretation) o dagdagan natin, pamamaraan ng pagpapakabuluhan – yaong pagbibigay ng halaga, diin, lalim, lawak at bigat sa bawat elemento ng kultura.

Ngunit sa isang banda, may isang pamamaraan sa pag-aaral ng agham-tao na pumilit sa pamamaraang siyentipiko. Ito yung sinuportahang Ecological Anthropology ni Leslie White, Roy Rappaport, Julian Steward, atbp. Sa teoryang ito, pinaniniwalaan at pinagaaralan kung papaano hinuhulma ng tao ang ginagalawan niyang kapaligiran at kung paano ito naka-aapekto sa kanyang buhay- panlipunan, politikal at pang-ekonomiya man. Ang pamamaraang ito ay nagtataguyod at nagsusuporta ng biological diversity o ang pagiging mayaman sa iba’t ibang uri ng hayop, halaman at ano mang may buhay, kakabit ng human diversity o ang pagiging iba’t-iba ng sangkatauhan. Magkakabit ang dalawa, ayon sa mga teyorista nito, dahil pinapakita sa mga pag-aaral ng Biology na mayaman at kinakailangan ang mga pagkakaiba’t ibang ito sa pagpapatuloy ng buhay sa ibabaw ng mundo (teorya ng ebolusyon ni Charles Darwin), ganoon din daw dapat ang sangkatauhan at ang mayamang pagkakaiba-iba ng lahi, itsura, ideolohiya, kulay ng balat, kultura, relihiyon atbp. Ang teoryang ito, samakatuwid, ang nagbalik ng siyentipikong pananaw at pamamaraan sa pag-aaral ng antropolohiya.

Sa sulating ito, nais kong gamitin ang lente ng pagpapakabuluhang ekolohikal sa pagpapalalalim ng makakalikasang kamalayan ng mga T’boli sa Timog Kotabato gamit ang isa nilang awit; ito na nga ang sinasaloob sa kantang Lemlunay. Sa puntong ito nais kong isanaysay ang awit na aking nakolekta’t nasalin sa Bayan ng Lake Sebu noong nakilahok ako sa isang pagtitipon ng mga manghahabi ng ikat dito sa Asya, na ginawa sa Lake Sebu, Timog Kotabato. Sumusunod ay ang awit:

Lemlunay gono setifun ne Lemlunay gono sesotu.

Lemlunay gono kemulo ne Lemlunay gono setambul

e se waten uni sembakung e Lemlunay tey lemobun.

Kapag literal na sinalin sa Filipino ay:

Ang lemlunay ay ang lugar kung saan tayo’y nagtitipon-tipon sa pagkakaisa

Hinahalina ng mga tunog ng piging, sa hampas ng mga agung at tambol,

Sinasalubong tayo ng mga ito sa paraisong nakukubli ng hamog.

May madaramang pinaghalong sabik at tangis ang awit na ito, hindi nalalayo sa tono at salimbay ng soledad na aking naririnig tuwing Biyernes Santo. Lalo na kapag sasagi sa isip mo ang mga aninong gumagalaw sa lawa ng Sebu na napapaligiran ng mga bundok at makapal na hamog – isang imaheng tumatatak sa mapaglarong isipan. Marahil isa lamang itong haka-haka na hindi nababagay sa metodolohiya ng agham-pantao, ngunit may karampatang pagpapasatotoo ang mga imahe at fantasma na ito.

Upang mas maintindihan natin ang kalagayang ekolohikal ng mga T’boli S’bu hayaan ninyo akong balangkasin muna ang heograpiya ng kanilang lupang sakop bago pumunta sa pagsusuri: Ang mga T’boli S’bu ay tradisyunal na naninirahan sa bayan ng Lake Sebu sa probinsiya ng Timog Kotabato. Mahigit-kumulang 40 kilometro ang layo mula sa Koronadal na siyang kapitolyo ng probinsya. Napapalibutan ng mga bayang ng Surallah (sa hilaga), Kiamba at Maitum (sa timog-kanluran), T’boli (silangan) at Palimbang  ng Sultan Kudarat (sa kanluran). Kasama sa ikaapat na klase ng klima ang Lake Sebu kung saan umuulan sa buong taon. Malamig at maaliwalas ang Lake Sebu na di nalalayo sa klima ng Baguio sa katimugang Pilipinas. Napapalibutan ito ng mga bulubundukin ng Daguma at Talihik sa bandang silangan, Bundok ng Busa sa timog-silangan, Pitot Kalabao sa bandang gitna at Bundok Talili sa bandang silangan. Kabilang din sa kanilang sakop ang lawa ng Sebu na parte ng Allah Valley Watershed na lumalagos sa ilog ng Pulangi patungo sa Look ng Illana sa Lungsod ng Kotabato.

Tumungo tayo ngayon sa pagsusuri ng nasabing awit.  Hindi maikakaila na ang paksa ng maikling awit na ito ay ang lemlunay. Ngunit ano ang lemlunay? Maraming maghahambing dito sa paraiso ng mga Kristiyano, ngunit hindi naaayon ang paghahambing na ito sa layunin nating buo at tapat na pagpapakahulugan. Kulang at ‘di sapat ang ‘paraiso’ na siyang nasa isipan nating kanluranin at saklaw ng Kristiyanong pag-iisip – wala itong bahid ng anumang konsepto ng kasalanan na katulad ng sa Henesis kung saan pinaalis ng Dios sina Adan at Eba mula sa paraiso ng Eden. Ito ay magkasabay na lugar at hindi lugar. Hitik na hitik ito sa kahulugan.

Masasabi natin na ito ay isang ‘hindi-lugar’ o kaya’y talinghaga na napapaloob din sa epiko ng Tudbulol, kung saan pumunta ang kanilang kapita-pitagang bayani na si Tudbulol nang ito ay mamatay (hindi nalalayo sa langit) na nagpapakita na ang lemlunay ay napapaloob sa teritoryo ng mito at mga kwento ngunit sa isang dako ay isa ring lugar na hinahangad ng mga T’boli sa kanila mismong bayan, kung saan walang mahirap, walang nagugutom, walang gulo, walang sakit, walang pagnanais dahil ang lahat ng nais ay natatamo o kaya’y natamo na. Ang lemlunay samakatuwid ay talinghaga para sa buong kalupaang-sakop ng mga T’boli na hindi lamang nakakahon (kung ito man ang tamang metapora) sa dimension ng mga mito kundi sa kanila mismong ginagalawang kumunidad kasama ang mga bulubundukin nito, mga ilog, lawa, kakahuyan at mga sapa. Itong pag-iisa ng dalawang konsepto ng lemlunay ­–ang lugar na lugar at ang hindi-lugar o ‘talinghaga’– sa lupaing-sakop ng mga T’boli ay maaaring sintomas ng pagtakas (escapism) mula sa mga hindi kanais-nais patungo sa inaasam-asam. Pagtakas kaya mula saan o ano?

Hindi maikakaila ang ganda at yamang-likas na sakop ng mga T’boli. At marami nang nagpatotoo sa sinasabing sumpang dala ng mga likas yaman. Pinasok ang kanilang lupang-sakop ng mga taong may dala ng mga ideolohiyang banyaga na nagpunla ng mga bagong konsepto ng pagmamay-ari, pangangahoy, pagsasaka, pananalapi, relihiyon atbp. Sa pagpasok na ito, masasabi nating may nangyaring paghahalo ng mga kultura, may nangibabaw at may nagharing kultura. Ngunit hindi lubusan na naglalaho ang mga elemento ng kultura ng isang tribo o kumunidad, nagbabalat-kayo ang mga ito, nag-iibang itsura at pangalan o sa teoriya ng kultura ay diffusionism. Makikita natin ngayon ito sa pag-iba ng pananamit, lenggwahe at relihiyon ng mga T’boli. May paghahalo na naganap.

Pinasok rin ang kanilang lupang-sakop ng mga ‘taga-labas’ na namuhunan sa mga naglalakihang palaisdaan ng tilapia sa lawa ng Sebu, mga mangangahoy at pati na rin ng mga maliliit na nagmimina sa kanilang mga sakop na bundok. Hindi nagtagal ay nakalbo ang mga kabundukan, lumaki ang posibiliad ng pagtagas at pagguho ng lupa na nagdadala ng putik at mga pamatay-peste sa katubigan. Pati na rin ang lawa ay nangibang-anyo. Punong-puno na ito ng mga kulungan ng isda at ang mga endemikong isda ay kinain na rin ng mga mas naglalakihang tilapia hanggang sa ito ay mas mahirap nang mahanap ngayon. Ibang-iba na ang lemlunay. 

Ito marahil ang katuwiran sa kanilang ‘pagtakas’. Ito marahil ang nadaramang kalungkutan ng mga mang-aawit ng lemlunay at ang pagnanasa na makabalik, kahit man lang sa talinghaga at imahe ng mitolohiya, sa lemlunay ni Tudbulol kung saan may piging at ang mga tunog ng tambol at agung ay muling naririninig na umaalingawngaw sa mga bundok.

Maganda ang imahe ng hamog sa awit. Isa rin itong talinghagang nagpapahiwatig na natatago ang inaasam-asam na lemlunay ng hamog – marahil ng kamangmangan, kahirapan, pagpapawalang-bahala, kasakiman o papapawalang-kabuluhan sa mga mito at sa kalagayan ng kanilang ginagalawang kapaligiran.

Sa ritwal ng soledad sa aking bayan, sinusundan ng mga kababaihan ang mga dinaanang paghihirap ni Hesus patungo sa Kalbaryo. Binabalikan ang bawat kaganapang puno ng sakit at pighati. Ngunit alam ko na ang paggunita ay mayroon ding kakambal na paghilom. Ganito rin marahil ang nadarama ng mga mang-aawit ng lemlunay. Sa paggunita ng mala-paraisong lemlunay at habang napapaligiran ng nagbabagong bayan ng Lake Sebu, ay hinihilom ang mga sugat sa memorya at inuudyok ang sino mang tagapakanig o marahil siya na mismo, na hawiin ang hamog na bumabalakid tungo sa natatagong lemlunay – tungo sa lugar na lugar, ang mayamang-likas na kanilang sakop, at sa bayan ng mga talinghaga.

Extricating Meanings in the Story of Boi Henwu and the Creation of Lake Sebu

I am quite aware of the power of myths. Growing up with my nanay telling us biblical stories – of Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish, of the Red Sea parting, of food falling from the sky – all kindled in my young mind a desire to read all kinds of mythology and bask in the enchantment of flying horses, magical swords, dragons and wise-men. I remember I used to go to the library of my elementary school and secretly read the stories of the Olympian, Egyptian or the Mayan gods and feel a sense of ‘religious guilt’ as what my young mind only construed as conspiring with demons and cohorting with the devil’s own. But already at that age, I was as hardheaded as I am stubborn now. Bereft of the idea that mythologies are mere ‘sacred narratives explaining how the present world came about’ or as an ‘ideology in narrative form,’ I set aside the notion of religious guilt and embarked on an adventure with Joseph Campbell’s four-volume Masks of God, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough but poring with much appreciation at Campbell’s Transformations of Myths through Time which includes a number of appealing illustrations and discussions on the evolution of myths. Reading myths became something of a nighttime habit for me. Maybe, and I am not venturing into psychoanalysis, it lulls me to sleep better than any other story because of its resemblance to dreams, dream-time, dream-world, and dream-story plots.

I only got an appreciation of reading Philippine myths when I studied the Bikolano Ibalon epic for my undergraduate thesis. From then on, I became intrigued at how strikingly similar yet profoundly different our myths are from the mythos of the European, Hindu, Chinese, American etc. For instance, we read the ‘Great Flood’ theme from the Hebrew story of Noah to the T’boli’s La Kagef and Tamfeles and yet see different underlying motives and symbols in the narratives. The first speaks of an angry deity who was keen in wiping out humanity that has turned sinful, while the T’boli flood myth never spoke of any motive for the flood – it simply was a natural event, and the deity’s only role was to warn two couples to hide inside a bamboo and after the flood, to become the ancestors of the T’boli and other tribes. In the realm of pragmatics, one myth was meant to be a religious lesson to the community, the other was meant to inform the T’boli of their progeny.

We see here the same pattern that Claude Levi-Strauss noted with myths worldwide; that of having similar and general themes/motifs because of the same human needs and aspirations, yet strikingly dissimilar because of the different social and environmental phenomena of a given people. He further remarked about the universal quality of myths, “Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader anywhere in the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music or its syntax, but in the story which it tells.”[1]

Such is the power of myths. They are, in the words of Carl Jung, collective dreams, which also open up to private meanings. They have the power to yoke communities under one mythos yet also has the transformative energy that stirs individuals. Claude Levi-Strauss noted this power yet he was also conscious of another significance of myths in the study of Anthropology and Sociology – that of the underlying social structures that those myths, he thought, contain. He explained his method in an essay The Structural Study of Myth and postulated that “If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter in to the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined”[2] and that “the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations, and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning.”[3]

We come to know some characteristics of myths, of the general patterns of mythic themes and specific roles of myths in different societies. But for this paper, I am not interested in those general patterns so obvious in world mythologies. These general patterns are more in the realm of Psychology in what Carl Jung would include in his discussions of archetypes. As a paper for Anthropology, I am more interested in those combinations of mythic elements that hide in their texts, social structures (kinship, gender relations etc.) and meanings for a given people. One must extricate, not unlike an archeologist, amidst the seemingly non-important rubble of mythic language, all the while avoiding the sins of generalizations and being too subjective in our interpretations.

I would like now to focus my lenses on the T’boli of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, Philippines. Famous for their ikat weave called the t’nalak (which is fast gaining world popularity as an ethnic and eco-friendly design) their other art forms are being sidelined and aside from the occasional scholar, forgotten. The T’boli are also master musicians and storytellers. Some still chant (tutul) for days on end the life of the hero Tudbulol and on special gatherings like a ritual moninum, chanters, musical adepts of the seko, gongs, k’lintang, hegelung and s’ludoy would form an ensemble to sing of their myths. The creation stories of Lake Sebu, Lake Seloton, Lake Nungon, Te-ada Island in Lake Sebu, stories of heroes like Boi Henwu, Tudbulul, and Kludan to name a few. What is noteworthy though, is that there is no fixed and static text by from which they will recite, only set series of events. Different storytellers have different styles but they will not deviate from the major events of the story, as Levi-Strauss puts it, the myth consists “of all its versions; or to put it otherwise, a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such.”

One such topic that is the favorite of the T’boli is the creation myth of Lake Sebu – a mountain-lake that is part of the Allah Valley Watershed in South Cotabato. A major economic source and major geographical formation of the T’boli traditional domain, it is the central topic of many legends or a setting for the many adventures of the T’boli heroes.

My proposed thesis also centers at Lake Sebu and the T’boli people, examining how they perceive the risks of climate change by diagnosing how myths, legends and beliefs inform their risk perceptions. By investigating the structures of risk information and perception in their myths, we may, I believe, better understand how to inform, update and apprise indigenous peoples on the realities of climate change.

I will present here a narration of one Lake Sebu creation myth and try to use the method of Claude Levi-Strauss in trying to unearth underlying structures and categories of thought in the T’boli culture in a structuralist exercise of the study of myth.

This is the story as narrated by Carmel Tandayan, a T’boli of Lake Sebu and as collected and written by Carlo C. Casinto in a graduate thesis[4]:

Mo-en ke S’bu boluyen ni kemo en ni?Tegunay tu keni, be sotu benwutey ini K’daw laendu bang el;

Ominem laendu bang minum

ken tahu.

Sotu K’daw be yo, wen libun,

yo boluy ni libun, go boluy ni

libun ni mon le Boi Henwu, nawahen

na laendu, gono le mewa el.

Timbol tonen tum el tu, Ten

ngelen ne seloni edu, ne – hen

nogen ke tahu.

Wefe-en du tedoken ominem

mamu du be.

Timbol in tey taha wehen

weken ahay se “keding,”

monen talonen du.

Lemikut be tu, be kenwu gomo

le no tu koni be wen tomen

botu.

Timbol tohi se todo tomen el

nefe-en du tedoken ominem

omamu du be.

Timbol tedoka ominem mamu

du be K’dingen.

Tey taha weken, Sol gel

Nebo-on be Lem lebon, tu

weken.

Sol gel Nabo – en be lem lebon

abay.

Se toy taha bud mulek

be gonofe to do tenga kim

duman mo – en ke

befe le Takul.

Olokom, timbol talomera

da, abay se la moyo-en du

el wen bong.

Yo timbol bad metom du tuem

tonen olokom tu kenon-en be

gono-en, el melok bud todol

be gonauyen.

Sobugen kem kobogen

omonen neaviten.

Mulek ebe gomohen mewa du

nim el, mo-en ke deng hefe

weken, suluhen sokug mewa

du nim naugen el.

El todo Sulek suho mogon

edu tum el tu sulek sut

yom sigi bong efet bud gebek

le du sukul.

Lemwot tau se yom yehenen

gu lem koyo ne – igo – en.

Hemoheng lu, ne timben le

gonohen el mak te

ma el.

S’bu mewa el todo sulek

suhu mongon guto len neb

temwot nauyen.

Sulek el bong Kolel kelolel

se yom yehenen neb tu el

tu.

S’bu gota gomong lem neb

lemel to el tu. Be tu tinfu

tu.

Mo-en benolug abay se yom

logi ke S’bu yom Benwu

Boi Henwu.

How did Lake Sebu get its name?Long time ago, this placewas very hot;

There was no water around

and so the people had nothing

to drink.

Then one day a woman named

Boi Henwu, named for she did

not know of a place where she

could get water.

She explored the area until she

saw something the size of a

cogon grass.

To her surprise, water sprung

from this.

She went close to the water and

She wet her “keding”, her

hair that was hanging down.

Because she had long hair, she

carried her hair inside a

basket.

She then went home but when

she arrived there, everybody

was surprised of her wet hair.

She did not tell anybody how

she got her hair wet.

When she came home, her

husband, S’bu, was not yet

around.

He was still in the forest

hunting.

The next day she went

back to the water which

she covered with the

leaf of a Takul tree.

When she arrived in the area,

she was surprised because the

water had become bigger.

So she took a bath, filled

her bamboo container with

water, covered the water

and proceeded home.

Upon her arrival, her neighbors

were again surprised.

They started to wonder

where the woman got the water

and how her hair got wet, how she was

able to bring home water.

After this incident, she

decided to go back but this

time she didn’t know that

Somebody was following her.

This person reported to the

community what he saw.

As a result, the people

all went there to fetch water.

S’bu the husband,

who had come home also

followed her.

The water became so big

that she could no longer cover

it  and she was also carried

by it.

S’bu tried to save Boi

Henwu but he got drowned

in the process.

That is why the place is

called S’bu to honor the husband

of Boi Henwu.

The structure of the narrative itself, as handed out to us by Cansito, already follows what Levi-Strauss notes in his Structural Study of Myth, of “breaking down [the] story into the shortest possible sentences”.  We then take note of the possible themes that can be culled out of the story, namely: gender relations, appropriation of resources, hygiene, husband-wife roles, politics of the haves and the have-nots and attitude towards environment.

As I mentioned earlier, there are other versions intimately tied-up to this story and, although my focus is the story above, they can be used to compare and to complement it.

In the story of Boi Henwu, Lemugut Mangay and Kludan[5], we see a different dimension of the creation of Lake Sebu. This is the story as written by Manolete Mora:

It begun when Boi Henwu and Lemugut Mangay (celestial messenger or angel) began courting. This earth (tonok) was still being created and the sky and heavens were still very close. After D’wata (the Supreme deity) created the earth and the sea and he made Boi Henwu and Kludan, the first man and woman. Lake Sebu had not yet been created.

At that time Boi Henwu and Kludan were traveling together. Kludan, who was still a youth served as her helper (nga nemuhen). Although they were not married he hunted and killed four or five pigs for her at a time.

Boi Henwu and Kludan together as they were, lived in different houses for sixteen halay (one rice harvest season, thus eight years). During this time Boi Henwu frequently desired to bathe.

One day Kludan told Boi Henwu that he would go hunting and asked her to wait until he returned. He returned at noon with eight pigs and water that he had supposedly obtained from the el luos  (a type of rattan that contains water).

This delighted Boi Henwu. Upon seeing the water she immediately began to bathe, exclaiming, “How pleasant it is to bathe, I have washed away all the dust.”

She looked radiant and beautiful with her hair worn in the tuko-en style. She wore anklets (singkil) up to her knees, bracelets covering her forearms and eight gold necklaces (lieg kemagi) .

Kludan had actually found another source of water while he was away but at first kept it a secret. Finally he told her what he had seen. She asked him excitedly about where he saw the water: “if you’ve seen water,” she urged him, “tell me so that I can bathe there.”

I cannot show you because of your big taboo (bong lii) against men,” said Kludan.

“Pardon me,” said Boi Henwu, “but you are like my child and I am like your mother.”

So Kludan desired Boi Henwu. Yet he knew that Lemugot Mangay had been sent by D’wata to bring her to heaven.

“It is better,” said Boi Henwu, “that you show me the water or our relationship will no longer be the same.”

So Kludan relented and together with Boi Henwu they searched for eight day and eight nights until they found the source of water. This was named (Lake) Sebu afer the man who first saw it in its entirety.

When they arrived there, Kludan instructed Boi Henwu to stand under the large nabul tree on the sunny side. From where she stood the tree looked like a crawling python. She then gazed up into the branches of the tree and her vision weakened as though she had become giddy.

“This is the nabul tree (Ficus religiosa),” said Kludan. “Now that you’ve seen it, it’s for you to find the water.”

When she turned over the takul  leaf at the bottom of the tree, the water of Sebu spurted forth thin as the thread of the needle (mesut el; which also signifies ejaculation).

“Ah,” exclaimed Boi Henwu, “this is the water.”

At the source of the spouting water sat a frog, which she picked up. It was as wide as three fingers, and had nails, fingers and feet the color of gold. It had a beautiful face and was white all over. The frog jumped into the pouch of her tube skirt (kelofoy; a pocket tied at the front of the tube skirt for carrying small items, such as betel nut, money, etc.) and said: “I’ve been hoping and waiting for you; this water is yours.”

Boi Henwu’s hair was beautiful and abundant. It would have taken four women to hold, style and carry it. As she stood by the water of Sebu she wished for the companionship of a woman. Four suddenly appeared and they carried her hair until they reached her house.

Boi Henwu then suddenly turned to Kludan and said, “Now I will leave you and this place. D’wata has finished creating heaven and earth.”

She then said, “And I will beat the wooden percussion beam (k’lutang) before I ascend.” She played it until Lemugot Mangay came for her. As she ascended with Lemugot Mangay she threw down the two mallets and they transformed into barbets, a male and a female. In times past, the barbet was the wooden percussion beam mallet of Boi Henwu.

The barbets then said to Lemugot Mangay: “But now that you are leaving us in this world, how shall we survive?”

Lemugot Mangay and Boi Henwu replied to the barbets: “We shall provide you with food and you will continue to live.”

Boi Henwu had now found her partner. She had had no man before, only Kludan (the first man but who was also her ‘child helper’). When Boi Henwu ascended with Lemugot Mangay, Kludan returned to Lake Sebu, threw himself in and entered the navel of the sea.

Another version of this creation myth of Lake Sebu tells of a local princess who had a dream of coming to the mountain land of Sebu. The princess saw a big leaf. When she opened it up a white frog leaped out along with the gush of water that flooded the land and became the lake. From the heavens she threw pythons to the earth, which formed the islands at the lake. And in order for the princess to pass by the lake, her brother parted the island. The name “Sebu”, according to this version, came from the T’boli word for lake or leaf.

One version of the Lake Sebu creation myth, as narrated by Jenita Batol Eko, tells of a long spell of drought in a village. The only available water were the droplets of water left on the leaves after the morning mist. In this story, a village woman was always seen by the other villages freshly bathe and with wet hair, as if she bathed in a spring. One day the villagers followed her to her secret bathing place and to their disbelief, a small spring was indeed bubbling from a small crack in the earth. Angry that they were tricked by the woman and keeping the source of water to herself, they tried to mob the woman but not until a white frog was startled and started to jump from one place to another, and from where it jumped, water came gushing forth until the place was flooded. Everyone perished from this flood and a lake was formed. It was named S’bu after the woman who discovered the spring.

I will now attempt to extricate meanings and search for Levi-Straussian structures in the story of Carmel Tandayan. We first have to list down the characters in the story. They are: Boi Henwu, the community and S’bu. Boi Henwu is the wife of S’bu, the latter showing up later in the narrative. In this version, we can deduce the roles of wives in the T’boli community, as exemplified by Boi Henwu, that of being domestic, maintaining the household and taking care of the children and the home. She ‘fetches the water’ which may also be translated as providing for the family, water being a necessity in cooking, nourishment, making crafts, making healing salves etc.

S’bu, on the other hand was ‘out hunting’ at the beginning of the narrative and typifies that the T’boli, at least in this mythic past, is a hunter-gatherer society. She has to ‘explore’ the forest to look for water, probably even going as far out as the limits of the village boundaries. Boi Henwu (woman) fetches water and along the way gathers whatever she picks out in the forest – herbs, wood for the fire, rootcrops, etc. This is not to say that Boi Henwu does the gathering alone. T’boli women were fiercely protected and will always be accompanied by relatives – male or female[6]. We may see this in the reaction of the community when they noticed that she ‘explores’ the forest alone – they grew suspicious and begun tailing her.

In the beginning of the story, her husband Sbu was hunting, presumably with a band of village men since hunting is a group activity. Men would travel extensively in the forests and would be away from their families for days – we note the absence of S’bu in the narrative yet we also notice that Boi Henwu was never dependent on S’bu. She took matters on her own, going to the forests to look for water, to take care of the family (presumably together with co-wives) until the return of his husband from a hunt. T’boli women work independently and productively at home, doing crafts such as weaving, embroidery, basketry and jewelry making, which they now sell to lowlanders. As a T’boli woman narrated this story in the early 2000, we can already see the shift in the consciousness of women, as they gain more economic power over men because of their crafts. Boi Henwu, the archetypal T’boli woman never sat down and waited for the rain – she looked for water.

S’bu, on the end of the spectrum, was out in the unknown and deep forests, hence his absence from the mythical narration, outside the realm of the mythical landscape, he typifies the T’boli man who must be constantly away from his family to “look for new locations for the cultivation of dry rice and other food, to engender or maintain the network of affiliations, to retrieve a debt, to sell, barter or to use their labor to repay a debt, or to hunt and gather in the forest.”[7] The clear demarcation of the different roles of men and women as exemplified in the story, marks a “division of labor” or the assigning of roles and tasks to men and women on the basis of perceived gender characteristics and attributes, instead of ability and skills.

The present transformation in women’s status in T’boli society can be recognized if we compare the central roles of women in the four stories of Lake Sebu – women are in the center and not in the periphery of the myth. The “Ascension of Boi Henwu” even elevates her to the realm of the divine, while the version where she was led by a white frog to the spring suggests her connections with the spirit world; an enduring notion in the t’nalak weaving where inspirations for their designs are given to them in dreams by Lemugut Mangay, the celestial messenger and wife of Boi Henwu (as in the version of Mora). This may allude to all weavers and artists being Boi Henwu themselves, frequently visited by D’wata’s messenger.

The title “Boi” also needs to be analyzed. In present usage, it means princess or a favorite wife or daughter of a datu, or a wealthy person. It carries with it attributes of “beauty, intelligence, wealth, hospitality and amiability, good bartering skills, a mild disposition, the ability to command respect from others, the capability to manage an orderly household that includes ruling over co-wives and women, and expertise in one or more of the highly valued T’boli skills, especially weaving, brass casting, embroidery, hat making, and fine beadwork.”[8] We may deduce that Boi Henwu in Tadayan’s story, is a favorite wife (although there are no other wives mentioned in the story), or a daughter of a datu, either way she exhibits beauty with “long hair carried in a basket”. T’boli women are usually very vain with an ensemble of ornamental combs, jewelries, colorful tubular skirts and in early days, would tattoo their faces.

The last version shows this vanity of the woman even more, when she would use the droplets of water collected in leaves just to wash her hair. This has an allusion to what Mary Douglas states as dirt “[being] essentially disorder… it exists in the eye of the beholder… In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying, we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea.” Boi Henwu, exemplifying T’boli attitude towards dirt, elevates to the highest level the importance of cleanliness and the delineation of the clean and the unclean. This can be attested by the story of Boi Henwu’s ascension where she took a bath before being received by Lemugut Mangay in heaven, pointing to the opposition of earth – dirty, heaven – clean. Many things can be said about this, even a whole thesis, but as a practice in the structural study of myths, forgive me if I say that this may suffice.

Another intriguing case to study is the reaction of the community towards Boi Henwu’s actions of hiding the source of water. They perceived it only as a selfish act, deceitful and cunning. As a community, it points to a lesson that resources must be shared, that resources are communally owned. According to that version, Boi Henwu should have shared the source of the water. Yet the other version teaches of restraint. It is indeed human nature that the villagers became angry at how the spring was kept hidden to them, but it was also the same anger that led to the destruction of the village. If they waited for the woman to tell them of the spring, would the destruction of the village be averted? Was woman or the frog-god preparing the villagers to the final ablution? Nikos Kazantzakis writes in the Last Temptation of Christ, “Only when we reach the brink of the abyss, do we grow wings.” If only the villagers restrained their anger and approached the issue with cool heads, they would not have been erased from earth. Should this also be the approach in the present problem of global warming and climate change? Is this what the T’boli are doing now?

The white frog is particularly absent in the story of Carmel Tadayan although it features constantly in other Lake Sebu creation story. The frog is of course amphibious, living half of its life on water and half on land. If the snake is the chthonic animal, living in caves and the underworld, the symbol of the keeper of the unknown and hidden wisdom, then the frog is the symbol of water and the mysteries of its depth. It is also the symbol of life and fertility for some culture, because they quickly reproduce during the rainy season. This sexual connotation can be read, somewhat of an allusion in the Tadayan version, but is very much explicit in the story of Kludan and Boi Henwu, which tells of a white frog jumping into the pouch of Boi Henwu’s tube skirt and saying “this water is yours”; an allusion to sexual intercourse. The frog is indeed a symbol of fertility because it signifies rain, or sometimes thought to bring rain. In some Mindanao indigenous groups, frogs are used in rituals to bring rain[9] and bring back the fertility of the earth.

The life-death attribute of water, so vividly positioned in the opposite ends of the story shows the value given by the T’boli to water; the longing for water at the start and the terrifying flood that takes Boi Henwu’s and S’bu’s life at the end of the story marks this opposition. At once beneficent and destructive, water is construed as life giver and also life-taker. Kludan diving to the navel of the water to become the god of the underworld, suggests this connection of water to death. We can only dip our toes in the spring of Boi Henwu, but never fully immerse in it.

The T’boli of South Cotabato in the Southern Philippines, are indeed a mysterious people. These meanings we have extricated provide a view of the T’boli as if in a gossamer veil. We can see their outlines, but never fully see their faces – a beauty that is never really revealing in the sense of the really real.

I have to admit that there are still so many layers of meaning to extricate in this single story. As an exercise in the structuralist study of myth, I tried to treat the myth as an orchestra score[10] upon which one can uncover those bundles of relations covertly present in mythic language. Through this exercise, I felt the same desire I had way back in my elementary school for the mystery that myths offered me. No longer hiding my books, for fear of divine wrath, in order to read them, but now shining a torch in the deep crevices of myths. In Anthropology, in our search for the multi-faceted truth, myths offer us a pathway where mystery, revelation and reason could be held in tandem.


[1] Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology 1 (New York: Penguin Books 1963), 210.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 211.

[4] Carlo C. Casinto, The T’boli of Lake Sebu: their Life and Literature (MA Thesis, Ateneo de Davao University 2001), 43-45.

[5] Manolete Mora, Myth, Mimesis and Magic in the Music of the T’boli, Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press 2005), 29-32.

[6] Ibid., 39.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Agnes N. Miclat-Cacayan, Babaylan: She Dances in Wholeness (Keynote Address for the Babaylan Symposium, St. Scholastica’s College Manila, July 22, 2005),  3.

[10] Levi-Strauss, 213.