A River’s Dreamscape

An android American-colonial soldier marches silently, tribal gods and primeval ancestors spring out of the canvas, while a faceless pin-up girl poses with a golden toilet bowl.  A river of indigenous fabric runs across the two panels, connecting, disconnecting, confusing, and revealing imageries and narratives. The viewer is at first disoriented at the marching symbols, yet the mural beckons, and now completely gripped by the current of the same river that runs the canvas, the viewer surrenders to this aesthetic rebellion.

“The Silent Witness” is a collaborative artwork of ten artists from different artistic styles and personal motivations. Coming together to tell this story and ideology, are several members of Piguras Davao, an organization of figure artists from Davao City: Alfred Galvez, Rey Bollozos, Rene Pilapil, Dominic Pilapil, Bryan Cabrera, Kim Vale, Mark Tolentino, King Nelson Duyan, and Raymund Ric Bisnar. This oil-in-canvas mural is a 2-panel work measuring 6 feet by 20 feet each, and takes its inspiration from the rich history of Davao, including indigenous mythologies, popular culture, and surreal symbolisms.

There is an intensity in the painting – in the images, the narratives, and the strongly expressive language in vibrant color, the depth of insight, and the deliberate telling of the passage of time. “The Silent Witness” is a narrative mural which tells the story of a place, or perhaps it is visual poetry, with the images signifying a complex of local histories, recollections, and aspirations.

A central figure in each panel looms over the rest of the elements and draws our attention to the dialectic of the two panels. In the first panel, the central figure is the Bagobo creator god, Manama, with his arms outstretched willing creation to being.  The first man and woman, the Mona, is below the creator god, and with their pounding of the ubiquitous rice mortar, a multitude of ancient ancestors descend to become progenitors of different Mindanao peoples, unique in their differences. While below the images of the first parents lie the final mother of all, Mebuyan, Bagobo goddess of the underworld, hundred-breasted, benevolent chthonic mother, psychopomp who guides and purifies the dead.  Other figures in this panel are familiar historical imageries, like the ships of the Spanish conquistadores, Japanese tora-tora fighter planes, Islamic and Christian sacred places, and Arab and Chinese traders. Interestingly, the images do not follow a linear narrative. American-colonial figures are grouped together with Spanish soldiers, and ancient sultans seat with a Japanese samurai warrior. In this translation of our local history, a fighter plane morphs into a giant fish, a conquistador rides a mechanical horse from a carousel, and a decorated American general has robot feet straight out of a Star Wars movie.

The first panel is recollection – but dreamlike, muddied, yet surprisingly akin to the texture and drama of our personal memories.

The second panel features two large elements that capture our attention: the image of Libertas mirroring the outstretched arms of Manama on the other panel, and the two human figures in a boat reminding us of the Manunggul jar. If the first panel surprises us with its cognitive dissonances, the second panel provokes and disturbs with its density of implications, hints, and fleeting seductive physiognomies. The figures on the boat riding the river of tnalak – a dream textile of the Tboli people – connect the two panels. We are the boat figures riding this history-dreamscape. The human figures in the Manunggul jar are on their way to the netherworld, but here our journey is towards awareness of the present. In this landscape, Libertas, symbolizing freedom, is an ideal and a destination, where the river of our convoluted histories end. Surrounding this central figure are more surreal images: a woman lies dead, a hollow man is consumed by darkness, a lumad child devours a hamburger, while white-clad diwatas seduce us in a grove. The language of this landscape evokes an experience of the real with the texture of a dream following illogical associations as they appear in the canvas. Crowning this composition is a symmetrical configuration of a Naga (indigenous dragon) okir design and a Chinese-style dragon facing each other, mirroring, or perhaps confronting each other – the local meeting the global imagineries. One wonders whether these are deliriums of madmen or our own monologues that question our present individual and societal conditions.

The second panel then is awareness – it speaks of the here and now, the present realities formed by the actions of the past, leading our senses and imaginations to the depressing anticipation of the not yet.

“The Silent Witness,” aside from being an ambitious, and successful, execution of piecing together ten individual artists’ stories and styles, is also a masterpiece in creative narrative as it tells the silent witness’s – the river’s – recollections, dreams, awareness, and grim anticipation of our possible future. In its honest telling, we are invited to meditate on its banks, to learn from its depth of wisdom, and to dream once again of the benevolence of gods.



Paradoxes in the Natural Wealth of Lake Sebu


This is part of a broader study on “Climate Change Experience, Expressions, and Responses in a Tboli Community.” It is based on the understanding that indigenous peoples worldwide have been experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather changes, longer droughts, and increasing rainfall, which cause floods and landslides. More especially to indigenous peoples, climate change is not something that comes in isolation. Climate change magnifies already existing problems of “poverty, de-territoriality, marginalization and non-inclusion in national, and international policy-making processes and discourses.”[1]

The study examines how the Tboli of South Cotabato,  perceive and respond to the impacts of climate change, analyzing local sources of knowledge such as oral narratives. But more than a mere description of this experience, the study also explores how oral narratives of the Tboli are expressions of their experience of the impacts of climate change, and how, in turn, these narratives are forming and informing their responses to climate change. By investigating how oral narratives contribute to how meaning is generated and attached to experiences, and consequently to risk information and perception, the study sought to contribute to a better understanding on how to inform, update, and apprise indigenous peoples on the realities of climate change.

The narratives I have presented here were analyzed through a poststructuralist lens. Poststructuralism is a reaction to structuralism, and works against seeing language as a stable, closed system.  It is a shift from seeing the written literature and oral narratives as closed entities equipped with definite meanings, to seeing these narratives as “irreducibly plural, an endless play of signifiers which can never be finally nailed down to a single center, essence, or meaning.”  In the poststructuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. Without a central fixation on the author, the investigator is free to examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc).

I owe a lot to the storytellers and translator that I met in Lake Sebu. Some of the storytellers here are the following: Dodong Ulaw, Nayo Lungan, Nida Anggol, Jenita Eko, Ma Ungkal, and Eko Sulan.

I invite you now to join me on a journey to Lake Sebu, where spirits roam the forests and visit the Tboli in their sleep to bless them with their gifts of weaving, healing, and the magic of storytelling.


Mâ Dodong Ulaw sat in a rattan stool adjusting his ulew, the plaid-styled headpiece worn by men. Jenita Eko explained to Mâ Dodong that I would be recording him while he chants, and told him not to mind the camera that I brought. He consented to the use of camera and a voice recorder, even quipping that he could be famous someday because of the video recording. Eunice, or Nice as I call her, the sister of Jenita, was also there. He was nervous, Mâ Dodong said. Everyone encouraged him, and after a few more coaxes, sung the opening vocables and the introduction to the story of Tudbulul, the cultural hero of the Tboli.

Eee yo ki e de kun

The thundering sun was still hidden,

its dawn light skimmed the surface of the stone crystal.

Duyung was threatening to eat it

trying to bite the sun’s shadow,

trying to swallow the sun’s shadow.

Duyung failed to reach the top of the mountain

when it tried to swallow the sun’s shadow.

It failed to raise its hand to reach the sun.

Woo … 

The thundering sun turned,

sounding like the cock of a gun,

like the pealing of the meginding,

like the clinking of the senkaling,

the shaking of the klung,

the sound of the swift chorus of the veering and weaving

of eight swarms of bees.           

            It was early in the morning and the sun was barely out of the peaks of Klubi. Had I known then what Mâ Dodong’s tutul was about, the day’s sunrise would have projected a new meaning – a celestial adventure, a symphony of sound that only a master chanter can describe. Yet it is also a glimpse of how Mâ Dodong Ulaw sees (and hears) the world through the lyrics and themes of ancient songs. The mountains and waters of the traditional domain of the Tboli resonate and shine in the songs of chanters like Mâ Dodong Ulaw.

To describe Lake Sebu is to describe a revelation. It is easier to describe in the language of poetry than in prose. Chanters and artists like Mâ Dodong reveal this beauty in their songs and crafts.

Going up from the hot and dusty roads of Koronadal and Surallah in South Cotabato, the municipality of Lake Sebu is first revealed as a stretch of cool, shaded road, a balm from the humidity of the lowlands. One opens the window of the public van to experience this revelation, to breathe in the fresh air from the rice fields and a waft from forested patches. Suddenly, Lake Lahit appears from one of the bends, placid and quaint, surrounded by low hills dotted with huts and small tracts of corn. Water hyacinths bloom in their dark pink hues. A gentle breeze disturbs the quiet of the lake. The Surallah-Lake Sebu public van picks up speed as it prepares to ascend another bend. On the left side of the road, a grove of giant bamboos shelters a gathering of men and women, some in their traditional attire, some in denim and shirt, discussing animatedly among themselves. The van turns another bend, and finally, you see the grand reveal, the great lake of S’bu itself.

Compared to Lake Lahit, Lake Sebu is less unassuming. The much wider Lake Sebu is checkered by fish pens. All around it are plebeian resorts and small stores selling anything from live tilapia to antique gongs. A solitary man can be seen quietly plying the lake with his owong, squatting stoically on the far end of the slim dugout canoe, paddling perhaps to his tilapia fish pen. When the moment of revelation is particularly auspicious, the mountain fog descends to the lakeside poblacion and covers the town in thick mists of cloud-stuff, and the old people would say the tulus have descended, for the spirits walk freely in the fog. In this place, it can be said, even the sun rumbles like thunder.

In this out-of-the-way frontier, the modern meets the ancient, tradition wrestles with the novel, and the esoteric grapples with the empirical. In the middle of this tension is Lake Sebu’s unique environment, its geography and resources, its climate, flora and fauna. In this part I will discuss the state of the physical and biological environment in the municipality of Lake Sebu as it shapes the lives and stories of the Tboli in Barangay Klubi.


Issues in the Governance of Natural Resources in Lake Sebu

Land is central to the struggle of indigenous peoples worldwide. Now, this struggle is compounded by risks from climate change. Since many of the territories of indigenous peoples are fragile, and many indigenous communities are highly dependent on natural resources and the integrity of the ecosystems they inhabit, land use policies of the State greatly affect individuals and communities.[2] In Lake Sebu town, where 63.14 percent[3] of the population are indigenous Tboli,  Ubo, and Manobo, majority of whom depend on the forests for their economic activities, encroaching land policies in the guise of development further disadvantage them.

Governance and management of these natural resources, rooted in the colonial history of the country and tied to post-colonial policies, is a major issue in indigenous territories in the Philippines.[4] In pre-colonial “Philippines,” land and resources are considered common resources.[5] Their use and conservation, therefore, are the responsibility of the whole community. Traditional land ownership, for example, is through clearing or t’miba, and planting. If a person clears a forest and plants on it, that person has rights on that plot for the duration of the land’s optimum fertility, which usually lasts 3-4 years upon clearing.

The story of mass migration to Mindanao of peoples from the islands of Luzon and the Visayas finds roots in the story of Western colonialism in the country. In my attempt to discuss issues in governance of resources in Lake Sebu, it is necessary to also tell the story of State-sponsored migration to Mindanao island, altering forever the natural and social landscape of this land.

Lake Sebu itself has been largely unperturbed by the colonial rulers of the Philippines, the Spaniards and the Americans. Although the entire island of Mindanao has been included in the Philippine Commission Act No. 2259 of 1913, or the Cadastral Act, which “institutionalized systematic land surveys and  facilitated the inventory of titled lands vis à vis the lands that can be alienated for government purposes,”[6] Lake Sebu remained impenetrable. On the same year of the Cadastral Act, the Philippine Commission Act Nos. 2254 and 2280, also known as the Agricultural Colonies Acts, invited Christian settlers to Pikit (the first to be carved out of the Cotabato town of the late Spanish period), Glan (known today as Sarangani), and Pagalungan (at that time a part of the old Muslim district of Midsayap, which is in turn part of the general region of Dulawan and Pikit). The arrival and success of Cebuano migrants in Glan, at the southernmost Buayan-oriented areas, presaged the arrival of Ilocano migrants into the neighboring Kiamba in 1918, and into Malungon in the 1930s and onwards. Kiamba was populated by the Tboli who lived in proximity with Maguindanao coastal communities that were also spread out along Malungon’s seaward areas, among the scattered homelands of the Blaan people.[7]

These American Colonial Acts would commence the series of State policies that would ultimately culminate in the Land Resettlement Acts of Manuel Quezon, a massive program to resettle the restive and landless farmers of Central Luzon to Mindanao. The Commonwealth Act No. 441, or the Act Creating the National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA), was passed in June 3, 1939.[8] General Paulino Santos was named head of the incipient National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA). The new body was organized based on recommendations of a three-man committee tasked to study the Quezon presidency priority of land resettlement in Mindanao for Luzon and Visayas. The NLSA was to supersede the work of the Inter-island Migration Division of the Bureau of Labor, which, from 1918 to 1939, resettled 30,000 to 35,000 individuals from Luzon and the Visayas, into Mindanao. General Paulino Santos led the first group of 200 migrants from Luzon and the Visayas to the Lagao area of Allah Valley to form six settler communities in what were, in previous centuries, the contiguous homelands of the Muslim Maguindanao, and the animist Blaan, Teduray, and Bagobo peoples.

Today, much of the control of natural resources and environmental wealth in Lake Sebu lies with the national and local government, with IP communities having little actual control. The Philippine Constitution provides that the State has full control and supervision of natural resources, that it can explore, develop, and utilize all lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coal, petroleum and other mineral oils, all forces of potential energy, fisheries, forests or timber, wildlife, flora and fauna, and other natural resources except agricultural land.[9] This State-imposed form of resource governance to a people who have, for centuries, been governing their lands, may only be described in the Marxist terms of “capitalist exploitation and internal colonialism,”[10] where the Tboli have been forced to comply with foreign laws concerning their ancestral land. Settler capitalism changed the landscape of resource governance in Lake Sebu.

With the settlers from Luzon and Visayas came also the logging and mining operations. Armed with logging and mining permits issued by the national government, local and foreign corporations cleared hectares of forests for timber and minerals. The height of the logging exploitation happened during the years of the Marcos administration. In 1979, logging concessions in Mindanao has been said to cover five million hectares, nearly half the land area of the island, and were mainly in the territories of the IPs and the Moros.[11] Timber exports to Japan and the USA[12] were to a large extent sourced from Mindanao. The mountains of South Cotabato were not spared from this Marcos logging spree. Timber License Agreements were granted to Marcos cronies, retired generals, and veterans, to secure their continued loyalty to the Marcos administration.[13] During the Martial Law years, the rate of forest destruction in the Philippines was about 300,000 hectares annually.[14]  In the ancestral territories of the Tboli people alone, the forests and mountains in T’boli town and Barangay Ned in Lake Sebu were the first to fall. Now, these places host monocrop plantations by multinational companies like Sumifru, Dole, San Miguel, and Consuji that continue at present to be contentious undertakings of the national and local governments.

Another issue that complicates the governance of resources in Lake Sebu is the presence of multiple legal systems that puts a tension between national, local, barangay laws, and customary laws that govern resources. The Tboli communities in Lake Sebu have a long history of customary laws and traditional governance mechanisms (adat), as well as a western (common law) legal system established during the colonial period in the Philippines and imposed upon the Tboli during the internal colonization of migrant settlers to Mindanao. A large part of the municipality of Lake Sebu is now covered by a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) no. R12-LAK-0110-155,[15] supposedly granting the Tboli a level of autonomy to govern their own ancestral domain. The recognition from the State of their “indigenous-ness” gives them authority emanating from the State. But to what extent does it empower Tboli communities to govern the natural resources within their ancestral domain?

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (Republic Act no. 8371 or IPRA) is the national legislation that recognizes and promotes Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Section 57 of chapter 8 of the IPRA states that: “The ICCs/IPs shall have priority rights in the harvesting, extraction, development or exploitation of any natural resources within the ancestral domain. A non-member of ICCs/IPs concerned may be allowed to take part in the development and utilization of the natural resources for a period of not exceeding twenty-five (25) years: provided, that a formal and written agreement is entered into with the ICCs/IPs concerned or that the community, pursuant to its own decision making process, has agreed to allow such operation: provided, finally, that the NCIP may exercise visitorial powers and take appropriate action to safeguard the rights of ICCs/IPs under the same contract”. This provision has been seen as a reinforcement of the Constitution’s Regalian Doctrine, the constitutional mandate that “all lands of the public domain belong to the State.”[16] But instead of protecting the rights of the IPs to their ancestral domains, Section 57 actually strengthens the argument that all natural resources found in ancestral domains belong to the State. In this sense, the IPRA does not give true autonomy and power to indigenous peoples to govern resources within their ancestral domains. The State, through legal instruments such as the Mining Act of 1995 and the Revised Forestry Code, and institutions, such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), govern like the metaphoric Leviathan over lives and resources, perhaps even like the monster Duyung in the story of Mâ Dodong devouring the sun in its sky-journey.


The Resource Curse of S’bu or the Lake of Paradoxes

The natural resources of Lake Sebu are a source of great bounty, as well as a profound cause for many of the challenges facing the Tboli today. To better understand this picture of great wealth in the lake environ of Lake Sebu let me share a story told to me by Yê Nida Anggol[17] where she reminisces the past bounty in the lake before the arrival of settlers and their new economic regime in the town of Lake Sebu.

I was first introduced to Yê Nida Anggol back in 2013 when I was documenting the processes involved in the weaving of tnalak. She had a kind face, and a gentle and generous smile. She spoke to me in a Tboli that has its own cadence and rhythm, every word perfectly enunciated. She was a chanter and tnalak weaver, an artist through and through. I met Yê Nida again in Klubi on February 8, 2017. She was in her traditional fandi, a plaid skirt, and Tboli beads of red and black around her neck. She wore her usual and warm smile.

I told Yê Nida that I was curious about how the lake was like during her childhood years. Jenita translated this question, and so she was looking at Jenita when she answered this. She was talking in rapid Tboli, and I noticed a certain nostalgia in the way she smiled at the recollection of years gone by. She described the lake as andô gonon gësëng matahem, which roughly translates to “an unobstructed vista”, the eyes can only see lake, mountains, and the sky. She said there were no concrete buildings around the lake before, and no water lilies that now choke the waterways. There was only the plant lagat, an aquatic plant that blossoms upward from the depths of the lake. There was an abundance of snails and shells which she described as smooth, shiny and semi-transparent, unlike the shells they get from the lake now. The lake itself was crystal-clear, that one can see right through the waters to its bottom. She lamented that with the introduction of tilapia, the pangasius, and the “Korean fish,” the lake, its fishes, snails, and shells, have never been the same as before. She observed that the introduced fishes have already killed-off the bonol and the hait, their staple when she was younger. She recalled that when she was a young girl living on the lakeside, they could just ride one of the owong boats and catch some fish for their meals, or walk along the shallower parts to pick some shells which they would cook.

Yê Nida said that there were no boundaries in the lake before, everyone can just come in and fish, or collect shells. No one owns the lake, the land, or the forests, she added. Here she explained that the family of our friend, Jelly Escarlote, was the very first migrant settlers to Lake Sebu. They were considered as Tboli, and not as outsiders. Yê Nida said that everything started out with friendship, and the first families who migrated were very good friends with the Tboli who were living near the lake. But she added that it became complicated when those families started bringing in their other families from Luzon and the Visayas, especially from the Ilocos and Negros provinces.

The “resource curse” paradox is already perceptible in the nostalgic narration of Yê Nida, recalling the lake of her youth, its great bounty and its eventual deterioration. It is a picture of what was, and of what was lost in the march of time. It was the same bounty of the lake, which attracted the settlers to venture into the mountains, a long hike (there was no concrete road before) from the established migrant settlements of Marbel (now Koronadal City) and Surallah.

The paradox of environmental wealth attracting insecurity to the indigenous inhabitants of a locale is also featured in the different versions of the creation stories of the lake. One version was told by Nayo Lungan[18], one of the elders in the community of Klubi, during an FGD in the gonô bong of Klubi. The story begins with a drought in mythic time:

There was no water, no lake then. The people before would only get their water from three sources: amo teweng (early morning dew, as large as a bamboo container), lumet (a tree which stores water), and the mto sekel (rattan).

The first person was Boi Henwu. She lived in Tebewow (which is now the so-called “three fingers” in Lake Sebu.) She was living with two companions, Ukan and K’ban. The Tboli were said to come from K’ban, that’s why they are sometimes troublesome. Both Ukan and K’ban are bong busaw (lit. big witches). Ukan follows the evil Sidek We, and he also helps in the delivery of children, but only the male babies. Ukan even kills the mother after delivery of the child.

Boi Henwu likes to take a bath, but only in the upper part of the gono (house), since her feet never touches the ground. She had a house-help, and this helper would fetch the water that she uses for her bath. One day, he was not able to catch the early morning dew, and Boi Henwu was so enraged she beat the house-help from toe to head.

Boi Henwu said, “Why is there no water?” And he answered, “Even the rattan has no water.”

When the house-help fell asleep, he dreamed of a spirit giving him instructions saying, “I pity you. This is what you should do. Look for the white frog in the middle of S’bu, it is hidden by a takul leaf. Raise the leaf and you will find the frog.”

The house-help always had with him several containers, even if there was really no water then. He went to the place as instructed by the spirit, and found the takul leaf. He lifted it and found a white frog. He raised the frog, and water emerged from the ground. After filling his containers with water, he placed the frog to where it was before. The water stopped flowing.

For many days, it was his secret. He would go to the frog, lift it, and fill his containers. His house companions became suspicious and interrogated him why he always had water in his containers. They were also wondering why he looked washed and cleaner than before.

He eventually told Boi Henwu about the source of the water after eight days.

When Boi Henwu found the water, she took a bath that lasted from early morning to late afternoon. When she was done, she forgot to place the frog back on its place.

Other people eventually found out about the source of the water. Without the frog in its proper place, the water flowed and flowed, flooding the village of S’bu, until it became the lake that it is now.


Going around Lake Sebu and asking people stories about the lake, I discovered many versions and ways of telling the story of the lake. During my first visit in 2013, I couldn’t help but ask around for some of these stories. Over lunch and overlooking the lake in one of the local restaurants in the poblacion, I asked my host Jenita Eko to tell me the story of S’bu. She narrated the version that was told to her by Boi Diwa Ofong, her grandmother. I remember there was a light rain that time, disturbing the surface of the lake. Jenita shared that before the lake, a long spell of drought ravaged a village that was once located in the same spot as the lake. The only available water was found in the droplets of water left on the leaves after the morning mist. The people collected these droplets in bamboo containers but it was still not enough. One day, a mystery baffled everyone. One of the village women was always seen by the other women as freshly bathed and with wet hair, as if she took a bath in a spring. One day, the villagers decided to follow her to her secret bathing place. To their disbelief, a small spring was indeed bubbling from a small crack in the earth. Angry that the woman tricked them and kept the source of water to herself,  the villagers mobbed the woman. A white frog was startled by the mob, and started to jump from one place to another. From where it jumped, water came gushing forth until the whole place was flooded. Everyone perished from this flood, and a lake was formed. It was said that the lake was named S’bu after the woman who discovered the spring.

In one of the afternoons of September 2014, accompanied by other researchers from Ateneo de Davao University,[19] Datu Benito Blonto, that time the Municipal Tribal Chieftain of Lake Sebu, shared his version of the Boi Henwu story which was quite similar to Jenita. His version, however, had more details on Boi Henwu’s ascension. In this story, a drought also ravaged the land. After the ordeal with the village people, Boi Henwu was saved by Lemugut Mangay by commanding a huge, black python to serve as a ladder for Boi Henwu. This was Datu Benito’s version of the ascension. He even pointed to the exact spot in the main island of Lake Sebu (the one locals call the “Crocodile Island”) where Boi Henwu was said to have ascended to heaven. Datu Benito also relayed that Kludan, Boi Henwu’s house-help, was so heartbroken about Boi Henwu’s leaving that he dove in the newly-created lake and ruled the kingdom under the lake. The dead villagers were his first subjects. In effect, Kludan became the lord of the Tboli underworld.

Though there are as many versions of the creation of the lake as there are storytellers, a central theme permeates the many versions: that something beautiful can blossom from a tragedy, like a revelation, like the lake of Sebu and its environ.

One thing that struck me in the narratives is the reaction of the people towards S’bu-Boi Henwu, and the house-help who hid the source of water. They perceived it only as a selfish act, deceitful and cunning. As the narrative’s crisis moment, it points to a social value that resources are collective, and  must be shared. According to these versions, S’bu-Boi Henwu should have shared the source of the water. It is a human reaction that the villagers became indignant and furious at how the spring was kept hidden to them. The secrecy was unjust and selfish. In many societies, especially in times of crises, the self should be secondary to the community. One must consider that a Tboli village is not just a community of strangers, but of closely-knit kins. To the villagers, what the woman did was betray her family. The irony here, though, is that their own anger caused their very own destruction. I wonder if  the villagers showed an ounce of restraint and waited for the woman to tell them about the spring, could the destruction of the village have been averted? Was the woman or the frog preparing the villagers for the final ablution?

The life-death attribute of water, so vividly positioned in the opposite ends of the story shows the value given by the Tboli to water—the longing for water at the beginning, and the terrifying flood that took S’bu-Boi Henwu’s and the villagers’ life at the end of the story marks these extremes. 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. Nowhere has this binary opposition of “blessing versus curse,” “life versus death” been featured so strongly than in the narratives about the k’mohung, or fish-kills in the lake, a regular event in the lake of Sebu.

One day during my fieldwork in 2014, as I was buying tilapia fish in one of the stores in the Poblacion, I asked the man selling if there had been any fish-kills recently, trying to stoke a conversation with him. He answered, pointing to one of the inlets in the lake that a relatively small k’mohung happened there just recently. He then shared a story that the fish-kill is a curse. He said that a Tboli man cursed the Ilonggo fishermen, saying that the Tboli are the guardians of the lake, and that their fishes will die, unless they give the fish to the Tboli. Indeed, according to him, whenever there is a fish-kill, the fish pen owners will give the dead fish to the Tboli, or sell them at a much lower price.

Another narrative views the fish-kill as a gift from Fu S’bu, the owner or spirit of the lake. Datu Benito described a time before the Ilonggo settlers put up their fish pens and when the lake was still covered with water lilies and lotus plants. He shared that whenever there is a k’mohung, people would see fish and shrimps floating in the surface. They were not quite dead, they only seemed “as if they were dizzy”. They can easily “pick these fish and shrimps with their bare hands,” he said. Indeed, outside Western and modern science, one will view this as a gift from the lake, almost parallel to the biblical “manna from heaven.” This idea of a gift clearly opposes the notion of a “disaster.” In fact, it only became widely-known as a “disaster” when the Ilonggo settlers came and established 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 points of view—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. 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 barangay Klubi on March 30, 2013 described the k’mohung and seselong in this manner: after a lëme-et, a Tboli term for a type of weather defined by occasional strong rains and wind coming from the north, and a sudden clearing (my informant likened the lëme-et to an impending typhoon), the Tboli 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 Tboli and the lakeside-dwelling Tboli. During the lëme-et, people surrounding the lake would also prepare for the seselong by observing the lake for the telltale signs of the k’mohung. The seselong was an opportunity for the lakeside dwellers to trade their gathered fish in exchange for the rootcrops of the upland Tboli.

This pattern in the activities and interactions of the upland and lakeside Tboli, 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 Tboli. More profoundly, however, it can be seen as an adaptation to a sometimes hostile environment. The seselong is a concrete social action caused by  a disruption in natural systems. Here, the Tboli ancestors who perished in the mythic flood that created the lake, is telling us something: the community is still paramount, and only through cooperation between communities can crises be overcome. The story of Boi Henwu-S’bu serves as a marker for how the natural and social worlds interact. These narratives are embedded with people’s fears, aspirations, and worldviews, and they expose the people’s vulnerability and resilience in spite of the dangers that lurk within and without their communities.


Of the Sun’s Journey and Monsters on Her Path

Here is perhaps the right place where the story of Mâ Dodong reappears in my narrative, back to that morning in Klubi, listening to the opening of the Tudbulul epic. The impact of environmental degradation, injustice in resource allocation and governance, and encroachment of settler capitalism to the Tboli’s ancestral domains, heighten the vulnerability of the Tboli, and place them in a situation of insecurity. This precarious life of the Tboli find a parallelism in the dangerous sojourn of the sun in the story of Mâ Dodong.

The thundering sun was still hidden,

its dawn light skimmed the surface of the stone crystals.

Duyung was threatening to eat it

trying to bite the sun’s shadow,

trying to swallow the sun’s shadow.

Duyung failed to reach the top of the mountain

when it tried to swallow the sun’s shadow.

It failed to raise its hand to reach the sun.


The thundering sun turned,

sounding like the cock of a gun,

like the peal of the meginding,

like the clinking of the senkaling,

the shaking of the klung,

the sound of the swift chorus of the veering and weaving

of eight swarms of bees.


The sun glided on the iron boulder

while the sea threatened to eat it

but managed only to bite half.


The thundering sun began to set,

like soft bells on a horse’s reins.

Right on time, in the sun’s journey,

it crossed the limestone mountain

sounding like the cock of a gun.

The sun tricked Megisan which was about to eat its lower part

but only the sun’s shadow was swallowed,

only its thick outer coat was swallowed.


The sun trudged on

and skimmed on the limestones.

It descended in G’bang Lunay

toward Mëgëwan.

Be safe in that crossroad!


In Mâ Dodong’s version of the Tudbulul epic-cycle, the opening narrative speaks of an endless danger for the sun as it crosses the mountains, sky and seas. In this mythic landscape, the sun’s journey becomes itself a trope for the Tboli who are voiceless, displaced from their land and from history, marginalized in national narratives and policies. The journey is arduous and full of dangers, full of monsters trying to bite or swallow the sun. Yet the daily pilgrimage has to be done. So does the  lives of the Tboli also have to trudge on as will be shown in the succeeding chapters, even in the face of many uncertainties. It is an image of never-ending toil, but also of an unceasing fortitude to face these dangers.

In Mâ Dodong’s story, movement is a strong theme. The sun thunders—it peals, clinks, buzzes in its journey that is poetically described as an ascent to crystal mountains and descent through limestone peaks. The sun of Mâ Dodong shares the toil and fate of the Tboli people who have, for centuries, been moving from mountain to mountain in search of arable land for their rotational farms, often facing the dangers of the feral forests. These are the forests that the Tboli eventually came to respect and name. Forests that the ancestors first cleared and planted with their crops are still known. Stories are still shared about places or trees in the forests, and villages are still named for the original trees that mark boundaries or special sites. The monsters in stories have been domesticated, unable even to bite the sun in its persistent flight in the sky. Yet another monster, more terrible even than Duyung and Megisan, hides in the story of Mâ Dodong—a gun, an artifact from the settlers, concealed in the opening of the ancient Tudbulul.

How does a gun suddenly appear in an ancient epic? The word used by Mâ Dodong was “munsil.” My translator was also surprised to hear the word in the midst of the specialized Tboli language used in the entirety of his chant. Her exact translation of “dëng keng nasad te munsilwas “pagkasa ng baril” (like the cocking of a gun), describing the turning of the sun in the midday sky, a strange description, but an evocative one. The gun, too, is a trope. Just as it nonchalantly intruded the mythic landscape of the chant, it, too, is a potent symbol of the encroachment of settler capitalism and its values, artifacts, and narratives to Tboli-land. It is the symbol of how mountains were flattened, ancient trees felled, and new laws protecting the colonizers were imposed. The sun turned, “sounding like the cock of a gun.” It is not the soft pealing or clinking of bells, but a weapon about to be fired. At that moment in mythic time, people and resources have become hostages to an unjust and violent regime.

[1] Crate and Nuttal, 12.

[2] Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Eleanor P. Dictaan-Bang-oa, Indigenous Women, Climate Change & Forests (Baguio City, Philippines: Valley Printing Specialist, 2011), introduction: xiv.

[3] Municipality of  Lake Sebu, 23.

[4] Ben S. Malayang III, Merrilyn Wasson and Simon Tay, “Political and Institutional Transformations,” in Critical States: Environmental challenges to development in monsoon Southeast Asia eds. Louis Lebel, Anond Snidvongs, Chen-Tung Arthur Chen, Rajesh Daniel, (Selangor Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2009), 25.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Many Muslims and other Mindanao communities with pre-colonial social systems (i.e., today’s ‘indigenous people’) remained unaware of this dictum.

[7] Marian Pastor Roces, Events pertinent to the violent politics of identity in 20th Century Mindanao: an annotated timeline (unpublished document), 28.

[8] The intent of Commonwealth Act No. 441 was: “(a) To facilitate the acquisition, settlement and cultivation of lands whether acquired from the Government or from private parties; (b) To afford opportunity to own farms to tenant farmers and small farmers from congested areas, and to trainees who have completed the prescribed military training; (c) To encourage migration to sparsely populated regions, and facilitate the amalgamation of the people in different sections of the Philippines; (d) To develop new money crops to take the place of the present export crops which may suffer from the loss of preferences which they enjoy in the American market.” The NLSA was given a capital stock of PHP20-million. It would immediately open up “virgin lands” mostly in Mindanao to agriculture by migrant farmers.

[9] 1987 Philippine Constitution, Article XII, Section 2.

[10] Duhaylungsod and Hyndman, 15.

[11] Shaira Panela, “Greener on the other side: Deforestation in the wake of Martial Law,” published 21 September 2012, accessed in http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/275014/scitech/science/greener-on-the-other-side-deforestation-in-the-wake-of-martial-law.com on 30 January 2017.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Logong, Ibid.

[16] 1987 Philippine Constitution, ibid.

[17] Yê Nida Anggol is a member of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. She is a gifted tnalak weaver and chanter. She is in her early 60s.

[18] Nayo Lungan is the Barangay Tribal Chieftain of Klubi. With the absence of birth certificates among the older Tboli in Klubi, I can only estimate that he is in his late 60s.

[19] In 13 September 2014, a consultative meeting was held in Barangay Poblacion, Lake Sebu, for the Tboli Sbù Senior High School project, a joint initiative of the Ateneo de Davao University and the Department of Education. I was part of the group who initiated the project.

Stepping Back: Reflexivity in the Field

Back in Klubi, Lake Sebu, after a full month. The sound of rain falling on leaves, the earth, and on our roof, is so sweet! I often take for granted small, yet profound details like this back in the city. (Personal Field Notes, 1 May 2013)

Often, we read (or made to read, as in the case of students) ethnographic writings as rigidly objective and ‘dry’ as sudoku boxes. We fight mouthful of yawns as big as the Niagara just to finish these ethnographies. They are spartan, martial in the writing style. In between lacunae of yawns, I ask why this damn book is making me drowsy: is it the writing style – bulleted, methodical, playing to the cadence of an invisible bugle? Is it the absence of people I can relate to? Is it because we are bombarded with alien and cold facts? Is it the all-knowing tone of the author? I am not sure. But there is one book, though, I read from beginning to end, with the gusto of a hungry hyena; the book beating with the tempo of an adventure novel. It was Bruce Knauft’s The Gebusi.

A conversation I had with Fr. Cabayao recently reminded me of this book, and made me reflect on what makes The Gebusi, spellbindingly readable. The subject matter was interesting, that’s one reason. But the other reason is that it resounds with the humanity not just of the Gebusi people of Papua New Guinea, but also of the writer-ethnographer, each page containing a part of Knauft himself, as if we the readers are with him in his thoughts. It was reflexive.

What does it mean to be reflexive in the study and writing of Anthropology? To begin a discussion on reflexivity, a definition is in order. But there are many definitions of the word ‘reflexivity’ being used in the social sciences and other disciplines, and that is one of the problems encountered by Michael Lynch in “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge.”

An exploration of its etymological source may be a good starting point. Tabitha Ross[1], in a graduate essay wrote that “the word ‘reflexive’ comes from the Latin ‘reflexus’, meaning ‘bent back,’ which in turn comes from ‘reflectere’; ‘to reflect’.” She further adds:

Reflexivity requires reflection in terms of deep and extended thought, and it is implied that one is reflecting back upon the past. A mirror, pool or text reflect the world in shimmering images; reflexive study is typified by a concern with images and representations, the fluid and constructed nature of meaning, and whether one can really get beyond representations to an ultimate signified or truth. In grammar, reflexivity means having an identical subject and direct object (as in the phrase ‘she watched herself’), and reflexive study implies that focus is bent back upon the anthropologist and the production of anthropological knowledge, rather than a purely external ‘other’…Finally, adding yet another dimension to this hall of mirrors of meaning, reflex is an ‘immediate involuntary response’, suggesting that reflexivity is something inherent in human nature, and perhaps also, in this context, in anthropology.

Michael Lynch further classified several ‘reflexivities’[2] used in different disciplines:

  1. Mechanical Reflexivity.
‘A kind of recursive process that involves feedback (Lynch:27); a habitual, almost automatic response to stimuli, which nonetheless remains inclusive of the monitoring of action by self and other. Further categorized as
    1. Knee-jerk reflexivity
    2. Cybernetic loopiness
    3. Reflections ad infinitum
  2. Substantive Reflexivity.
Seen as emblematic of late modernity, substantive reflexivity involves a somewhat calculating monitoring of costs and risks as offset against perceived benefits. Such monitoring is said to be socially constructed and inter‐subjective (ibid:28).
    1. Systemic-reflexivity
    2. Reflexive social construction
  3. Methodological Reflexivity. Defined as ‘philosophical introspection, [and] an inward‐looking, sometimes confessional… examination of one’s own beliefs and assumptions’ (ibid:29), methodological reflexivity oscillates between self‐criticism and self‐ congratulation, and is commonly expressed as both a personal virtue.
    1. Philosophical self-reflection
    2. Methodological self-consciousness
    3. Methodological self-criticism
    4. Methodological self-congratulation
  4. Meta-theoretical Reflexivity. Reflection upon, or interrogation of, all those ‘taken for granted assumptions’ (ibid:30) that form the basis of academic practices of knowledge production. Such interrogation is made possible by a kind of intentional ‘detachment’ or ‘stepping back’, thereby gaining a critical perspective on the modes of thought through which we come to know the world and accept that knowledge as ‘true’.
    1. Reflexive obejctification
    2. Standpoint reflexivity
    3. Breaking frame
  5. Interpretative Reflexivity. As ‘a style of interpretation that imagines and identifies non‐obvious alternatives to habitual ways of thinking and acting’ (ibid:32), interpretative reflexivity is a project in hermeneutics. By investigating the limits of textual analysis, such reflexivity closely resembles ‘literary exegesis’ (ibid).
    1. Hermeneutic reflexivity
    2. Radical referential reflexivity
  6. Ethnomethodological Reflexivity. Described variously as ‘ubiquitous’, ‘unremarkable’, ‘essential’ and ‘uninteresting’, ethnomethodological reflexivity ‘alludes to the embodied practices through which persons singly and together, retrospectively and prospectively, produce account­able states of affairs’ (ibid:33). Where ethnomethodology is the study of all those social practices that create an ordered experience of the ‘everyday’, ethnomethodological reflexivity attempts a systematic analysis of ‘background understandings of the normal, but unstudied, operations of the ordinary society’ (ibid:34).

Being reflexive then, in Anthropology, means acknowledging one’s own subjectivity and the part the anthropologist plays in his or her work. For example, an anthropologist may study a culture and interpret their behaviors and customs. But as a reflexive anthropologist, they would also describe their own background and the way in which they interacted with the people they study. We have learned that anthropological knowledge is situated– your interpretation depends on whether you’re a native or outsider, your gender, race or national background, your personal involvement with the people you study, your political views, and so on. Reflexive anthropology means foregrounding the researcher and admitting that anthropology (or any knowledge) can never be completely objective.

This stepping back, as excellently exemplified by Bruce Knauft in writing about the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea, allows the anthropologist to check the contexts at play, both from within him/her and from outside – the community being studied and the other forces dynamically at play. In this way, through reflexive analysis, the anthropologist may be able to “reveal forgotten choices, expose hidden alternatives, lay bare epistemological limits and empower voices which had been subjugated by objective discourse” (ibid: 36).

One such example of this stepping back is the entry narrative at the beginning of most ethnographies. In the Gebusi, Knauft narrated the gift-giving encounter (of plaintains) and how he was accepted in the Gebusi tribe. He also narrated and explained the concept of kogwayay.  Most importantly he also stepped back from the ongoing moment, and confessed how he felt – anxious, nervous, and narrating how tiring and arduous the long trek was. Instead of the ‘old’ entry narratives in which the ethnographer describes how he came to the place, what are the houses made of, what are the arrangements, etc., in the Gebusi, there was a sense of ‘how did I feel?’ It was a methodological reflexivity, a confession, a criticism that is palpable in the words. The particular entry narrative in Gebusi was, all at the same time, personal, self‐absorbed, melodramatic, self‐pitying, self‐congratulatory and self‐ transforming.

Reflexive writing also confesses the flaws and the limits of the ethnographer, and as such, of anthropology. As being there but not entirely them, the anthropologist who cannot fully be one of the people he or she is studying needs to admit where he or she is coming from; prejudices, biases, ideologies cannot be fully tamed in objectivity. Joseph Webster[3] writes that “by ‘lifting the veil’, anthropology seeks to reinforce its own authority by making certain truth claims about its practice: “Look, I’m not a fake; I know what I know because I was there – I saw these things, and spoke to these people, and I’ve already admitted I made a few mistakes, but look, what I’ve told you is basically sound”. So goes the avowal of the methodologically reflexive anthropologist.” (Webster: 69)

Reflexivity in anthropology allows for a critical bridge between the study of anthropology and its application to development works. Through reflexive analysis, the anthropologist who is there but also here, has the bi-focal vision that allows for a wider appreciation of issues and struggles affecting his or her traditional research partners. This dual vision and the “intersubjective context of the fieldwork”[4] also focuses attention to the discourse of ‘development’ where the Indigenous Community stands in the middle of oftentimes opposing notions. The anthropologist, reflecting on the two worlds he or she inhabits has the vantage point.  Ross asserted that “reflexivity turns attention upon anthropology and upon development and says: know thyself.” (7)

Webster, in concluding his article, defended the reflexive approach of anthropology:

Reflexivity is not about self‐reflection or self‐awareness, or about role distance, or about introspection, or about confession, nor is it about a social awareness of the everyday functioning of “ethno‐methods”. In sum, reflexivity is not a ‘sense of honour’ to be defended, but a ‘principle of practice’ to be deployed – not a moral principle based on virtue, or an essentialised principle based on unavoidability, but a principle of practice based on the historically contingent nature of knowledge production. (75)

My initial quote, from my field notes among the T’boli S’bu of Lake Sebu, is also an attempt at this stepping back. Although lacking the poetry and wit of Knauft, it is still a stepping back from the initial shock of the ‘entry’, and a retreat to the background of consciousness. From among the shadows and lights of this background, we try to collect ourselves, to check where we stand, to nudge our heads to look at another direction. For are not backgrounds and contexts the steel frames upon which to build the canvass of ethnographies?




Joseph Webster. “Establishing the ‘Truth of the Matter: Confessional Reflexivity as Introspection and Avowal,” Psychology & Society 1, no. 1 (2008): 65-76.

Michael Lynch. “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge,” Theory, Culture & Society 17, no. 3 (2000): 27-34.

Peter Hervik. “Shared Reasoning in the Field: Reflexivity beyond the Author,” In Eristen Hastrup and Peter Hervik (Eds.), Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge (1994): 59-75.

Tabitha Ross. Restudy and Reflexivity in Anthropology and Development. Accessed 2 August 2013. https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=ross.pdf&site10.


[1] Tabitha Ross, Restudy and Reflexivity in Anthropology and Development, accessed 2 August 2013, https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=ross.pdf&site=10.

[2] Michael Lynch, “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge,” Theory, Culture & Society 17, no. 3 (2000): 27-34.

[3] Joseph Webster, “Establishing the ‘Truth of the Matter: Confessional Reflexivity as Introspection and Avowal,” Psychology & Society 1, no. 1 (2008): 65-76.

[4] Peter Hervik, “Shared Reasoning in the Field: Reflexivity beyond the Author,” In Eristen Hastrup and Peter Hervik (Eds.), Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge (1994): 59-75.


Three Stories of Drought and an Analysis

Here, instead of a linear narrative, I follow the unrestrained telling of my informants, which skips back and forth in time, and blends the past and present together. These are three narratives from Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jenita, and Mâ Eko that I collected on three different occasions. Mâ Ungkal’s testimony of a childhood disaster came from an informal interview, Wè Jenita’s was an exchange over morning coffee, and Mâ Eko’s was from a free-flowing conversation over Tanduay, the local rum.

Mâ Ungkal’s Story

Mâ Ungkal was about the same age as my late grandmother. I first saw him at the but bnek (Tboli planting ritual) that I attended in March of 2015. He told us stories of how they did the ritual and the planting of upland rice in the 1960s. That day in 2015, he had a smile that was reflective and nostalgic of memories of friends and families in the long gone past. Today, we met him in his house. He was squatting on his legs while expertly twining ropes. There’s still strength in his arms, I thought. We went inside his house, and his daughter, who I guessed was in her early 40s, offered us coffee. Jenita explained to him that I wanted to interview him for my research. He looked at me inquisitively with his dim eyes, and I recalled the exact same way my own grandmother would look at me behind her cataracts. I asked if I can interview him, and explained that I first heard his stories at the but bnek ritual in 2015. Wè Jenita Eko was my translator. She translated everything I said, passing messages between me and Mâ Ungkal.

I asked him if he had any experience of severe drought when he was still young. He answered yes, and he estimated his age by pointing to a neighbor’s child. He was around 12 years old. He recalled to us a drought so severe that people died in Klubi. He described that the sun was “sut kdaw hulo” (the sun was red), and “ëmën klikam” (like the red design of the traditional bed canopy). When the rain stopped falling, he said that it only took 5 months before all the plants dried up and famine ravaged the land. The drought lasted for 10 months. They had to go to the forests to look for the biking, a kind of rootcrop that crawls on the forest floor. Mâ Ungkal explained that one must look for the roots of the crawling biking, and dig for about 5 meters from it before finally reaching the prized fleshy part of the tubers. He said that a single plant sustained them for a month. 

I was curious about his age. I tried to infer the year of this drought, so I asked if he ever encountered the Japanese when he was young. Yes, he said. He was already around 20 years old when the Japanese passed the mountains of Daguma in Lësok, a valley near Datal Sboyun. He even said that he was the one tasked by the Japanese soldiers to get them cows to eat. The soldiers only stayed for 5 days, he said, since they were on their way to the mohin bong, or sea, of Kiamba.

I told Ma Ungkal that I heard him tell the story of Sélél when we were at the but bnek ritual, l asked if he can expound on this. He explained that it is the name of a star used to determine the time of t’miba (fallow burning) and rice planting. He said that when it appears in the night sky, the fak tahu (edible frogs) would also appear, announcing t’miba. Sélél was a man, the first farmer who was knowledgeable in the arts of agriculture. Ma Ungkal said that one day, Sélél said to his people that he no longer wants to be on this tonok (earth), and wishes to ascend to longit. Before he went up to the sky, he instructed all the people in the ways of farming and told them never to worry, and to look for him in the night sky. From then, he will be the one who will tell them when to plant. He also left the people with the buli plant (lima beans), and said that when the buli starts to bear fruits, it is also the time to plant rice. He added that Sélél was fond of drinking lëwag (traditional wine made from sugar cane), since he was the man who invented it. When he ascended to heaven, he brought with him this wine. The old people say that when he throws out the last dregs of wine from his sokong (container), many people on earth would get sick.

We ended our conversation with this story of Sélél. But his daughter asked me if I could take a photo of Mâ Ungkal. She said that they don’t have a single picture of their father. I said, of course, it would be a great honor to do this. After taking pictures of Mâ Ungkal and his family, we went back to Jenita’s house in Lëmkwa. On our way to Lëmkwa, my mind was still wandering in distant lands, and in the long gone past, when men ascended to heaven with their wine cups full, and the trees have names that we must discover. (7 February 2017)

Wè Jenita’s Story

I am writing this from memory, and as often happens with memory, the borders of recollection are sometimes shrouded with the dark shadows of doubtful remembering. When this story was told by Wè Jenita, I had not the time to record the conversation and the narrated events may not follow the chronology in which they were narrated. In a sense, this is my story of her story.

I have just arrived in Klubi. I have not unpacked my bags yet, and they sit idly on the corner of the cottage where my hosts receive their guests. I was offered a cup of coffee by Jenita, freshly ground from the family’s wooden mortar. By this time, we have told so many personal and intimate stories to each other that we were no longer in a host-guest relationship. The relationship we shared was already that of a sister-brother bond. She asked to be called Jen, the honorific given to a sister or friend.

My mind was still reeling from the scenes of drought and misery that I saw going up to Klubi: the dry and parched vista from Davao to South Cotabato, hectares of farmlands made brown and idle, farmers protesting for food. I described these scenes to Jenita and later asked how the weather has been for the past months in Klubi. Wè Jen answered that it has not rained since last year, and many of the people are already afraid that if the drought continues, more will suffer.

Wè Jen then narrated how the elders came to her one day, worried that the rain had not fallen for months. They have not been able to plant rice, they told Jenita, and the corn they managed to plant have all dried up. “The radioman said that if this continues until September, we would all die.”

Wè Jen then told me that one of the elders who approached her recalled a question that I asked during a focus group discussion I conducted with them in 2013. “Do you remember that friend of yours from Ateneo? He asked us if we have ever experienced a drought here before. That night, we said that the last time it happened, it was our grandparents who experienced the long drought. But look what is happening now. Those who are school-educated must really know that things like this would come.” Jenita assured the elders that it was purely coincidental. I have to admit that this made me a little uncomfortable and even caused me to question the process I used that night when I conducted the FGD. Perhaps I asked the wrong question, consumed by an amateurish enthusiasm in the field? Perhaps my sporadic comings-and-goings in the community gave the wrong impression amongs the elders? How can I tell them that I am also uncertain of the future even with my formal education?

Wè Jen continued to talk about her conversation with the elders. One of the elders disclosed that he had already performed the melem éhék, a ritual to call the rain, where a sharpening stone or éhék is placed in the river or stream while offerings and supplications are given to the spirits and D’wata. The symbolization, according to Wè Jen, is that a sharpening stone always feels cool and becomes wet when used. The coolness and wetness of the stone symbolize rain. But the ritual, according to the elder, did not help in their predicament. The rain did not come.

The elders were worried. “This has never happened here before. The stream that runs from Datal Sboyun has dried up in many places, but flowing in others. It is a bad sign from the fu (owner) of the stream,” said one elder.

“It has only been a year after we revived the but bnek ritual, and the li-i (taboo) of the ritual is that we should continue doing it in every planting cycle. But how can we do it this year when it hasn’t rained sufficiently for our crops? Even if the upland rice does not require water irrigation, it still needs the usual morning rain coming from the mountains,” Wè Jen said. “Nice, my sister, tried to plant rice early this month. It was just in a small plot, but the seedlings just dried up. What a waste.”

My coffee has turned cold, and it was time for us to prepare lunch. “I was greeted by Klubi with this heavy news, but let us pray for the best,” I told Wè Jen, bringing the coffee mugs to the kitchen sink. “Don’t worry, we lumads are survivors,” she answered with a smile. But my heart was still heavy, and the land still parched.  (10 April 2016)

Mâ Eko’s Story

It was a cold night, fog has rolled down from the mountains, and we were huddled in the gono bong, the longhouse constructed for the women weavers in Klubi. The men were in one corner, while opposite them sat the women.

Mâ Eko spoke:

Noong araw, nagkaroon ng bagyo dito sa Klubi, walang natirang bahay. Ang mga tao noon nagbahay-bahay nalang muna sa kweba, para makaiwas sa lakas ng hangin.

Sa aming mga Tboli, ang palatandaan noon sa lakas ng hangin ay ang mga halamang-ugat, ang mga gabi, kamote at kamoteng kahoy, dahil kahit gaano kalakas ng hangin, di dapat yan natatanggal. Yung hangin noong bagyo, tinangay at dinala ang mga halamang-ugat sa Lake Seloton; Natanggal ang mga gabi. Ilang taon ito bago mag-1957. Walong araw na ganoon kalakas ang hangin.

Pagkatapos noong bagyo, walong buwan din ang tindi ng araw. Tagtuyo. Namatay ang lahat ng tanim sa loob ng walong buwan. Noong grabe ang tag-init, lahat ng mga baboy-ramo bumaba na rin sa patag, pinapatay ng mga tao para mabuhay sila at makain ang mga ito. Yung tribo, umasa sa mga baboy-ramo noong tagtuyo. Ni walang tubig, nag-iigib lamang sa Lake Siluton para makakuha ng tubig ang mga tao. Walang mga halamang-ugat, karne lang ang kinakain at wala nang iba pa. Umiiyak ang mga tao, humihingi ng tulong sa mga diwata. (29 March 2013)

(There was a time when a typhoon hit Klubi. The houses were decimated. The people lived temporarily in the caves to get away from the strong wind.

For us Tboli, one sign that the wind is indeed strong is to look at the rootcrops, the yam, the sweet potato, and the cassava. No matter how strong the winds are, these plants stay rooted. But during that typhoon, the rootcrops were even uprooted and blown away to Lake Seloton. This happened several years before 1957. The winds lasted for eight days.

After the typhoon, there was eight months of drought. All the plants died in eight months. During that drought, all the wild boars came down from the forests to the plains, and the people hunted them for food. The tribe subsisted on the wild boars. There was no water to drink here. We would go down to Lake Seloton to get water. There were no rootcrops, just the meat from the wild boars, nothing else. People were crying, pleading the spirits.)

Stories as Climate and Social Markers

Every place has a climate story to tell. A climate event like a slow-onset drought, as experienced by the Tboli in Lake Sebu from 2015 to 2016, will certainly be expressed in the narratives of the people who experienced it. The stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jen, and Mâ Eko, are such personal intimations of different drought events in Klubi expressed in different modes of telling. Although these stories tell of different narrated events, each captures the richness and nuances of the experience, and accommodates the ambiguity and complexity of the teller’s situation in the multiplicity of meanings.

While quantitative models can paint the bigger picture of climate change, and provide estimates for the likely consequences of different future climatological scenarios, they are not very good at providing information about changes at the local level. In recent years, there has been an increasing realization that indigenous communities are a valuable source of this information. Most published reports on indigenous observations of climate changes have come from Arctic and coastal regions where the cooperation between scientists and indigenous peoples are strongest. However, it is not only in these regions that indigenous peoples are observing climate changes. Forest-dependent peoples and communities in forest fringes have also been feeling the impacts of climate change, as the stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jen, and Mâ Eko prove.

Indigenous and other traditional peoples are only rarely considered in academic, policy, and public discourses on climate change despite the fact that they are, and continue to be, greatly impacted by impending changes. Their livelihoods depend on natural resources that are directly affected by climate change, and they often inhabit economically and politically marginal areas in diverse, but fragile ecosystems. Symptomatic of the neglect of indigenous peoples, the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report summary on climate change impacts makes only scarce mention of indigenous peoples. Only the indigenous communities of polar regions were featured in the report summary, and even then, they were depicted merely as helpless victims of changes beyond their control. Another Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the mitigation of climate change does not consider the role of indigenous peoples. This view of indigenous peoples as passive and helpless at best, or obstructionist and destructive at worst, is not new. Its roots go back to colonial periods, and reoccurs in contemporary discussion of development, conservation, indigenous rights, and indigenous knowledge. In addition, indigenous peoples interpret and react to climate change impacts in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge, as well as new technologies, to find solutions, which may help lowland and coastal communities to cope with the impending changes.

Stories about climate crises that are shared among members of the communities are revelatory narratives in the sense that these stories reveal the uncertainties, fears, and assumptions of the people telling them. These stories also reveal their vulnerability and responses to these climate crises. The stories also contain the teller’s worldview, intertextualized and interwoven with the stories that exist within the teller’s specific culture. These stories are made unique by the content, style, and structure of the telling. In my re-told stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jen, and Mâ Eko, their values, beliefs and attitudes are revealed when they harken back to past droughts, consult the experience and actions of their ancestors, and share among listeners their sentiments of uncertainties, or opinions in hurdling the present crisis, as when Mâ Eko recollects a typhoon and drought that he experienced when he was a child, or when Mâ Ungkal returns to mythic time to describe the traditional methods of planting.

Values, beliefs, and attitudes are not the only things revealed in these narratives. More prominent are the observable signs of climatic changes that are described in these stories. These phenological markers can be the appearance of certain birds, the mating of certain animals, or the flowering of certain plants. With climate change, indigenous peoples observe that many of these phenological events are occurring earlier, or decoupled from the season or weather that they used to indicate. In the story, for instance, of Mâ Ungkal, the planting season starts when the buli plants begin to bear fruit. Other signs, like the appearance of frogs, the specific phase of the moon, and the position of stars in reference to the mountains, also signal the Tboli planting season. Currently, however, these markers are seldom used by the Tboli due to the markers’ incongruence to the actual, and desired season that they signal, as will be shown in the following chapter.

The drought of 2015-2016 in Southern Mindanao was brought by an intense episode of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), an irregularly periodical variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean that affects much of the tropics and subtropics, including the Philippines. In its Drought/Dry Spell Outlook for end of March 2016, 19 provinces in the Philippines experienced drought due to the ENSO, which is defined by DOST-PAGASA as 3 consecutive months of way below normal rainfall condition (> 60% reduction in average rainfall). These provinces are Palawan in Luzon, Negros Oriental and Siquijor in the Visayas, and the provinces of Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, Basilan, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi in Mindanao.

Some of the people I asked in March and April of 2016, like Jelly Escarlote and Eunice Sulan,  described the overwhelming heat as “sakit sa panit” (heat causes stinging pain to the skin) or “mamaak ang init” (the heat is biting). From the story of Wè Jenita, the collective sentiment was of anxiety, a feeling of dread from the slow yet definite onslaught of drought. There was desperation from the accounts of the elders who talked to Jenita: “the stream dried up in some places, flowing in others…” It has never happened before, at least within the lifetimes of the elders.

They were referring to a stream that has its source in the mountains of Datal Sboyun, Datal, a flatland, and Sboyun being the name of the stream that cuts across the flatland. In some tracks of the stream, water seemed to continue flowing, and is seeped back into unseen crevices in the ground before they are fed again by water underground.

To some of the elders, this has a special significance because Sboyun is considered a benevolent fu (spirit or owner) that guards the source of drinking water and irrigation for the fields near the stream. Its unusual behavior during the drought of 2015-2016, and its cultural significance to the villagers of Klubi, would have been interpreted by some as an omen of worse events in the future. At the same time, it was also a measure of the severity of the drought they were experiencing. Anthony Oliver-Smith expounded on this notion of the multiplicity of meanings people attribute to a disaster, which can “fragment into different and conflicting sets of circumstances and interpretations according to the experience and identity of those affected.”

Oliver-Smith also notes the “multidimensionality of a disaster,” which discloses in their unfolding the “linkages and interpenetrations of natural forces or agents, power structures and social arrangements, and cultural values and belief systems.” One analysis of this notion is through the failed rituals that the elders performed.

More than the collective frustration from their vulnerable position, the failed rituals may also be read as the powerlessness of these men over the situation. Communing and negotiating with the spirits to bring rain is itself power, the capacity to be able to do something (from the latin potere, to be). The hope to gain agency over their environment is directly linked in faith. Ritualized symbolic practices before, during, and after disasters are thought to be “coping mechanisms which contribute to the social capacity of a community to cope with disasters.”  Yet here in the narratives of the elders, the powerlessness in rituals was politically and socially-crippling, and those who traditionally held the power to call the rain (a trope) and to give community relief (actual) have become impotent, themselves being victims of the disaster. This tear in the social fabric introduces to us the disruptions in the traditional social structure.

With the impotence of traditional leaders, other individuals and organizations filled in the lacuna in power. In Klubi, this was taken over by the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association, Inc. (LASIWWAI), a non-government organization headed by Wè Jenita Eko and Ms. Jelly Escarlote. During the drought brought by the 2015-2016 El Niño, LASIWWAI became the distributor of relief, in the form of credit, food, and access to government and non-government assistance. Through LASIWWAI, aid to the drought-stricken villagers was guaranteed by their organizational partners. Aid came in the form of project grants, food packs, and technical and technological assistance that included the construction of a solar drier from the Australian Embassy and a Kindergarten building from the Assisi Foundation, food packs from Century Tuna, Inc., and solar-powered lights from a Japanese donor, among others. This aid multiplied the social and political capital of LASIWWAI and the women who established and kept the organization running. In the village dynamics, LASIWWAI had become a wielder of power, with Jenita and Jelly playing central actors in a political re-structuring in Klubi. This did not happen overnight, of course. The works of the organization were already making headlong impacts in the lives of women and men in Klubi and other barangays of Lake Sebu even before the drought. Yet the onslaught of the El Niño, as a revelatory crisis, made their position in the community more eminent.

The rise of these women leaders also revealed the gender impasse in Klubi. The Tboli are considered in ethnographies as traditionally patriarchal, marked by an institutionalized male dominance over women and children in the family, and the subordination of women in society in general. Wé Jen would always insist on this injustice, saying that Tboli women do all the work in the house and in the farm. “Men only drink and chat, leaving all the work to us women,” she argued. Men do work, of course, but during my fieldwork in Klubi, especially during the planting and harvesting of upland rice, I noticed that most of the work were indeed done by the women. All phases of rice planting and harvesting, except for the actual tilling of the land, were done by women. Women, too, were often disadvantaged when men decide to divorce from an unhappy marriage. To expedite the process, they would often accuse their wives of adultery, and the burden of proving innocence lies with the woman.

But with the growing membership and influence of women’s group like the LASIWWAI, there is a new status for women as influential economic, political, and social actors. Many of the traditional gender roles and expectations have been challenged and renegotiated in Klubi. This was evident during the drought of 2016, when male elders, the traditional decision makers, came to Wè Jenita Eko and Ms. Jelly Escarlote for their support and counsel. This act of seeking counsel from the women was in itself a challenge to the dominant patriarchal values. Their new position of power and subversion of gender roles had inevitable and personal consequences to the two women.

A gender rift within the Sulan family caused a violent altercation between Jenita and a male sibling, a half-brother with her father’s second wife. Several weeks before I visited Klubi in April 2016, the male sibling, with the full knowledge of their father, attempted to badly hurt his sister. This was later explained to me by Jenita herself, when I visited her again after a month: that his brother and father were both disadvantaged by her rise to economic and social power. This caused a growing antagonism towards her. The jealousy of the brother was progressive and cumulative. Perhaps the desperation caused by the drought was the metaphoric last straw in their tense relationship. The two have since been reconciled in early 2017. The episode between the siblings are just symptoms of the gender gap and the violence it provokes. This gap, and the resistance to close it, linger among individuals who refuse to accept, negotiate, or adapt to the evolving landscape of power between the traditional and novel forms of leadership, and the ever-shifting power relations between the sexes.

The three stories I have shared also reveal the Tboli’s vulnerability to climate perturbations. Indeed past droughts caused by the El Niño Southern Oscillation, especially in Mindanao, have been recorded. In the past century alone, El Niño events in the Pacific have occurred in the following years with varying degrees of intensity in the region: 1900-1906, 1911-1915, 1918-1920, 1924-1926, 1937-1942, 1957-1959, and 1964-1969. Compounded by historically oppressive State policies on land and access to natural resources,  the Tboli also face the hazards of an unfortunate geography with a history of extreme weather events. Because of its proximity to the equator, southern Mindanao is most vulnerable to El Niño when reversal wind occurs at 5 degrees north and 5 degrees south. Along with the exposure to the threats of El Niño, Mindanao is also home to the country’s poorest, where most of the inhabitants subsist on agriculture. The Manila Observatory, mapping the vulnerabilities of different areas in the Philippines to environmental disasters, has placed the province of South Cotabato in the top 10 provinces that are most at risk to El Niño-induced droughts.

Both Mâ Ungkal and Mâ Eko narrated stories of past drought events and how it claimed the lives of many kins and villagers. Mâ Ungkal described a drought so intense that the sun turned red as the klikam, the Tboli bed canopy. Mâ Eko narrated a time when the villagers had to fetch water from Lake Seloton, a lake that is several kilometers downhill from the rugged hills of Klubi. Both stories underscore the famine and the hunger, which forced the Tboli to look for atypical food in the deepest forests, and forage for wild animals also escaping the overwhelming heat. The experience must have been truly catastrophic for it to be memorialized in oral narratives. One might also infer that the past droughts must have been in the minds of the elders when they approached Wè Jenita.

Indeed, the vulnerability of people to disasters exists at the intersection of nature and culture, as Oliver-Smith expounded, The three stories show how inextricably linked disasters are with environmental hazards, social and economic structures, and cultural norms and values. A disaster event untangles these links providing an opening to study how these structures are often challenged and negotiated, or conserved and transformed. Oliver-Smith elucidated on how narratives, like the three stories presented above, are expressions on how risk and vulnerability are perceived, stating that this perception is “mediated through linguistic and cultural grids, accounting for great variability in assessments and understandings of disasters.” Studies about global warming among the Sakha in the Arctic, Leukerbad in Switzerland, and the Kgalagadi in Botswana are just some of the studies which employed the oral narrations of the peoples’ experiences and perceptions of the changing climate.

These narrated events describe the Tboli’s vulnerability to disasters and expose the multidimensional aspects of a disaster event. However, it also reveals the astonishing resilience of these people. Wè Jenita’s self-confidence in her remark, “we are survivors,” is also an admission of the hardships they had to endure and overcome. Knowledge on indigenous adaptation mechanisms, like foraging for the biking plant that provides the much needed carbohydrates in drought events, performing the melem éhék ritual to call for rain, or migrating to look for sources of water, all form the Tboli’s traditional understanding of their ecological heritage. As these knowledge are all currently transmitted through the oral tradition, addressing adaptation and resilience of the Tboli then lie on the oral and the aural which provides serious implications for their adaptive capacities to future weather perturbations.

In retelling the stories of Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jenita, and Mâ Eko, I am not only telling an individual’s experience of a drought, but also that of a people’s culture. Indeed, a story is a web of interconnected and intertextualized stories. We connect to these interconnected stories in the past in order to understand our current experiences. In an epistemological sense, the stories like the ones told by Mâ Ungkal, Wè Jenita, and Mâ Eko become the interpretive lens for new experiences in the future. The stories also become a means of constructing the world, making meaning for themselves and for other people, and creating funds of knowledge for future generations.

Madaris Volunteers: Hope and Compassion

(16 April 2018 on the Occasion of the Madaris Volunteer Program Batch 3 Culmination Night)

Fr. Joel Tabora, president of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines and president of the Ateneo de Davao University, Dr. Ombra Imam, president of National Association for Bangsamoro Education, Inc., to our partners here in the Ateneo, the Al Qalam Institute, Arrupe Office of Social Formation, and the School of Education, administrators, peacemakers, friends, and most especially our dear madaris volunteers, God’s peace and blessings to all of you. Assalamu alaikum.

Five years ago, and I can still remember that day with clarity, Fr. Joel, Datu Muss, and Dr. Imam (and myself merely witnessing the occasion) met with Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, MILF Chair, to discuss the possibility of a volunteer-teaching program in the Bangsamoro, specifically in Islamic schools, or madaris. It was Good Friday of 2014, at 3:00pm, when we met him. In the Catholic tradition, as you may know, Jesus died at 3:00pm, and commemorated on Good Friday. I remember thinking to myself that day, “what a horrible day to have a meeting.” It was the start of summer season, in Maguindanao (you know how hot that means), it was supposedly the Holy Week holidays, and there I was in a meeting. All the while, I was also harboring a secret fear, a trepidation to meet the Kagi Murad, in the Camp Darapanan, stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

We finally entered this meeting room with oversized wooden sofas facing each other, and Kagi Murad came in with this warm smile. After courtesies were exchanged, Fr. Joel talked about Bangsamoro history, talked about the injustices to the Moro people with all sincerity and compassion, but he also shared a new hope, a “jihad for education” that Kagi Murad himself talked about when NABEI was launched earlier that year. Kagi Murad and Fr. Joel had a lively conversation after that introduction and Murad accepted a proposal for intervention in the education sector. The meeting ended with group pictures, selfies, but also with a lightness in our hearts that must have been hope. On our way back to Cotabato, it was around 5:00 in the afternoon, I thought to myself, “maybe Easter came soon this year.”

I told you that story because it’s always good to start where it begins. The Madaris Volunteer Program begun in hope and in optimism. But I also told you that story because it’s been 5 years from the inception of the program, to this culmination of our 3rd batch of volunteers. And often when we look back, we say “where have all the years gone?” Where do the seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years go when they’re done with their moments? And when I look back now, it feels like it was only yesterday when we were in Camp Darapanan on a Good Friday, it feels like only yesterday when we had this daily drama in the MVP office, it feels like only yesterday when our Madaris Volunteers were complaining because of a delayed allowance. Today our motto in the MVP is “Changing the Odds through the Madaris Volunteers,” yet during its first and second year it felt more like “MVP Against All Odds.” During our first 2 years of implementation, we faced many challenges – political, cultural, personal. But we overcame these challenges and we’re still working to improve the program to better serve our communities.

Where have all the sands of time gone? I’d like to think that in the Madaris Volunteer Program, they become encounters that change lives, experience that mold us as human persons, and memories that will nourish us during our spiritual famines. “Lost time” is never really lost when we spend it in genuine joy and selfless service.

As we celebrate tonight the volunteer service of the Madaris Volunteers, I would like to thank Fr. Joel for making this program a reality, for nourishing this new hope. Dr. Imam for bridging friendships that cuts across faiths and cultures. Our partners here in the Ateneo, Al Qalam, Arrupe, SOE, and from other offices, departments and centers, for truly supporting an endeavor that inspires and changes lives not just in the Bangsamoro but in the country. To the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines and the Private Educational Assistance Committee, thank you. To our dedicated MVP coordinators, there is still so much to be done but tonight we celebrate another year of “peacebuilding through education and peacebuilding through friendship.”

And to our volunteers who have exhibited tremendous sab’r (patience), compassion, courage, love, and dedication… Maraming salamat. Shukran for your gift of self. May you always remember your time with the communities and the program, with a smile on your face, and a lightness in your heart that is Hope.

Thank you and wasallam.