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.

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