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, with 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 wanted to do a more in-depth interview because during the last time I met her, just as we were starting to pack our things, she chanted to the group a part of the story of Ibid and Kiyol, two comical and folk characters that are inspirations to tnalak designers. I wanted to record the full story so I asked for Jenita Eko’s help in setting up a date with Yê Nida.
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 had on her usual and familiar smile. I greeted her heyu hlafus, good morning, and she greeted me back. We had breakfast together with Jenita and some friendly exchange. After breakfast, she told us that she needed to be back before 10:00 in the morning as she has many chores to finish. I said that we can already proceed with the interview and I promised that it won’t take long.
I introduced myself again to her. I told her that I am a student of Anthropology in Ateneo de Davao, trying to finish my thesis. I told her the objectives of my thesis and I also asked if I may use the quotes from our interview. The customary self-deprecation followed, that she is not worthy, not even educated, nor literate. I told her that I don’t know how to weave the intricate tnalak either, so that makes us even. She laughed at this and gave me her consent, so I thought I must have said the right thing. I gave a sigh of relief and smiled at her. Let’s begin, I said.
I asked her first how she learned how to weave the tnalak and who taught her the art. She answered that she learned it late in her life, in her 20s when she transferred to Sitio Tablo in Lamdalag. Yê Nida explained that a girl normally learns it at a very early age, but she only learned how to weave when she got married to a man from Tablo. Tablo, she explained, was the center of weaving in Lake Sebu. Her sister-in-law taught her how to do all the processes, but she had to start with the tembong, the process of connecting individual abaca strands to make into a single bundle of strand ready for weaving.
I asked Yê Nida where she was originally from. She answered that she was born in one of the villages in S’bu (now called the “poblacion”) the lakeside barangay of Lake Sebu. Her father was a fisherman in the lake, she said, and he also taught her how to fish using the traditional method of dule, or line fishing.
I told Yê Nida that I was curious 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 the lake as andô gonon gësëng matahem, which roughly translates as an unobstructed vista, the eyes can see only see lake, mountains, and the sky. She said there were no concrete buildings around the lake before, and no water lilies (fam. nymphaeceae) either 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.
I thanked her for telling how it felt like before when the lake was that beautiful. I then told Yê Nida that I wanted to know more about the tnalak, the gains and the challenges that she is now facing as a weaver.
I asked her first if there were areas around Lake Sebu that specializes on the weaving of tnalak. Yê Nida answered that the upper barangays, because of their cooler clime, are the areas where there are weavers. These are Lamdalag (proper), Tablo (a sitio of Lamdalag), and Klubi. She added that Klubi, because it was closer to the forests, was and still is, the source of abaca fibers which is the material for the tnalak cloth.
I then asked Yê Nida if she can share to me her experience studying how to weave. She said that after helping out with the tembong, connecting individual strands, her first hands-on experience with the back-strap loom was when she practiced with a small piece of tnalak weaving a bëd hënda design. She appreciated the methods of her sister-in-law, her tnalak mentor, who never once touched her work but only gave verbal instructions and helpful criticisms. Her mentor afterwards taught her how to do the hëmto, the tie-dye method of covering certain areas for dyeing which gives the cloth its signature designs.
Tnalak cloth that they would not use personally were sold to the store called “Local.” This was a store managed by the Sta. Cruz Mission, through Fr. Rex Mansmann. Yê Nida described it as a “buy-and-sell” store and she added that the women weavers can take out small credits from the store. Here Jenita shared that it was Fr. Rex who was the first to classify tnalak according to their quality, but in truth, she said, the Tboli were already classifying tnalak according to their quality and their specific uses. But it was Fr. Rex who introduced the idea that the tnalak has a monetary value. This changed the economic position of the women weavers, I commented to the two women. And they both agreed. Yê Nida commented that the women, before the introduction of the “Local” Store, had no right to the final product of their weaving. The finished cloth were considered as gifts, and the men, usually the father or the husband, would give them to other men [a gift economy].
I asked if the women had a hold of the money they received from selling the tnalak. She answered that with the “Local” Store, the women weavers were paid the money and get to keep them too but this led to some problems at first. The men did not like it, according to Yê Nida, but they persuaded them nonetheless telling them that the women would not have been able to weave if not for the men’s role in stripping the abaca or getting wood for the fire. Yê Nida and Jenita both agree that the women have been empowered economically by the tnalak as an enterprise, but gender asymmetry is still widely felt among Tboli families that women still have to ask men for their consent. But they insisted that the women now have greater rights to the products of their weaving compared before.
When I asked if she ever dreamed of patterns like the “dreamweavers” popularized by different media, Yê Nida said that she had never been visited by Fu Dalu [owner/spirit of the abaca] in her dreams and that it was Bo-i Diwa Ofong who was truly the dreamweaver. Jenita, who is the granddaughter of Bo-i Diwa, commented that the bang gala design came to her grandmother in a dream but they were not clear designs, as was later confided to Jenita. Bo-i Diwa would work out on the several patterns presented to her in the dreams to make one design. Sometimes, Bo-i Diwa said to Jenita, Fu Dalu would even give her instructions on what the designs mean and what they are for.
I asked Yê Nida if she knows of anyone alive who still dreams the patterns, and with a sad note said, “no one dreams patterns anymore.” She added that maybe all the basic patterns have already been revealed and that the weavers now have to work newer ones inspired by the “revealed patterns”.
We ended our interview on this melancholic note. I thanked her profusely for her time and for granting me an interview. My head was still reeling from all the information I received from Yê Nida, but I realized that my heart was heavy form her last statement. The term “dreamweavers” have been synonymous to the Tboli but with the dreamweavers never dreaming anymore, has the tnalak been relegated to another inert cultural artifact?