An Interview with Yê Nida Anggol

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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?

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The Stories of Nayo Lungan

Collected on 6 December 2014 in Lamkwa, Klubi, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. Transcribed and translated into English from Tboli with the help of Bo-i Jenita Eko. Nayo Lungan, I would estimate, is in his late 60s (the Tboli do not reckon their birth years). These stories were collected late in the evening, in the gono bong (long house) of Klubi, in a circle of friends, family, coffee, and Tanduay. 

The Tboli people were created by H’yu We and Sidek We. After creating them, the people at first could not speak. And H’yu We asked help from Litek (thunder) to catch all of the created men and women. The first people were so terrified of Litek’s booming voice when he called them that they eventually found their own voices and started to speak. That is why, when it thunders and lightning strikes someone dead, it is said that Litek has claimed his own voice back from that person.

When H’yu We and Sidek We were creating the Tboli from clay, H’yu We said that the clay figures should be placed beside the rocks so that when these beings fight each other, they would not be able to die. She also suggested to Sidek We that they could be placed in bamboos so that they would not be seeking food forever. Sidek We, on the other hand, suggested that the clay figures should be placed in bananas, so that the beings could die even whey they are young, when they are in the middle of their lives,  or die in old age.

There was no water, no lake then. The people before would only get their water from three sources: amo teweng (early morning dew) [the dew then was 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), her feet never touching the ground. She had a house-help, and this helper would fetch for her 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 told to him in that dream and found the takul leaf. He lifted it and found a white frog. He then raised the frog and water emerged from the ground. He filled up all his containers and placed the frog to where it was before and 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 clean than before.
He eventually told Boi Henwu the source of the water after eight days.
When Boi Henwu found the water, she took a bath which lasted from early morning to late afternoon.
Other people eventually found out about the source of the water, and the water grew and grew filling up the lake that it is now.

In the olden times, there were two trees in S’bu, the Nabul and the Kekem. That is why there is still a placed called Tekekem and Lemnabul. And when the sun shines brightly in the sky and the lake is clear, one can even see the stump of the fallen Nabul tree under the lake.
The people before could climb the giant tree Kekem which reached the window of angels in heaven. That is why hundreds of thousands of Muslims cut the Kekem and the Nabul. They reasoned that if all the people would climb the trees to reach heaven, then there would be no one left on earth.
When they fell the Kekem, some of its branches fell into the sea. Its main trunk became the Ala river and its smaller branches became the tributaries of the river. Most of its branches fell in the mountains, that is why many of the springs are hidden in the mountains.
When they fell the Nabul, its branches also fell in the water, that is why there is still a place called Lësok Gaaw.
The branches of the Kekem are like the designs of the tnalak cloth. The design “Btek tofi gaway” was named after the patterns on the Kekem branches. But some of the women find it difficult to copy the designs on the branches that is why Fu Dalu would come to them in dreams.
During that time, Boi Henwu had a pet python. That time when S’bu was filled with water, the Kekem tree was still there. Boi Henwu ascended to heaven with her python. You can still see the marks of the python in Tebewow. It’s the reason why there is an eclipse. Boi Henwu’s python would try to eat the moon in the sky.
When the Kekem tree was cut, another branch also fell in Sitio Bulat. There is a spring there now called Tebul Doyow. It’s said that there is a rock in that place that used to be a snake.
Ukan went to live in Bak Ngëb (a cave system in Lake Sebu). K’ban went down to the lake of S’bu (that is why the lake claims many lives). And Sidek We owns the Hikong Bente, the last waterfall in the “7 Waterfalls”. Boi Henwu ascended to heaven.

An Interview with Mâ Ungkal, Son of Kawit

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He was about the same age as my late grandmother. I first saw him at the but bnek (Tboli planting ritual) last April of 2015, he was telling 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, recalling the long gone past and perhaps memories of friends and families. 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 was at the but bnek ritual in 2015 where I first heard his stories. Jenita was my translator. She translated everything I said, passing messages between me and Ma Ungkal.
I was curious, I said, with the ways the Tboli planted in his childhood years and the difficulties of those days. I asked if there was a difference to how people planted then and now. He answered that a lot has changed since then. He was around 15 years old when he first started helping in the swidden farms. They cultivated mostly kleb (taro), ubi (sweet potato), and ubi koyu (cassava) but the main work was cultivating the upland rice and bananas. There were no carabaos before, he explained, and work was laborious and manual. They also planted the selâ tahu, the native corn, which would take about 2 and a half months before it can be harvested. They planted these in time with the upland rice which would take about 5 months before harvesting. This way, he said, they have food while waiting for the rice to be harvested. Before any planting can be done, they would do the t’meba or the slash and burn method of clearing plots of land. A small cottage or lowig would be built during the t’meba, where they would rest even if they are away from home. Ma Ungkal explained that the t’meba was only appropriate for the corn planted in the forestlands because rice requires the flat plains between mountains and these are normally just grasslands.
Ma Ungkal also shared that they would know the right time to plant based on the sun. When the sun is mo-ol or setting in the direction of Melê Botu (Mt. Parker), the land is prepared and plowed for planting. When the sun starts to set in the direction of Matutum, then the planting can commence. When the sun again sets in the direction of Holon, the rice may then be harvested.
Cleared land is usable for 3-4 years, where it is best fertile, he explained. Then they would let it rest for the next 5 years. But he lamented that it is no longer possible today due to the increasing difficulty in the access to free land for them. Hënëk! We just stay put in one plot of land now, he said.
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 (Dioscorea esculenta) a plant, 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 5 meters before finally reaching the prized fleshy part of the tubers. He said that a single plant sustained them for a month. *This is estimated to be the El Niño event of 1931.* 

I was curious about his age and was also trying 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. They only stayed for 5 days, he said, since they were on their way to the mohin bong (sea) of Kiamba.
I told Ma Ungkal that I heard him tell the story of Sélél when we were at the but bnek ritual and asked if he can expound on this. He explained that it is the name of a star used to determine the time of t’meba and rice planting. He said that when it appears in the night sky, the fak tahu (edible frogs) would also appear announcing t’meba. Sélél was once 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 wished to ascend to longit. But 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 because he will be the one who will tell them when to plant. He also left the people with the buli plant (patani or lima beans) saying 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) being the man who invented it. When he ascended to heaven he brought with him this wine and the old people say that when he throws out the last dregs of wine from his sokong (container), many people would get sick down here on earth.
We ended the interview with this story of Selel. 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 Mâ Ungkal’s pictures and his family, we went back to Lëmkwa, to Jenita’s house. But 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 I must discover.