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.


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