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.