Stepping Back: Reflexivity in the Field

Back in Klubi, Lake Sebu, after a full month. The sound of rain falling on leaves, the earth, and on our roof, is so sweet! I often take for granted small, yet profound details like this back in the city. (Personal Field Notes, 1 May 2013)

Often, we read (or made to read, as in the case of students) ethnographic writings as rigidly objective and ‘dry’ as sudoku boxes. We fight mouthful of yawns as big as the Niagara just to finish these ethnographies. They are spartan, martial in the writing style. In between lacunae of yawns, I ask why this damn book is making me drowsy: is it the writing style – bulleted, methodical, playing to the cadence of an invisible bugle? Is it the absence of people I can relate to? Is it because we are bombarded with alien and cold facts? Is it the all-knowing tone of the author? I am not sure. But there is one book, though, I read from beginning to end, with the gusto of a hungry hyena; the book beating with the tempo of an adventure novel. It was Bruce Knauft’s The Gebusi.

A conversation I had with Fr. Cabayao recently reminded me of this book, and made me reflect on what makes The Gebusi, spellbindingly readable. The subject matter was interesting, that’s one reason. But the other reason is that it resounds with the humanity not just of the Gebusi people of Papua New Guinea, but also of the writer-ethnographer, each page containing a part of Knauft himself, as if we the readers are with him in his thoughts. It was reflexive.

What does it mean to be reflexive in the study and writing of Anthropology? To begin a discussion on reflexivity, a definition is in order. But there are many definitions of the word ‘reflexivity’ being used in the social sciences and other disciplines, and that is one of the problems encountered by Michael Lynch in “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge.”

An exploration of its etymological source may be a good starting point. Tabitha Ross[1], in a graduate essay wrote that “the word ‘reflexive’ comes from the Latin ‘reflexus’, meaning ‘bent back,’ which in turn comes from ‘reflectere’; ‘to reflect’.” She further adds:

Reflexivity requires reflection in terms of deep and extended thought, and it is implied that one is reflecting back upon the past. A mirror, pool or text reflect the world in shimmering images; reflexive study is typified by a concern with images and representations, the fluid and constructed nature of meaning, and whether one can really get beyond representations to an ultimate signified or truth. In grammar, reflexivity means having an identical subject and direct object (as in the phrase ‘she watched herself’), and reflexive study implies that focus is bent back upon the anthropologist and the production of anthropological knowledge, rather than a purely external ‘other’…Finally, adding yet another dimension to this hall of mirrors of meaning, reflex is an ‘immediate involuntary response’, suggesting that reflexivity is something inherent in human nature, and perhaps also, in this context, in anthropology.

Michael Lynch further classified several ‘reflexivities’[2] used in different disciplines:

  1. Mechanical Reflexivity.
‘A kind of recursive process that involves feedback (Lynch:27); a habitual, almost automatic response to stimuli, which nonetheless remains inclusive of the monitoring of action by self and other. Further categorized as
    1. Knee-jerk reflexivity
    2. Cybernetic loopiness
    3. Reflections ad infinitum
  2. Substantive Reflexivity.
Seen as emblematic of late modernity, substantive reflexivity involves a somewhat calculating monitoring of costs and risks as offset against perceived benefits. Such monitoring is said to be socially constructed and inter‐subjective (ibid:28).
    1. Systemic-reflexivity
    2. Reflexive social construction
  3. Methodological Reflexivity. Defined as ‘philosophical introspection, [and] an inward‐looking, sometimes confessional… examination of one’s own beliefs and assumptions’ (ibid:29), methodological reflexivity oscillates between self‐criticism and self‐ congratulation, and is commonly expressed as both a personal virtue.
    1. Philosophical self-reflection
    2. Methodological self-consciousness
    3. Methodological self-criticism
    4. Methodological self-congratulation
  4. Meta-theoretical Reflexivity. Reflection upon, or interrogation of, all those ‘taken for granted assumptions’ (ibid:30) that form the basis of academic practices of knowledge production. Such interrogation is made possible by a kind of intentional ‘detachment’ or ‘stepping back’, thereby gaining a critical perspective on the modes of thought through which we come to know the world and accept that knowledge as ‘true’.
    1. Reflexive obejctification
    2. Standpoint reflexivity
    3. Breaking frame
  5. Interpretative Reflexivity. As ‘a style of interpretation that imagines and identifies non‐obvious alternatives to habitual ways of thinking and acting’ (ibid:32), interpretative reflexivity is a project in hermeneutics. By investigating the limits of textual analysis, such reflexivity closely resembles ‘literary exegesis’ (ibid).
    1. Hermeneutic reflexivity
    2. Radical referential reflexivity
  6. Ethnomethodological Reflexivity. Described variously as ‘ubiquitous’, ‘unremarkable’, ‘essential’ and ‘uninteresting’, ethnomethodological reflexivity ‘alludes to the embodied practices through which persons singly and together, retrospectively and prospectively, produce account­able states of affairs’ (ibid:33). Where ethnomethodology is the study of all those social practices that create an ordered experience of the ‘everyday’, ethnomethodological reflexivity attempts a systematic analysis of ‘background understandings of the normal, but unstudied, operations of the ordinary society’ (ibid:34).

Being reflexive then, in Anthropology, means acknowledging one’s own subjectivity and the part the anthropologist plays in his or her work. For example, an anthropologist may study a culture and interpret their behaviors and customs. But as a reflexive anthropologist, they would also describe their own background and the way in which they interacted with the people they study. We have learned that anthropological knowledge is situated– your interpretation depends on whether you’re a native or outsider, your gender, race or national background, your personal involvement with the people you study, your political views, and so on. Reflexive anthropology means foregrounding the researcher and admitting that anthropology (or any knowledge) can never be completely objective.

This stepping back, as excellently exemplified by Bruce Knauft in writing about the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea, allows the anthropologist to check the contexts at play, both from within him/her and from outside – the community being studied and the other forces dynamically at play. In this way, through reflexive analysis, the anthropologist may be able to “reveal forgotten choices, expose hidden alternatives, lay bare epistemological limits and empower voices which had been subjugated by objective discourse” (ibid: 36).

One such example of this stepping back is the entry narrative at the beginning of most ethnographies. In the Gebusi, Knauft narrated the gift-giving encounter (of plaintains) and how he was accepted in the Gebusi tribe. He also narrated and explained the concept of kogwayay.  Most importantly he also stepped back from the ongoing moment, and confessed how he felt – anxious, nervous, and narrating how tiring and arduous the long trek was. Instead of the ‘old’ entry narratives in which the ethnographer describes how he came to the place, what are the houses made of, what are the arrangements, etc., in the Gebusi, there was a sense of ‘how did I feel?’ It was a methodological reflexivity, a confession, a criticism that is palpable in the words. The particular entry narrative in Gebusi was, all at the same time, personal, self‐absorbed, melodramatic, self‐pitying, self‐congratulatory and self‐ transforming.

Reflexive writing also confesses the flaws and the limits of the ethnographer, and as such, of anthropology. As being there but not entirely them, the anthropologist who cannot fully be one of the people he or she is studying needs to admit where he or she is coming from; prejudices, biases, ideologies cannot be fully tamed in objectivity. Joseph Webster[3] writes that “by ‘lifting the veil’, anthropology seeks to reinforce its own authority by making certain truth claims about its practice: “Look, I’m not a fake; I know what I know because I was there – I saw these things, and spoke to these people, and I’ve already admitted I made a few mistakes, but look, what I’ve told you is basically sound”. So goes the avowal of the methodologically reflexive anthropologist.” (Webster: 69)

Reflexivity in anthropology allows for a critical bridge between the study of anthropology and its application to development works. Through reflexive analysis, the anthropologist who is there but also here, has the bi-focal vision that allows for a wider appreciation of issues and struggles affecting his or her traditional research partners. This dual vision and the “intersubjective context of the fieldwork”[4] also focuses attention to the discourse of ‘development’ where the Indigenous Community stands in the middle of oftentimes opposing notions. The anthropologist, reflecting on the two worlds he or she inhabits has the vantage point.  Ross asserted that “reflexivity turns attention upon anthropology and upon development and says: know thyself.” (7)

Webster, in concluding his article, defended the reflexive approach of anthropology:

Reflexivity is not about self‐reflection or self‐awareness, or about role distance, or about introspection, or about confession, nor is it about a social awareness of the everyday functioning of “ethno‐methods”. In sum, reflexivity is not a ‘sense of honour’ to be defended, but a ‘principle of practice’ to be deployed – not a moral principle based on virtue, or an essentialised principle based on unavoidability, but a principle of practice based on the historically contingent nature of knowledge production. (75)

My initial quote, from my field notes among the T’boli S’bu of Lake Sebu, is also an attempt at this stepping back. Although lacking the poetry and wit of Knauft, it is still a stepping back from the initial shock of the ‘entry’, and a retreat to the background of consciousness. From among the shadows and lights of this background, we try to collect ourselves, to check where we stand, to nudge our heads to look at another direction. For are not backgrounds and contexts the steel frames upon which to build the canvass of ethnographies?

 

References:

 

Joseph Webster. “Establishing the ‘Truth of the Matter: Confessional Reflexivity as Introspection and Avowal,” Psychology & Society 1, no. 1 (2008): 65-76.

Michael Lynch. “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge,” Theory, Culture & Society 17, no. 3 (2000): 27-34.

Peter Hervik. “Shared Reasoning in the Field: Reflexivity beyond the Author,” In Eristen Hastrup and Peter Hervik (Eds.), Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge (1994): 59-75.

Tabitha Ross. Restudy and Reflexivity in Anthropology and Development. Accessed 2 August 2013. https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=ross.pdf&site10.

 

[1] Tabitha Ross, Restudy and Reflexivity in Anthropology and Development, accessed 2 August 2013, https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=ross.pdf&site=10.

[2] Michael Lynch, “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge,” Theory, Culture & Society 17, no. 3 (2000): 27-34.

[3] Joseph Webster, “Establishing the ‘Truth of the Matter: Confessional Reflexivity as Introspection and Avowal,” Psychology & Society 1, no. 1 (2008): 65-76.

[4] Peter Hervik, “Shared Reasoning in the Field: Reflexivity beyond the Author,” In Eristen Hastrup and Peter Hervik (Eds.), Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge (1994): 59-75.

 

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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.

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?

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

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)

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