An Interview with Mâ Ungkal, Son of Kawit

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.

Searching for Lemlunay in Lake Sebu

I remember the first time I saw the documentary film “Dreamweavers” back in our Sociology class in college. It featured the T’boli tribe of Lake Sebu in Southern Mindanao and how they weave their cloths inspired by spirits in their dreams. I was amazed watching that film, fascinated at how these people give value to their traditions and at how pre-Catholic animism surfaces in all their arts and crafts even if they have been baptized Christians by early Mindanao missionaries. The T’nalak cloth of the T’boli already captivated me when I first saw that film. It was for me a romantic remembering of our past before the cross gave us a new persona. I thought to myself that maybe this people, with their own arts, worldview, rituals and traditions, hold the answer to that elusive mystery of the Filipino identity. And I longed for that answer.

In May 2011, I transferred from Naga to Davao, to work at the Ateneo de Davao University. I was thrilled at the prospect of being in Mindanao, close to the Lumads – to my romantic phantasm of the genuine and unadulterated Filipino. And undaunted by my parent’s fears of kidnappings and bomb explosions by insurgents fighting for ideologies and lost wars, I went to this strange city in Mindanao, a settler from Southern Luzon.

At first I felt that I had unwittingly cut my self off from my known world of Naga City where everyone knows everyone. But I soon realized from my conversations that almost everyone here is a settler, mostly from the Visayan islands, a number of migrants from Luzon and even some from other countries. I asked them “who are the original inhabitants?” and with a hint of mixed fear, disdain and boredom, would answer me, “mga natibo,” natives, tribal people of the hinterlands, with their un-Christian gods and un-Visayan characters. At least in that sense, I felt a little more at home. I am not the only settler in this strange city.

I have been fortunate in my work to be able to travel to areas in Mindanao. It wasn’t just a dream-come-true for me but a real chance to see these “original” inhabitants. I would consider it then that fate brought me to Mindanao and to Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. At last, I will be in that lake surrounded by clouds and forests, where people tell the stories of creation in songs and in their weavings.

But then my first visit to Lake Sebu almost brought me to tears. Lake Sebu is no longer the mysteriously charming place I’ve imagined from that “Dreamweavers” documentary. Fish pens of tilapia crowd the lake and surrounding mountains are almost denuded. A number of resorts have also dotted the lakeside. And yet, there’s still a barely perceptible charm, almost like the humming of a mother’s lullaby.  It is certainly there in the sweeping breeze that tickles the lake’s surface. The sun still bathes the lake with a golden warmth each morning. The mist still covers the mountains and for a moment, houses and resorts are obscured, the lake exhales ancient songs.

It was certainly not my imagined Lake Sebu but already a place where the modern world and its many wonders and appeals have slowly crept to the homes of the T’boli people. I have come to a Lake Sebu where people have already embraced the modern tides – with its television shows, capitalist attitudes and current flairs.  I have to ask: did they have a choice or were they pushed in a corner with nowhere to run but to modernity and its lifestyle?

Many times now, I have returned to Lake Sebu and have befriended some T’boli residents. One told me a story of a Lake Sebu without the settlers and their modern ways. There was a time in her childhood, she said, when lotus flowers in pink and dark violet covered the whole lake from end to end and when the mists descend, the clouds frolic like playful gods in their pool; a solitary T’boli man in the distance would be in his dug-out canoe fishing or foraging for shells. I confessed to her that this was my imagined Lake Sebu. She remarked that it was also her lost Lake Sebu and the land is a mirror of our very own selves and that whatever worldview we assume for ourselves, we also try to sculpt our environment for that worldview to fit in. I realized that Lake Sebu was such a victim.

Just the other week I was invited to document an international conference on Ikat Weaving.  Ikat is a method of weaving where strands are tied before they are dyed giving them their distinct patterns. One of the most highly regarded ikat fabrics in the southeast Asian region is the t’nalak of the T’bolis – hence the conference was held in Lake Sebu and I was again at its shore longing for imagined worlds and occasionally craving for its delicious tilapia.

In this conference I met Kevin, a graduate of the Ateneo de Davao University and a T’boli of Lake Sebu. He was very patient with my questions about his being a T’boli, their struggles and his dreams not only for himself but also for his people. He also shared with me the same story of this bygone Lake Sebu, when there were no fences yet in the lake and anyone can fish or swim in its water.

Thinking about these stories of old-world beauty and magic, it was very timely when he taught me a traditional song (we were all told to give a short presentation during the cultural night of the conference and Kevin chose this song). He said that it was usually sung during weddings and celebrations, and is about an edenic paradise that may be a fitting reference to Lake Sebu but also an allusion to all paradises lost to the inanity of mankind. The T’bolis call this paradise Lemlunay, and the song goes:

Lemlunay gono setifun ne Lemlunay gono sesotu.

Lemlunay gono kemulo ne Lemlunay gono setambul

e se waten uni sembakung e Lemlunay tey lemobun.

Kevin helped me do a rough translation and we came up with this: Lemlunay is a place where the people are gathered and united and we are all beckoned by the sounds of festivities; the beating of gongs and drums welcome us to this paradise hidden in mists.

This archetypal paradise calls to mind our dreams of a perfect place where differences are set aside and we celebrate our oneness with creation. I asked if this is the T’boli heaven and Kevin answered no, it was a place comparable to the Biblical Eden yet there is no mention of a parting from this Eden, from Lemlunay, because of a sin or transgression. We can only assume that Lemlunay faded to dreams, to the world of mists. I thought that the modern world was surely no place for this Lemlunay.

I would like to believe that Lake Sebu was once Lemlunay and human folly has pushed it to the plane of the mythical, a world that can now only be accessed through songs but is still physically present in the slowly congesting lake of Sebu. In looking for my imagined Lake Sebu brought by that documentary I’ve watched, I was also searching for our identity as a people. If I have to be honest, I was looking for my self. Take away all the western, borrowed cultures from my system, what is left of me? Who am I in this sea of foreign cultures? Of modern gadgets and western language? Who are we as a people, tortured and brought to our knees by colonizers? We have become ‘modern,’ parting from our indigenous selves, embracing western, foreign cultures, but who is this indigenous self?

I don’t have the answers right now. Perhaps the journey is still unfolding before me. Maybe the answers are in Lemlunay, maybe in Lake Sebu – in their songs, music, in their t’nalak, or their stories.  But I have to constantly remind my self that in this search, I maybe searching for a lost past, a mere fuzzy dreamland of the imagination. What I would like to do is to better understand where we failed in our past in order to build a better future.  The hidden Lemlunay is but a metaphor of what we’ve lost but also of what lies before us.

If only we can part the mists shrouding our vision. Maybe we can find Lemlunay – the sound of gongs and drums welcoming us to our land, to our self, to our identity, to our future even.

Tawi-Tawi Thoughts

I have to admit that I was worried my trip to Tawi Tawi would be aborted because of all the negative things I’ve heard from people and the news. I mean, just google Tawi-Tawi up, and you’ll be reading kidnappings, the Abu Sayyaf, unfriendly locals and all sorts of  horrid things. Also a major reason I thought it was going to be down the drain was that my travel companions have started to back out 2 weeks before our trip. But here I am. Loving Tawi Tawi for what it has to offer: the simple lifestyle, the charm of the people and the beauty that is really sort of fabled at first, something that must be made purely out of imagined stuff, but then strikes you as a beautiful truth.

There is always an unfounded fear whenever we set foot to any place here in Tawi-Tawi. Rumors of kidnappers, murderers and cannibal sultans are always buzzing in my mind. Just yesterday we were at the Chinese Pier looking for a boat to rent. In just 5 minutes, we were swarmed by men speaking in Tausug, Sama and bits of Tagalog. They were all burly men and all advising us not to go to the far islands of Sibutu, Sitangkai or Panglima Sugala (the recent kidnapping of 2 Dutch citizens happened here). It was of course a genuine concern from the people, but they scared the hell out of me. But being the hard heads we are, we managed to find a boat that will take us to a nearby beach. The ‘nearby’ beach turned out to be a Tausug village and a not-so good view of floating toilets, so we asked if we can go to the islands instead, raising the fee of course. Fortunately the boatman generously said ‘yes’.

We were brought to Sangay Siapu Island in the municipality of Simunul. And my God it was a good decision to go to that island. Very small, and surrounded by fine white sand, Sangay Siapu is inhabited by 10-20 workers of a dried fish enterprise. I was wary of the people at first. But the moment you say ‘salamallaykum’ to them, they will automatically smile and answer ‘salamallaykumasalam’ – peace be with you. A very assuring exchange of good will. And yes, there is peace is that island. The white sand slowly cascading to the green – blue – turquoise of the sea. It was so easy to say Salam.

Carl (my travel companion) and I befriended 2 girls, Mansi and Amisha (whose surnames are so long I’ve fogotten it). They are children of workers in that island. They taught us how to count in Tausug, we taught them how to count in English. They also joined us in swimming the beautiful, cool waters of Sangay.

Turquoise. I will always associate it now with Tawi-Tawi. I think it is the combination of the white sand beneath the shallow sea, the sun and the stillness of the water, that let’s you exclaim “whoa, Turquoise!”

This morning we went up to Bud Bongao. That’s a peak not unlike the Tabletop Mountain of South Africa. We were guided by Kuya Ben, a friendly tricycle driver we met at the airport yesterday. It’s so unfortunate he doesn’t have a celphone, I will gladly recommend him to anyone going to Tawi-Tawi.  He’s so friendly and helpful, we were very glad to have met him.

Anyway, the trek to the Bud was so tiring, we have to stop every few meters. Steep and slippery. On the way to the top, our guide and his friend are telling us stories about the Bud – about the princess who was turned to stone and the Nabi or Prophet who was buried at the top. The mountain, and especially the ‘kubol’ housing the earthly body of the Nabi is sacred according to them and every wish you pray to him/her (since, they themselves don’t know) will be granted.

At the top of the Bud, people are praying and touching the sacred burial place. I prayed knowing that the Nabi would never mind if I am Catholic. I know,  religious affiliations don’t count in heaven.

A few more meters up, we were at the ‘bintana’ a sweeping vantage view of Bongao and nearby islands. It was unfortunate that it was cloudy and we never saw Borneo but they say that  Borneo is just 2 hours away from Bongao. At the top of the Bud, again I felt peace – the land and the sea all proclaim ‘Salam’. Peace envelops us. And I exhale a prayer for Tawi-Tawi: ‘Salam.’