Three days is hardly enough to learn about a people. At best you’d take part in a tribal ritual and manage to say “thank you” in the local language. At worst you get a myopic and romanticized cultural experience which you can then brag to your urbanite friends and post on your blog. Nonetheless, three days was all I had with the Bukidnon tribe.
The tribe, whose name means people of the mountain, live in their ancestral domain at the foot of Kitanglad range in the province of Bukidnon. They call their land Daraghuyan, which covers at least 4,200 hectares and is named after one of the sacred peaks in the mountain range. It lies within Barangay Dalwangan, a village in the outskirts of Malaybalay City. From the highway, one has to ride a habal-habal (motorcycle) up to the farthest passable road and then hike for about 30 minutes to reach Daraghuyan.
Winning the stake on this land was neither quick nor easy. It took 70 years of painstaking negotiations; enduring territorial encroachment from logging and plantation concessions, overcoming disagreements on a unified claim, and wading through the bureaucratic muddle to finally get the certificate of ancestral domain title for their land.
It was a battle well fought and a victory worth gaining. I met a people who are protective of their land and proud of their identity.
After receiving their land title, the tribe built a cultural heritage center, perhaps the most prominent structure in Daraghuyan. Its conspicuous red roof is visible from afar and it’s the only one with electricity, thanks to a solar panel that powers a couple of fluorescent bulbs at night.
The heritage center houses a bangkasu (high altar) and other cultural artifacts such as musical instruments, soil paintings, sculptures, handcrafted necklaces and bracelets, and abaca weavings. It also displays photos of celebrations and rituals, and certificates of recognition for their babaylan (spiritual leader) Bae Inatlawan. But it’s far from a dusty museum or a tacky souvenir shop.
The center, also known as the tulugan, is a living space for the community and a shelter for visitors. This is where the youth come together to work on their paintings, play music or just hang out. This is where women gather to prepare dried abaca fibers for weaving. This is where men drop by to shoot the breeze after a long day in their farms. This is where I was welcomed with an acceptance ritual and a barrage of curious questions.
Getting to know the Bukidnon however, takes more than staring at paintings or trying on bracelets. On the morning of my second day, Nay Pangging, the older sister of Bae Inatlawan and overseer of the tulugan, took me along to harvest sayote leaves which we’d have for lunch and dinner.
While walking on the muddy tracks, she pointed out various wild shrubs with medicinal properties. She explained that when someone in the community is sick, the good spirits would show her in a dream which plant can be used as a cure. She would then go to the forest when she wakes up to look for this plant and true enough, it’d be an effective medicine.
In between our walks, we took a break under the shade of native pomelo trees and picked out ripe fruits on the ground for a snack. When we came across some abaca plants, she showed me how the sheaths are stripped to produce fibers.
I proved to be a hopelessly inadequate sayote harvester when we finally got to where the vines were. In the time it took Nay Pangging to collect an armful of stalks, I only had around 10 tiny stems in my hand. We also gathered wild pako (fern) leaves which was another task I sucked at big time. With my pathetic productivity as a farmhand, I’d starve in no time.
Farming has long been the primary livelihood of the Bukidnon. Since securing their land, they have diversified their crops and ventured into other income sources. In working with non-government organizations and other groups on community development projects, they’ve learned to engage in small-scale businesses like production of wild honey, citronella and lemon grass oil, vegetable gardening, and various handicrafts.
In a village with no electricity, music and epic tales are the preferred entertainment sources to cap off the day.
Nineteen-year-old Dondon, the tribal youth leader and my de facto Binukid language tutor, told me that he and his friends are going to “jam” that night. Instead of the usual guitar, he played a bamboo flute while his younger brother Koykoy harmonized with a native drum. The boys didn’t get any formal training but they played beautifully. Dondon was amazing with the flute, producing smooth, delicate music that would fit right at home with an orchestra. These guys are also fans of their own tribal songs. On the playlist of their mobile phones, contemporary pop tunes are interspersed with native Binukid songs which they just as enthusiastically sing along to.
Datu Dumagsang, a community leader from the Higaonon tribe and close relative of Nay Pangging, gave renditions of Binukid songs, some of which were his original compositions. A few of them sounded familiar – I recognized the melody of Oh My Darling, Clementine in one song – and he explained that he would sometimes use the melody of another song and put in his own lyrics. He sang of love and romance, mountains and forests, and of other things he holds dear.
A visitor once recorded his songs, he said, telling him they could be compiled into a CD and it’ll make him rich and famous. He then asked if I could also record his performance but I said, unlike the previous visitor, I didn’t have a video camera or a voice recorder or the power to land him a record deal. He smiled and said he wasn’t all that interested in becoming rich and famous anyway.
After the “jamming,” the datu decided to regal us with epic stories known as the nanangunun. Different cultures from all over the world have their own epics, from the Iliad of the Greeks and Ramayana of the Hindu to the Ilocanos’ Biag ni Lam-ang. The Bukidnon’s nanangunun largely follows the basic formula of the genre: heroes who go on quests, marry princesses, battle monsters and accomplish spectacular feats.
Datu Dumagsang said he learned these stories from his grandfather and it seems he is doing a good job of passing it on to the next generation. Dondon, Koykoy and their friend Jolan were sitting in rapt silence, anticipating his every word. At a time when most 19-year-olds are more interested in Facebook, it was refreshing to see teenage boys listening intently to the tall tales of an old man.
Aside from his stories and songs, the datu is a wellspring of aphorisms, life lessons and self-deprecating humor. He recounted his first experience with an ATM: He was scared that he and his companion might get arrested because they were taking money from a machine without asking for permission.
While narrating a nanangunun, he would casually drop a few Shakespearean quotes like “ang gugma kung atong balibaran mahimong kamatayon (a love rejected becomes death).”
He shared his wisdom on doing business: When you buy a product in the city for one peso, you sell it here for 90 cents or lower. You could even give it away for free and you’d still recoup more than your capital. That’s because you’d gain friendships that are more valuable than money.
Datu Dumagsang is also generous with compliments. While we were walking on a muddy path the next day, he told me that I walk like a native horse. It would’ve been nicer to be compared to, say, Heidi Klum or a second-rate pageant contestant or even a remotely advanced hominid that has learned the art of upright posture but I’ll take what I can get.
Citing his gift of clairvoyance, he made bold predictions about my love life and even gave specific dates on when I’ll meet the guy I’d end up marrying. My cackling laughter was probably the dead giveaway that I wasn’t taking it seriously so he just gave me a piece of endearing fatherly advice: Don’t be with a guy who takes advantage of you. Choose someone who asks for permission before attempting to hold your hand.
I fared a little better at picking up language lessons than romance forecasts. With the help of everyone in the community whom I badgered into translating for me, here are a few Binukid phrases I learned:
Maayad ha masulum. – Good morning.
Maayad ha daluman. – Good evening.
Sin-o sa ngaran no? – What’s your name?
Agkauhol ad. – I’m hungry.
Nabuhi a. – I’m full.
Maumis sa pagkaon. – The food is delicious.
Masukilum man iman. – It’s dark now.
Mapawa – bright
Matino – cold
Mapaso – hot
Ipanaw kid iman tu. – Let’s go.
Pag-andam. – Take care.
Liko-liko. – Come back.
Marakul ulawitan. – Thank you very much.
Before I left, I received three bracelets as a remembrance of my visit. The two beaded ones are made of rattan seeds and dried clay. They were given by Nay Pangging’s son and his wife. The hand-woven bracelet is made of dried strips from the gintawan plant and is believed to ward off bad spirits.
While securing their land may have been a monumental success, the Bukidnon people still have major hurdles to overcome. Chief among them are widespread poverty and lack of access to education. A lot of families can’t afford to send their children to school. The Kitanglad Integrated NGOs have established an educational assistance program to subsidize the students’ transportation, uniforms, school supplies and other related expenses but program funding has been unstable. For some young people like Dondon who were not able to finish high school, the Alternative Learning System provides hope. They are able to attend classes on weekends and work in the farms on weekdays.
The good news for the tribe is they are no longer victims of their fate; they are not helpless against the tide of modernity. They have a babaylan who leads religious rituals, officiates weddings and comprehends the intricacies of 3D mapping. They are an empowered people who are fiercely preserving their culture while deftly navigating their way in a fast-paced world.
I don’t know if I was able to get to know the Bukidnon people well enough in my three days in Daraghuyan but I’m grateful for everything they allowed me to learn. I recognize the risk that as an outsider, I may still see them through a myopic, rose-colored lens but I hold out the hope that it would pave the way for a deeper understanding of their way of life. If for nothing else, it was worth it to be able to say “thank you” in their native language. Marakul ulawitan!