Chapter Six: Adjusting to Tribal Existence- Violence and Death
Strange Western Ways
Our lifestyle and customs collided with tribal life from the very start of our residence in Kapatagan. For instance, B decided to jog in the early morning just as he had done in the lowland cities. He never suspected that practice would cause any problem in a tribal village. One morning in the dark of predawn he went for his first run through the center of the village. A Manobo man heard his footfalls and shouted, “Who’s that?” B did not want to stop and waste time explaining so he continued jogging on by without answering. Big mistake. To a tribal mind the only people who would ever run silently in the dark would be your enemies on a revenge raid.
The man immediately started screaming, “Raiders, raiders”. That woke the village into a raging panic. Some of the men grabbed spears and started to chase after B who ran desperately on down the logging road to a safe distant spot. He waited there till daylight before returning to the village and he was thoroughly embarrassed. How do you explain jogging- running for your health- to a tribal people who have never heard of such a thing nor even imagined it? All day long people stopped by our house to ask incredulously, “Why were you running in the dark? Why didn’t you answer?” B gave up trying to explain it.
Local people were willing to forgive B for his odd transgression of local custom because overall they enjoyed him. B was outgoing, talkative, and made the effort to be friendly to everyone he met. As I said earlier, he was the living embodiment of his favorite book “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.
He would do anything to get a laugh from people, especially the kids. If getting a laugh required him to stand on his head, make goofy faces or try any silly thing- B would do whatever it took. One of his standard tricks was to con self-conscious young tribal ladies into pulling his finger which he claimed was sore and needed straightening. Just as they would start to pull his finger B would fart loudly which would startle the young ladies and leave them blushing embarrassedly. B would laugh until he was red in the face with his sides shaking like they were ready to split wide open. At least he enjoyed the joke.
B often apologetically said to me that he felt like he had never grown up. He felt like a big immature kid who was out of place in the well-behaved adult world. He never quite knew where the proper limits were to adult fun. To illustrate, he told me about the time back home in Washington, DC when he had gone boating with some friends. B had playfully started pushing the others into the water. But in the midst of the pushing and shoving one of the friends had almost drowned. The lesson there, B said, was that you had to be careful and not get carried away. Do not cross proper boundaries of fun. But he did not quite know where that line was.
I repeatedly reassured B that Manobo loved him and he should just freely be himself and not worry about how other adults perceived his silly antics.
Another time B went out to sit on a fallen log beside our hut to have his early morning devotions. Devotions are the twice-daily time when good committed Christians read their Bibles, meditate, and pray. B squatted on the log with his head bowed between his knees in prayer. After a few minutes a neighboring man came over and squatted beside B, looking concerned. B continued praying, trying to ignore the man disturbing his holy time with his God. Finally the man asked, “Anakon (young nephew), are you sick?” Those Western religious practices simply could not be placed into any comparable slot in tribal society.
I faithfully tried to keep up my North American practice of taking Saturday off for a day of prayer each week. I was still trying to imitate the life of my holy hero David Brainerd- the nutty guy who prayed all day outside in the snow. But the only way I could find privacy for quiet meditation and prayer was to build a little hut in the forest outside the village. I built it on the edge of a cliff overlooking a panoramic view of the valley below the Kapatagan Plateau.
Despite my effort to find privacy villagers would still come over curious to see what I was doing sitting quietly by myself in my little hut. I would purposefully ignore them, hoping they would see how rude they were for interrupting my sacred time alone. Feeling uncomfortable with my head-bowed refusal to converse, they would eventually leave wondering what the hell the Americano was doing sitting there by himself with his eyes closed.
In my little hut, I would usually end up watching the trails of thousands of busy ants or squirrels and birds. After a few hours I would give up in the heat and go back to the village, but I felt spiritual for having put the time in. I felt a cut above the rest in the spiritual hierarchy.
Manobo And Sex
Women in the village liked to go topless in the heat, wearing only a wrap-around skirt for their bottoms. Initially it was lust-inspiring until we became somewhat used to it. Withered titties on the older ladies didn’t actually inspire anything much. But some of the younger ladies had fine sets of hooters. We doggedly tried to keep our minds pure, frowning on evil, but it was always a losing struggle inside.
Tribal people were very straightforward about sexual things which were not a banned sin topic in their culture. We tried to change that during our years in Manobo land.
One day a newly married man stopped by for a visit. Grinning a goofy ear-to-ear snicker smile he said, “Mo-omiis ka pangiut (sex is so sweet)”. His bride grinned the same grin from the other side of the room. In those situations B would express a pained look of offended holiness, not knowing how to respond and not wanting to show any approval of “sin”. I tried to ignore it. Inwardly, I agreed with the tribal man, but felt obligated to remain loyal to my Fundamentalism and show similar disapproval.
The anti-sex attitude was as strong in OMF as it had been at Prairie. During one vacation B and I spent a weekend at an OMF vacation home on the island of Mindoro. Late one night a man (an invited friend) slipped into the house where one of the maids was staying. The watchdog started barking and the OMF superintendent, T H, went out to see what the dog was yapping at. He found the couple engaged in sex. Well, all heaven broke loose. They weren’t married. Theo sent the man scurrying off with his tail (well something) hanging between his legs. T’s wife M then started crying and wailing like it was the end of the world and God had come to judge. The dog kept barking and yipping like a self-righteous Pharisee responsible for scaring off a terrible sinner.
The poor couple must have been traumatized beyond all psychotherapy.
B and I had some honest moments of opening up and sharing personal struggles and failures. We once started to open up about sexual temptation (a failure or sin according to Evangelical standards). B had started by saying that sometimes the topless women tempted him. Kind of like Jimmy Carter’s admission of lust during his infamous Playboy interview. I responded to B’s honesty, becoming caught up in the openness and closeness of the moment. I wanted to freely relate to B and let him know that I also felt similar temptation.
I always tried to respond to people’s honesty about their perceived failures with a similar honesty, so they would not feel bad or feel that they alone were sinful. It helps people when they know that they are not alone in some problem. So I admitted to B that I also had thoughts of sex and let myself daydream about it. It appeared to be turning into one of those moments where two religious people identify with each other’s problems and support each other closely in personal struggles.
But B suddenly pulled back saying, “Oh, I don’t go that far. I just feel a little tempted, but I stop it right away. I don’t dwell on it”. I felt a big Ooops. I had tried to be honest, to relate to him and make him feel less badly about his sin. But I had been too honest, said too much, and now I felt overexposed. B had pulled back as though his sin was less serious than mine was. He had not reciprocated my honesty or concern to identify. I felt very bad, like I had given in to a far worse sin. His sin was just a moment of weakness in responding to actual stimuli. Mine was dwelling on and enjoying evil, dragging it on past the point of temptation to where it became real sin. Oh well, live and learn.
I often felt uncomfortable being a single person and being religious like a priest or nun. I had spent my teens in a macho culture where real men ‘got some’ regularly. Well, all right, once in a while. Now, that was forbidden on pain of hell and I found the idea of people viewing me as celibate to be embarrassing. The macho nature of Philippine culture intensified that embarrassment. Men, and sometimes even women, often asked who our girlfriends were and where did they live. They could not imagine a sexless existence.
People in the Philippines talked and joked freely about sex and genitalia as if that were normal and even good. They were so human in doing that. Lowland Catholics seemed to be able to freely mix God and vaginas without the least guilt or any sense of blasphemy. That was most graphically visible on the jeepneys. Above the front windows of most jeepneys there were hanging placards with a variety of phrases and pictures on them- blessings, pictures of the Virgin Mary, and naked ladies. Statements on the placards said, “Bless us Holy Mary Mother of Jesus”. Right beside those were other placards saying, “We love chicks”. We Evangelicals clucked to each other and said it was a horrible syncretizing of the sacred and the profane. But it was so human and so funny.
Filipinos also seemed to be able to give the most mundane things in daily life some funny off color slant. If I was about to give some lady a ride on my bike, someone standing nearby, usually another lady, would inevitably say to the lady climbing on behind me, “Hang on to his penis so you won’t fall off. Ha, ha, ha, ha”. With my deeply ingrained Evangelicalism I usually blushed in embarrassed response. I was not free to laugh at sin.
If several people were going to ride with me (public transport motorcycles in the Philippines would sometimes carry up to 6 or 7 passengers) and a lady had to sit on the gas tank in front of me then ladies standing by watching would laughingly warn the tank sitter, “Bantay ka. Basi, masudlan ka sa ulod (Watch out. You might be entered by a snake). Ha, ha, ha”.
All that easygoing discussion of sexuality was initially difficult to accept and adjust to. I had come out of 5 years of cloistered suppression where anything remotely sexual was condemned as evil and banned utterly.
Once I had an infected sore on my elbow and Kayluan, the village leader, in a joking manner told me, “Put your elbow between my wife’s legs, on her vagina. That”, he laughed, “would heal your elbow”. Once again I blushed in response. It was funny, but to my Evangelical mind not permissibly funny. Only the marriage bed was holy.
It would take years to find freedom from the deeply-rooted sexual fears of fundamentalism and rejoin the human race in some fun.
Another time I was walking along the road in the center of the village when one of the village men came out toward me. We met and unexpectedly he suddenly grabbed my crotch. Embarrassed, I yanked my hips and legs back and crossed my arms over my groin area to protect against any further grabbing. He laughed and started talking as if it were just another way of shaking hands. I looked every which way to see who else had seen him do that. After that encounter of a different kind, whenever I met that man I kept my lower body postured safely away from his reach.
Tribal Livelihood Patterns
Tribal village patterns were cyclical and unchanging. The men would meet informally over the fall and winter months to discuss who was going to use which areas for their fields in the spring (I use the terms winter, fall and spring to represent a time of year, not actual seasons because there was little temperature difference over the tropical year). The men discussed land use issues in order to avoid fighting over fields. No one owned actual parcels of land as all land was communally owned. But it took delicate probing to find out who was planning on working in which area in order to avoid conflict with others over similar plans.
Around February to March the men would start cutting the new fields. The felled trees and plants were left to dry in the sun. Larger trees were cut into 8-12 foot sections to facilitate drying. After a few weeks of allowing the material to dry thoroughly and when there was sufficient wind in the early afternoon, the men would burn the fields. That had to be timed precisely as May rains would come soon and sometimes they came early.
Immediately after burning, the fields were planted with upland rice and other crops in complex patterns that would prevent insect devastation. The people used sharpened poles to poke holes in the ground where they tossed a few grains of rice seed. That was done in a scattered pattern over a burnt hillside among fallen trees and still standing trunks. Less desired crops were planted at the perimeter to hold insects there and preserve valued rice crops in the center. Multiple varieties of rice were planted in the same field. The rice grew until mature in September or October. During the 4 months of the growing season periodic visits were made to weed the fields until it was time to harvest.
The most delectable rice I have ever tasted was called Baaboy in the local dialect. After harvesting, the villagers would dry that particular variety of rice in the sun, steam it in pots and then dry it once more. Following the extra steaming and drying, it was cooked a second time and that process (called tinanok) released its unique flavor. We would eat the rice by itself because the flavor was so delicious. There was no way of transporting it fresh to the lowlands as the aroma would be lost in transit. It had to be eaten right after harvesting.
Soon after the fields were cleared of rice, kamote (sweet potato) was planted. That basic food sustained people till the next rice planting. Corn was also grown, but was used mainly as a cash crop.
The main events of the Manobo year are called ‘hinangs’, which are large gatherings that coincide with the main elements of the yearly farming cycle. At hinangs people seek the help of tribal spirits to bless their activities while farming and hunting. They will ask for protection from cuts while chopping new fields, for the growth of good crops after planting, and for protection from rats and birds while the crops mature.
Local priests prepare food, blood, and betel nut chew as an offering to gain the spirits help. The food and blood are placed on a special spirit shelf in the main meeting hall. That shelf is decorated with special grass and one priest said that the souls of all the villagers are represented on the shelf.
During the hinang people will beat drums nonstop for up to two or three days. The priests will also dance and call their spirits to enter them. In recognition of a spirit approaching, the priest will often raise a hand and say, “Kumusta? (how are you)”.
Once they are supposedly possessed, the priests often prophesy or exhort local people on a variety of things. They may say, “Do not go out today in the afternoon because evil spirits are roaming around and will attack you. Do not steal or do other bad things”. They will also tell certain people they have sinned and must make a specific sacrifice to appease a certain spirit.
In upland rainforest areas the morning sunlight appeared to be more to the white end of the light spectrum. The cheery brightness lifted moods to face the day’s work. Towards afternoon it would yellow more and around 3-4 PM the sun would start to project longer shadows from behind the tall forest trees. The light would become softer, a kind of melancholic orange as people returned from work in the fields and the day cooled down toward night. As part of the final choreography of the day, every evening around 5 PM the gray and black bodied hornbills, with their bright red and yellow beaks, would glide across the skies exerting only the odd wing beat to keep up the glide.
Late afternoons were sadder times of the day. The dusk silhouette of forest trees against darkening sky drew the attention of my emotions and imagination. Sadness, loneliness, melancholy, thoughts of God and eternity- all seemed to peak in the growing darkness.
In the tropics it becomes dark every evening of the year, with little variation, around 6 PM.
Most villagers went to sleep right after the evening meal which was between 6 to 7 PM. Sometimes village storytellers would sing chants on into the late evening about young men and women in love. The singers would hear people snoring and stop to ask, “Ogpaminog ka pad (Are you still listening?)”. On receiving no answer some of them would carry on anyway.
Sound carried well in the quiet night. The voices of the first waking people could be heard toward the early morning around 4 to 5 AM. While it was still dark they would start fires to cook breakfast in preparation for the day. Most people were then up and off to the fields by daylight or shortly after. Mornings would be spent weeding fields or finding vegetables and fruits in the forest.
Our hunter/gatherer ancestors had to work only 2-3 hours a day to meet their basic needs. That is about 20 hours a week. In contemporary hunter/gatherer societies like the Manobo there is still a lot of time for leisure activities (while Manobo are not strictly hunter/gatherers there are still prominent remnants of that lifestyle in their upland farming culture). People sit around the village and talk or make fish traps, bolos, clothing, musical instruments, bead-craft, and other things. Some work on the components of betel nut chew. It is an unhurried lifestyle that I felt very comfortable with.
After the fields had been cut and the crops planted the men would sometimes hunt wild pig in the forest. Hunting dogs were one way of locating pigs, which would then be speared by the men. Another way of capturing pigs was to set traps of various sorts. Sometimes the men would set sharpened bamboo arrows in a bow and arrow like trap that was sprung when passing pigs tripped a string across the path. For one unique trap the men would break off hundreds of match heads and wrap them in a dead rat’s skin along with pieces of a broken plate. They would then set that stuffed rat along a regularly used pig trail. The pigs would come along, smell the rat, bite the rat’s skin, and kaboom. Broken shards of plate would ignite the match heads.
Once a man set off a pig bomb accidentally while assembling it and the bomb blew broken glass into his legs. We all ran over to see what the boom was about and found the man sitting in his house stunned and still picking the glass out of bleeding wounds on his inner legs. He could have damaged or even lost the family jewels. Careful, careful.
Village men also went out after heavy rains, sometimes all night, to spear a nonpoisonous variety of frog (kolonya) with small wire spears. They would blind the frogs with their flashlights.
Fishing trips to the Langilan River in the valley bottom were another type of special gathering event during the off season. Many people from the village would go down to the river to help place rocks and branches in a large V shaped fence pointing downstream and blocking the water. That would guide any fish toward a conical fish trap in the center of the V. People would then get on their knees in the water upstream forming a line across the small river to drive any fish or small shrimp down into the trap.
The fish traps were works of art. They were made from small strips of bamboo and bound together with rattan in cone tipped tubes about 3-4 feet long.
In the smaller creek beds and along the banks of the larger river men, women and children would spend hours turning over rocks to catch prawns and crabs. Eels were also caught using poisonous leaves wrapped in a cloth tied to the end of long poles. The poles were thrust into underwater eel dens along the riverbanks. These food items widened the variety in the diet.
B and I tried often tried our hand at gathering food plants from the rainforest. Some were exceptionally delicious while others were plain frightening. B once cooked a root plant from the forest and then offered me some. I ate the plant and immediately felt my throat start to constrict. Feeling myself to be on the way to choking to death I shouted at B, “What’s happening man? I’m choking”. B laughed till he was red in the face as he tried to explain that the vegetable had to be cooked more in order to neutralize the constricting element. Thanks for experimenting on me man.
Arts And Crafts
Manobo women created elaborate multi-colored bead necklaces that circled the neck in a 2-inch wide band and then hung down the chest in a row of about thirty long strings. Patterns tended toward triangular and square shaped contrasting colors, usually red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and black. We found ourselves drawn into bead purchase and delivery as we often went down to the city stores where the plastic beads were sold. Previous to using manufactured beads Manobo had used white and brown bead-shaped seeds that grew on forest plants.
Other craftwork included the making of spears, bolos, and carving wood or horn handles for the bolos. To make the bolos and spear tips the village men constructed forges using hollowed bamboo tubes with hand-operated pistons. Those pistons blew air into a white-hot pile of charcoal for heating and shaping the metal. They were backyard village forges. It was brilliant technology.
The women also spent extra time weaving baskets and winnowing shields along with crafting bamboo tube guitars (saluroy) and two-stringed guitars (kudlung). For the tube guitars people used approximately two-foot long sections of bamboo. The three strings on each side were lifted strips of the bamboo skin with little bits of wood wedged underneath to keep them suspended off the tube. Women held the instruments with their fingers while playing at the same time. It took a significant level of skill to play such instruments well.
Villagers loved to gather for traditional dancing and singing. Usually a man and a woman, each with a tribal instrument, would dance as a pair and sing chants at the same time. Some of the dances were very graphic portrayals of animals copulating. Those would always evoke a roar of laughter from the onlookers. Only the missionaries would maintain restrained and pained expressions of offended holiness. God was probably holding his sides in gut-splitting gasps.
Battery-powered radios were also bringing modern forms of music into the tribal areas along with the culture of the outside world. Our influence added to the other outside influences with our major impact being Fundamentalist beliefs and practices.
It Takes A Community
I have come to appreciate much the family and community focus of tribal peoples. In tribal areas all villagers are involved in every community activity. People are not separated into exclusive age groups or selectively invited to attend events in the village. Everything that happens is an entire family and entire village activity.
And all members of the village are made to feel productive and needed. If the elderly become too frail or sick to work in the fields then they remain at home to watch over babies and children or to do work around the houses. The elderly and the handicapped are never sent to institutions that are removed from the community. One young man, who was born with tiny withered legs, remained as an active contributing member of the village. He hauled himself around on his well-muscled arms and confidently refused assistance. He was even able to climb onto logging trucks by himself. He also regularly walked on his hands all the way from Kapatagan to the Langilan River and back again- a one-hour round trip down and back-up a steep mountainside for a normal walking person. Even with his severe handicap, he was one of the friendliest and happiest persons in the area.
Another young lady in Kapatagan was born without arms. She also confidently refused pity or help. She would dress herself and go along to work in the fields using her feet to dig and weed. Despite her considerable handicap she put herself through school. I once recognized her in a lowland schoolyard as I was driving by. I stopped and she came over wearing a huge smile to tell me that she was in grade eight. She stood several feet over her young classmates as she was then in her twenties. But she seemed blissfully unfazed by the age and size difference. She was proud just to be attending school.
Violence In Tribal Society
The Manobo located our house in the center of the village, probably to better watch over us inexperienced foreigners as we adjusted to tribal life. An elderly lady living in a house beside ours took it on herself to act as our surrogate grandmother. She would predictably shout at us just after dark, “Put your lamps out. There might be raiders coming”.
Revenge raids occurred regularly between villages in the area and were commonly sparked by lingering unpaid debts. Sometimes the raiders would try to spear sleeping people up through the split bamboo floors. That explained why some people put their new sheets of roofing tin under the floor instead of on the roof. It also explained why some houses were built so high off the ground.
At other times, raiders using handmade rifles would shoot balls of lead at the houses of their enemies. Match heads were used for explosive powder and were gently packed into the three-foot lengths of pipe that substituted for rifle barrels. The homemade rifles were effective in killing both pigs and people.
Raiders would sneak into an enemy village and shoot anyone living there, not just the specific person who owed them a debt. Anthropological types said that such broad-brush killing was due to the group-orientation of tribal peoples. They viewed each other more in terms of groups rather than as individuals. If someone in your group had borrowed something from our group, then all of your group was responsible to repay the debt and we could shoot anyone in your group in order to make you pay. That sounded like a good enough explanation.
One evening after most of the people had gone to sleep, B and I were still up reading and recording new words heard during the day. Our kerosene lamp was the only light still flickering in the darkness. Suddenly, a loud bang rudely ruptured the sleepy late evening tranquility of the area. It was a rifle shot coming from a house some 200 feet away. Instantly, people started screaming and shouting from all sides. Adrenaline panic pumped through the entire village.
Someone in a house near the place where the first shot had been fired shouted, “I saw raiders, right near my house”. Men in the village were already running up toward that house so we decided to join them and see what all the screaming was about. It was a darker than normal night due to cloud cover. B and I were the only ones wearing white T-shirts, which stood out clearly against the darkness. As we neared the house the man inside said, “The raiders were wearing white shirts just like those (referring to Bob and me)”. B and I immediately stripped our shirts off and shoved them down our pants.
With panic levels still high and not knowing if someone else might fire one of those guns off we decided to return to our house. I did not like the idea of little balls of lead flying through the dark air. The thin bark walls of our house offered little protection but it felt safer just to be inside.
Anthropologists talk of the two extremes where Westerners tend to place tribal cultures. One is the ‘noble savage’ extreme. In that extreme, tribal culture and ideas are viewed as pristinely pure and egalitarian, untouched by the defiling effects of industrial society. The native culture is seen as more in touch with nature and true spirituality. The other extreme is that tribal life is “nasty, brutish, and short”. In many ways it is. Mortality rates are higher and life spans are shorter. There are none of the social safety nets that most of us in the West depend on for our survival. (Note: in place of government safety nets there are communities of people who look after each other and who do not tolerate anyone being left outside or remaining hungry. The elderly, mentally sick and otherwise handicapped are kept in the villages, given useful roles to fulfill and not isolated in institutions to be cared for by paid specialists).
What about nasty and brutish? Often, in the Manobo villages there were fights and screaming and shouting and people chasing each other with spears or bolos. The scream of a woman at the start of a fight could release a flood of adrenaline into the blood stream like few other things in life. Who was being stabbed or killed?
At one gathering of men from several neighboring villages, fighting broke out. One man grabbed a bolo and tried to attacks others but was restrained by his friends and relatives. The fighting then moved down onto the road where more people joined. Some men were throwing stones while others wielded sticks. The ladies had wisely hidden the spears.
The intensity of the rage was murderous. Men screamed as they hit each other and threw rocks. There were dog piles of up to half a dozen men all fighting at the same time. Ladies and children cried and screamed pitifully as they watched, unable to stop the fighting.
Sometimes male rage was more a show of macho than real intent to fight. Our neighbor Dayon once rushed out with his rifle, screaming his intent to kill a man on the opposite side of the village. But he had not properly choreographed his attack. He was too far out in front of his neighbors who were responsible to put on a show of restraining him from his murderous rush. Realizing that he was too far ahead, he slowed and looked back for his neighbors to catch up. Lowering his voice, he urged them to hurry up. As they arrived and grabbed his arms to hold him back, he struggled against their restraint and resumed his raging screams of murder. From our nearby perspective it was more comedic farce than actual threat.
Was there more or less violence than in Western societies? That was difficult to measure because so much violence in the West goes on behind closed doors in private homes. In a tribal village everyone hears everything. Open bark-walled houses do not dampen sound waves in any way. We could hear people quietly talking in houses 100 feet away. Shouting traveled a lot further.
(Note: research does confirm that tribal societies do have higher levels of violence)
One evening we heard a man beating his wife in a nearby house. “Whap, whap, whap”. The wife screamed in terror. Everyone in the village rushed out toward that man’s house. I shouted at a guest of mine, M J, “Lets go”. He was sitting with his wife, but jumped up and ran out onto the porch with me. Then he stopped suddenly, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not going like this”. He looked down at his underwear, which was all he was wearing. He rushed back in, got dressed and then came out carrying a bolo (machete), just in case.
M is a British Columbia logger, six foot four inches tall and weighing some 270 pounds. He is blond in a traditionally Swedish way and somewhat chubby on his huge frame. Manobo said that when M rode on a motorcycle with his tiny wife B on the back it reminded them of a local insect where the much smaller female clings to the back of a larger male. And with true Manobo curiosity, local people often wondered aloud how such a tiny woman could survive sex under such a huge man.
As we approached the house in the dark, someone in the crowd waiting outside turned a flashlight on M revealing the giant logger carrying a machete. M quickly slipped the machete behind his back feeling very foolish, as things seemed to be under control. No one else had a weapon.
Another time some people started screaming just down the hill below our house. M and I ran down to see several men struggling on the ground with a spear. We both rushed over and jumped on them grabbing wrists and arms, at first the wrong ones, letting go again and grabbing at other arms until we had the offender’s wrists. In the scuffling we leaned too hard on the men and broke the spear. Spears are very difficult to make and relatively rare.
A man standing nearby told us not to worry about the men wrestling as they already had the situation under control. We both stood up, backed off, and sheepishly apologized for the spear.
One of the village elders later gently told me that it was not necessary for us to get involved in village fights. They could take care of local problems themselves. But it’s hard to shake off the interventionist do-gooder mindset.
I passed a neighboring village one morning where two men had been drinking together the previous night. One had said something offensive to his friend who went home and got his machete. He then returned and in a drunken rage hacked the other man to death. The villagers told me, “Don’t go look at the body”. That only sparked my curiosity so I went over to the house where the body lay in the dirt just below the steps.
The blood from the dead man’s body had run out into the dirt, which was now wet and black looking. One slice of the machete had opened a wound from the back of the man’s head across to his shoulder almost severing the head. Another blow had sliced open his abdomen and his intestines were spilled out on the ground. While repulsed, I could not help but notice the bluish white color of his bones, connecting tendons and muscles. I had never seen that up close before.
While Manobo were generally friendly and tolerant toward us, we did have a variety of close encounters with tribal temper.
A senior lady missionary living in a nearby village had warned us to never draw attention to tribal people’s personal physical defects. Out of normal human concern she had once asked a teenage boy if she could help him get treatment for his harelip. He went out and soon afterward committed suicide. The incident left her badly shaken.
Someone else might have turned on her with a machete. Manobo men see themselves as tough warriors that surrounding tribes fear. It is conventional Manobo macho that any perceived insult should be followed by a swift and punishing payback action.
B had a close call once when he became a little too friendly with the second wife of a local villager. She was a very pretty woman and B had taken a shine to her. Even though B believed he was maintaining a very Evangelical relationship, a friend of the villager came over and warned him about his friendliness. “The man might cut you with a machete”, he cautioned.
We were learning what to do and what not to do in Manobo society.
Death, Death, Death
There was more death in Kapatagan and the surrounding area than I had ever experienced before in my life. In fact, up to that point in my 27 years I had only seen two dead bodies- one was that of my cousin in a coffin and the other one was that of a highway accident victim in Alberta.
I was now discovering the frightening insecurity of poverty where life can unexpectedly and quickly become a desperate struggle to just stay alive, and just as quickly end in death. That is especially true when there are no extra resources for illness or accident.
So much of the death resulted from insignificant things that ordinarily would not kill a person. But where there are no vaccinations or simple antibiotics or clean water, people sometimes die like flies. It is the death of children that was especially hard to absorb.
In my own nonscientific survey I regularly asked women how many children they had given birth to. They would often reply that they had borne six, seven, or eight kids. I would then ask them how many of their children were still alive. They would reply- two, three, or maybe four. It appeared to be roughly almost a 50% death rate. Those deaths were not included in national statistical accounting. Even in many lowland areas births and deaths were not recorded officially.
From the very beginning of our residence in Kapatagan people came to us for help. We had no medical training, not even first aid, but we were asked to treat people for the entire range of human illnesses and accidents. Within days of our first visit a lady brought her little baby boy to me. His left eye socket was a swollen dirty black bulge of what looked like protruding infected flesh. The mother had smeared ash and blood on the bulging flesh as part of some healing ritual. I thought the eye had fallen out and that mess had come protruding out from behind the eye, but she said the eye was still beneath the black mass. I had no medicine at that time and she refused to go to the hospital so she returned to her house somewhere out in the forest without medicine for her son. I don’t know what happened to the boy.
The refusal of people to accompany us to the lowland hospitals for help was very frustrating. But in later years we would come to understand that from a Manobo viewpoint, places where people died were places where evil spirits were eating people’s souls and should be avoided, not approached for help. It was against all Manobo common sense to go to a place of death and lots of people died at hospitals.
One afternoon I was startled by a loud scream across the road at the house of our neighbor Aniga. People from surrounding houses started running to his house to see what had happened. I ran over also. When I arrived, the house was already crowded with neighbors. In the center of the floor, Aniga’s wife was cradling the head of her six-year-old son in her lap. The boy’s eyes were a sickly yellow and he appeared unconscious as he struggled to suck in breaths of air between his firmly locked jaws. There was dried blood smeared on his forehead from a recent sacrifice.
I urged Aniga to let me rush the boy immediately to the hospital on my bike. He shook his head no. It was too late and he knew it. Then unexpectedly, Aniga screamed again- a long, angry shriek. People standing around told me the scream was an effort to scare away the spirit eating his son’s soul.
While we watched, the little boy’s body stiffened and convulsed. He made one last sucking gasp with his entire body and then stopped breathing. His older sister who was sitting nearby with her face to the wall started crying. The mother started whimpering and then wailing loudly. Aniga left his son and went across the room to sit in a corner where he broke down crying. The mother continued holding him in her lap even though the boy’s breathing had ceased for several minutes. Then another lady went over and picked him up to lay him on the floor in position for the wake.
Aowri, a neighbor standing by the door, looked at me and shook his head resignedly, saying, “Life is hard here in the mountains”. I went home frustrated that they had not contacted us sooner.
When you believe sickness is the result of a busow (an evil spirit) attacking and eating the spirit of the sick person then you do what you are told in order to appease the angry spirit. You offer a chicken or pig sacrifice as the shaman tells you to.
Not everyone used the local offering system. One man told me that years before his mother had become very ill and he had offered a pig as the shaman commanded. His mother died anyway and that made him very bitter. He stopped believing in the sacrifices from that point, he said.
Mothers would often bring babies to us with open puss-covered sores covering anywhere from one half to their entire scalp. The sores would start out as just an itchy point to scratch and soon become infected and then spread into a huge open wound. It made us nauseous just looking at such sores but there was no one else the mothers would go to for help. We cleaned the wounds with hydrogen peroxide then smeared on some antibiotic sulphur cream and covered them with gauze bandaging. Often, after our initial treatment we would never see the people again.
To be fair let me note that tribal people do have an impressive knowledge of rainforest medicines (plants) that are effective in treating various diseases. However, they also hold distorting traditions that keep them trapped in unnecessary suffering. For instance, when a baby or child has diarrhea the mothers will stop giving them water because of the belief that less water going in means less water coming out. They believe that stopping water intake will stop the liquids from draining out the baby’s rear end. Such traditions kill a lot of children.
Also, there was no germ theory of disease in Manobo belief systems and people responded to sickness by first making a sacrifice to the angry spirit who had caused the sickness. Then when the illness became life-threatening people might come to us in a last desperate attempt to try medicine. By then it was often too late. And after using up all their resources on the sacrifices they would have nothing left to pay for medicine, but I recognized that providing medicine was part of our role in the village.
There was some disagreement among OMF missionaries over giving free medicine. Some felt that tribal people should pay for all medicine in order to learn the patterns of lowland culture where nothing was free. I felt that the village had provided us with a free house and regularly shared food items with us so we should provide something free in return as our contribution to village life.
Some missionaries stubbornly refused to give free medicine or help sick people who could not pay. I have never understood that harsh stance toward suffering people. Medical emergencies too often caught tribal people unprepared.
Hospitals And Death
Frustrated with what I felt was a senseless waste of human life, early one morning I loaded two logging truck cabs with five sick people that I wanted to take to a lowland hospital. It had taken days to convince them that lowland doctors could help them. We rode the first trucks going out that day as it was often a full day’s journey to the lowland town of Tagum where the nearest provincial hospital was located.
After a long day of rocking over rutted roads, the sun had just set and we were traveling through the lowland rice areas within a half-hour of Tagum. I thought the trip was going to work out all right. I was even relaxing in the truck reading a book on how to be a more spiritual Christian. The book was about improving your ability to be patient, roll with life’s difficult moments, not become angry with other’s mistakes but be more forgiving, and numerous other holy life issues.
Taking a break to rest my eyes I looked up and unexpectedly saw the patients from the first truck standing beside the road. Stunned, it took me a few microseconds to comprehend what I had just seen. Then in a panic I shouted at our truck driver to stop. He did and after climbing down I pleaded with the Manobo that were riding with me to continue on to Tagum and wait for us there. Too frightened to go on alone, they refused. They had never been to town and they wanted off with me. So we all got off and stood there beside the road in the dust waiting for the men who had disembarked from the first truck to catch up to us.
I almost screamed at the man who had made the decision to get off the first truck. We had lost our rides and it would be difficult to find another vehicle that could take all six of us. I angrily asked him, “Why did you get off here?” He reacted defensively to my anger and in a hurt manner explained, “I just wanted to sell some sweet potatoes to another passenger riding with me who lived at this location”. I was so pissed off I could barely keep my voice below a shout. I snapped back at him, “We are in the middle of nowhere. How are we going to get to Tagum now? It’s getting dark now”.
Another tribal man stepped in between us and tried to calm me down, telling me that it was all right and things would work out. He was more patient, already knew how to roll with life’s difficult moments, did not get angry with other’s mistakes but was more forgiving, and had resolved numerous other holy life issues. And he was an illiterate tribal man.
Shortly after my outburst we stopped a jeepney and all found seats to finish our journey to Tagum. I sat across from the man whom I had been shouting at and glared in sullen anger. I was still pissed off as I was now paying for all the fares. He looked away, embarrassed. The holy tribal man who had stepped in between us looked calm, relaxed and almost serene with his Leonardo Da Vinci’s Madonna smile. He irked me no end.
After dropping all the patients off at the hospital and making sure they were properly admitted I went on to Davao City for the night. The next morning I returned to the hospital to check on them but, damn it, they had all left. The head nurse called me into her office to explain. She sat across the desk looking somewhat solemn and said, “Your patients absconded”. She then sat waiting for my response.
My mind raced to find anything in my memory that would help me recall what absconded meant. I knew I had heard the word somewhere long ago. What did it mean? As a person from an English speaking country I felt that I should know more English than someone from a country where English was used as a second language. She waited.
I could not remember any useful meanings of the word except that it was something bad about money. That much could be picked up from the context.
Finally, I gave up. Sheepishly, I lowered my voice and asked her, “What does absconded mean?” She frowned at me like a schoolteacher with a dull student and curtly explained, “They left without paying their bills”. The dictionary actually said something about running away with the money, but her usage was close enough.
I have never since forgotten absconded.
The patients walked all the way back to a rural village where they caught a logging truck ride to Kapatagan. Someone had died at the hospital during the night and that meant angry spirits were around eating people’s souls. It was a dangerous place to be.
My wife is a doctor and she says that hospitals have all sorts of dangerous bacteria, some now known as superbugs, and you only go to hospitals if you have no other option for medical needs. Otherwise, it is best to stay away from them. She used to work in a hospital. Tribal people’s negative view of places where people died was not far off the mark.
In our treatment of people we used the medical book “Where There Is No Doctor”. While sometimes helpful, it was often frustratingly vague and for so many diseases the symptoms were overlapping. Repeated experiences with the same local diseases such as malaria, gastro-intestinal diseases, tuberculosis, and measles eventually resulted in a growing familiarity with their symptoms. At least we thought so.
Once some neighbors asked me to look at a young lady named Beringa who was suffering from fever of some sort. I guessed it to be malaria and gave her some malaria tablets. The next day she appeared to be recovering, but then later someone dropped by and told me she had been brushing her hair a few minutes earlier and just fell over dead. I had no idea what killed her.
According to local custom I went to sit with the grieving relatives. Beringa’s body had already been laid on the floor for the wake. Her older sister was straightening the clean dress they had just put on her. She then tried to straighten Beringa’s fingers which were already cold and stiff. Others sitting beside the body talked about the spirit that had eaten her soul.
I was conscious of my part in this drama and wondered if they might be bitter and angry with me for failing to help with my medicines. Instead, the mother turned to me and asked sadly, “Do you also feel grief when your loved ones die?” I assured her that we felt the same pain though I had no experience of anyone in my immediate family dying.
In may seem unethical for nonmedical people to be treating others for serious illnesses but remember that many of those people would die anyway as they refused to go out to the lowlands for professional medical help. We at least tried to do something and learn as much as we could about local diseases. Many other people survived due to our interventions. But it was too often miss and not hit.
Upon dying, bodies were laid on the floor of houses while relatives and neighbors constructed coffins. Villagers would come in to view the bodies and talk about how the people had died and watch the family brush ants and flies away from the noses and mouths of the deceased. The corpses had to be buried before the next day passed as the heat caused rapid rotting and the smell would become unbearable. Bodily fluids would start running out of the corpses.
Early in my time in the Philippines I reacted negatively to the party-like atmosphere at houses where wakes were held. I felt it was very disrespectful for people to laugh and play in front of grieving relatives. Then someone explained to me that all the drinking and laughing was an effort to cheer and comfort the grieving relatives. Once again, it was not wrong, just different.
Despite all the suffering and dying, tribal people did not seem to be abnormally miserable. I had some difficulty processing that. I had been told repeatedly at Prairie that I was going to find lost miserable souls on their way to damnation, walking like zombies toward the cliff, which led to the fires of hell. As tribal animists I expected them to exhibit more misery in keeping with their status as members of “the great majority of mankind that live lives of silent desperation”. Instead, I found a basically happy people who loved a good laugh, and laughed frequently. The “comedianti” (comedienne) was the much-enjoyed life of most gatherings. As a consequence of my inner struggles with religion and its harsh anti-human demands, I was often more morose and miserable than the Manobo that I lived among.
Years later I would read the comments of an early Twentieth century anthropologist who wrote, “Once happy pagan villages often turned into sullen, morose places after converting to Protestant Christianity”. I laughed on reading that.
But they tried to cheer me up. Once a tiny, withered granny came over to visit along with several other local people. In the midst of our conversing about this and that, the granny in a fit of playfulness decided to leap on my back- howling and laughing as she wrapped her matchstick arms around my neck and her spindly legs around my waist. I felt very awkward. I could not just throw her off over my shoulder as she was fragile and might break into pieces.
So I stumbled around pretending to gag until she had finished her jollies and climbed off. I was not used to grannies acting so informally. Maybe she was horny?