Chapter Seven: Fundamentalism Impacting Manobo Culture
“They’re Human Beings”
I was surprised to discover that Manobo were as fully human as anyone else. I realize this admission exposes and condemns the views of tribal people that I held. I really don’t know what I was expecting. Did I think tribal people were somehow subhuman or not fully conscious and intelligent people like Westerners? I had always considered myself as free of any such depreciating attitudes and very egalitarian in my regard for all others.
Maybe I did share something of the arrogant attitude of Westerners as expressed by a US fighter pilot during the Gulf War. He said, “I just refuse to believe that a Third World person who rides a camel can be as smart as I am”. I would never have consciously held or stated such an arrogant viewpoint, but a lot resides in our subconscious that we are little aware of.
I remember a neighboring missionary lady, Shirley, who visited us once in Davao. She spoke for a while of the tribal people she worked with and then leaned toward me and with intense feeling said, “Wendell, they’re human beings. They’re persons”. She had made the same discovery the rest of us were just starting to make.
Often while sitting and talking with Manobo I would become aware that the person I was talking to reminded me of someone I knew back home. It was a feeling of being transported back to a similar experience in some other place and time. Some people were quiet spoken and shy, others were more raucous and chatty. They were every type of personality, just like back home.
There were superficial outward differences in clothing, verbal expression, and some daily customs and practices, but we soon concluded that essentially Manobo were the same as us- fully human. They laughed at the same things that we laughed at, they became angry and upset at the things that angered us, and they enjoyed the same things in life that we did. They were also curious about the things in life that all of us were curious about.
The Western view of tribal people also condemns the discipline of anthropology. Only a few years ago (1990s) the discipline announced that it had discovered romantic love among tribal cultures. Well, come on now. What nonsense is that? From the very beginning of our stay among Manobo we saw romantic love everywhere. And it was certainly there long before Westerners came on the scene.
The discovery of full humanity and human personality is always a fascinating experience. With distance and isolation from people, it is easier to maintain stereotypes. But close-up, within the emotional range of another human being and with reciprocal communication, the genuine humanity of other people emerges and impacts our own consciousness and emotions. We begin to see the human person and the unique personality they have. We start to feel them and the full range of their emotions. Bonds naturally start to form. Normal human interaction always leads to such bonding between people.
Particularly interesting in the discovery of the humanity of others is the way that people, who may at first appear physically unattractive, become very beautiful as you get to know them more intimately. The true attractiveness of any person is their humanity.
I think for instance of the young Manobo lady named Poy-ung. The first time I saw her, she was standing beside the road, shyly looking away like a backward natibo (native). She was dirty and dressed in the old ragged clothing that tribal people wore when working in the fields. Looking closer, I noticed that her left eyelid drooped half closed over her left eye. If you looked at her from that side of her face she looked half-asleep. If you looked at her from the right side, her right eye was wide open and gave her face the appearance of brightly smiling. That bright side more clearly represented Poy-ung’s cheerful personality.
After the initial shyness wore off, Poy-ung became a regular visitor to our place. She opened up into a chatty, excited, and intelligent young lady. If by some good fortune she would shyly smile at us, then we saw an additional facet of her personality- an even row of full white teeth lighting up her face in sunny though still shy friendliness. She would try to pull her lips back together but they would keep breaking apart as giggles bubbled irrepressibly out.
She was easy to love. Often when we met her she would greet us with a hug, look up with one wide-open bright eye and one half-closed sleepy eye to jokingly say, “Hi second daddy”. That beautiful young lady emerged out of my initial view of a ragged little natibo standing in the dirt beside the road.
When Poy-ung came over to visit us, we tended to melt a bit more no matter what our frame of mind was at the time. She would come in quietly, walk over to where we were sitting on the floor working and then sit down beside us. She would affectionately take hold of our hand or put a skinny arm around us and look up smiling to say, “Anggam (uncle)”. If she felt like kidding a bit, she would hug us, giggle and then say, “Amoy ko bag (my father for sure)”. Her own father was often absent from the village and her mother had apparently gone crazy when she was still a child. I sometimes wondered how profoundly that must have traumatized such a sensitive young person.
At other times Poy-ung would sit quietly and watch us work. If we glanced up to acknowledge her, she would twist her body in embarrassment and break into a smile. When she had something to tell us, her voice would become excited and she would gesture expressively with her hands. Her favorite story was about the time that she went with some friends to a neighboring village to buy some supplies. It was late in the afternoon when they returned and they had not yet found a ride. The sun was setting as they stood waiting beside the road so Poy-ung asked God to provide them with a ride home. Shortly after her prayer, a logging truck came along and they were able to make it home before dark. She believed that God had heard and answered her prayer.
One day we engaged in the following interaction with Poy-ung and her friends:
“Where is America?”
“It’s on the other side of the ocean”.
“How much does it cost to go there?”
“Is the world round?”
“Yes. It’s sort of like a ball”.
“Where is heaven?”
“Well, you can’t see it”.
“Is it on the other side from here?”
“Is it far away, like here in our place?”
“It’s about the same”.
“Can we go there with you?”
“Yes, if you believe in Jesus”.
“Have you ever been to heaven?”
“Are you lonely for your parents? Are they still alive?”
“Yes. Sometimes we are lonely”.
“We would be if we went away from our parents”.
“Have you ever seen God?”
“No. He doesn’t have a body”.
“Does he eat? Does he work? What does he do?”
“Well… Not really”.
“Does Jesus live at your house?”
“Did you drive in here last night?”
“Aren’t you afraid of the busow (evil spirits)?”
“No. God will protect us”.
“Do you plant beads at your house in Davao (referring to the plastic beads we brought
from stores in the city)?”
“No. Beads are made from plastic and sold in stores”.
At that point all the chatter and questioning stopped. Silence…. Some faces looked puzzled, others looked blank. Then light began to dawn on some. They glanced at the others to see if they had caught on. Now painfully embarrassed, the enlightened ones lowered their eyes and fiddled with their fingers, looking like people who have just realized they had believed a silly story and they should have known better. It was beautiful to watch. Not the embarrassment, but the simple straightforward humanity. Behind it all was the larger context of tribal people feeling intensely ashamed of their “ignorance” in the face of outside developed society.
Years later when I had moved south to another village, Poy-ung (then in her teens) sent word through a visiting friend that she wanted to come and live with me. Her plan was that she would work around my place and I would pay her way through school. I responded to her friend that it would not look appropriate for a young lady to live with a single man and then dismissively did not give her request much further thought. I did not hear again from Poy-ung after that.
Someone told me before the year ended that she had gone out to the forest one day and killed herself. Stunned, I realized how unaware I had been of the destructive emotions that had been churning inside her. I had not really known Poy-ung.
And I wondered what more I could have done to help her. Maybe I could have arranged some way for her to stay in our village so that she would have had the prized opportunity to attend school. But it was too late to wonder. Such carelessness on my part haunts me still.
As we spent more time in the Kapatagan the full range of personalities began to emerge. There was Toning, our loud, yappy neighbor lady who would barge right into our house and try to walk away with whatever she could get her hands on. Her laugh was equally loud and raucous as the rest of her personality. There was never even a microsecond of delay between how she felt and what came out of her mouth and through her face or body. She never wore any kind of mask. Most us try to maintain some split second check on our inner feelings and the outside presentation of our proper selves, the one we think people expect us to show.
Once several neighbors started fighting and the villagers had to call the community leader, Kayluan, to intervene before violence erupted. As Kayluan was making his way down from his hilltop house toward the houses where the fighting had started he could hear Toning’s nonstop yappy interference in the argument. From the hillside he barked loudly, “Hagton Toning (Shutup Toning). I’ll handle it”. Toning involved herself, invited or not, in everything happening in the village.
Another time she dropped by to ask B to pray for her sick daughter. As B started to pray, Toning cut in, telling him in words and short phrases exactly what to say. “Jesus… You are God… You are the one who heals the sick…” She wanted to make sure B got things right. B struggled to ignore her and keep his train of thought. Toning could never be somewhere and just listen at the periphery. She had to express herself.
There were other quieter people like Aping with her slow, measured way of talking that sounded almost like a southern US drawl. When asked a question she would often shyly blush and stammer out a quiet, even hesitant, response.
Each unique person contributed to the color and variety that made up the entire life of the village.
Others I could never like in any way. I once climbed up a notched pole to enter a house and surprised a man lying on the floor. He was drunk and on seeing me he erupted into a rage and tried to attack me. Others in the house restrained him. I never did like him after that threatening introduction. But maybe some people are called to be the fly in the ointment, the party pooper, or the village dud.
Before moving into the Manobo area, I had some concern about how we would survive in an isolated rainforest village at one of the most isolated ends of the earth. In Canada we had always lived for weekends. That was the time to party, go to Vancouver and see a movie or hang out with friends. Even at holy Prairie weekends perked up communal life and activity.
But in the rainforest there were no theaters, no stores of any kind, no electricity, no telephones, no TV, and only battery powered radio. I wondered how I would survive sheer boredom. But to my surprise, village life had its own fulfilling round of activities, excitement, and interaction with a wide variety of people. There was little sense of loneliness or isolation. People never left us alone long enough to become bored or lonely.
Even during the usually quiet mornings when most people had gone to weed their fields, Manobo kids would drop by to ask us endless questions about space travel, rocket ships, and anything else they had seen or heard about in the West. They would also proudly show us their craftwork. Using scraps of wood and old rubber sandals, they made almost perfect replicas of the logging trucks that passed the village during the day. The kids were exceptionally creative and resourceful, with high levels of art and craft skills. They also laughed, ran, screamed, fought, and played like kids everywhere.
One unique behavior that we noticed among the children was that they often talked to each other using the singsong chant that adults used in their traditional singing. Another unique feature of Manobo was the tendency of the women and kids to hold a tiny round ball of tobacco between their lips, even while talking. We had to take this distorting effect on speech into account when recording word pronunciation for dictionaries.
Manobo have basically Malay features, similar to Indonesians and Malaysians. But over the centuries of contact with traders and other outsiders they have mixed their genes with Chinese, East Indians, Japanese, Spanish, Negrito, and even European peoples. I have seen the full range of variation from white Chinese-looking Manobo to black Negrito-like Manobo. Negritos are a tribal group in the Central/Northern Philippines.
The various traders have impacted Manobo culture by introducing such diverse things as Islamic metal crafts (e.g. quarter-moon shaped belly packs), Islamic style architecture on the houses, and Indian mythology into the local belief systems.
Manobo personal appearance has also been impacted significantly by outside influence. In more isolated areas the older traditional Manobo women still wear their hair in bangs across their foreheads with long locks of straight hair hanging in front of their ears. Those older women also have filed and shortened teeth that their generation considers beautiful. “Long teeth make a person look like a dog” they often told us. Thanks.
Many of the older women also have large holes in their earlobes for holding the wooden plugs, which are inserted to anchor their bead necklaces. And in a uniquely Manobo fashion older women display stomach, calve and forearm tattoos (markings of identity for spirits to recognize when they descend to take people to heaven). The younger ladies are rejecting such traditional beauty insignia for lowland styles of beauty, which are very western.
As language study progressed we continued to clash with local culture. For instance, in the surrounding forests there was a species of pigeon that the Manobo called limukon. They believed that pigeon communicated the warnings of the gods to them through its call. If people were about to go somewhere and the limukon called, then they would not dare move out of fear that something terrible would happen to them. Many Manobo had stories of getting cut by a machete or being hurt in a logging truck accident because they had ignored the limukon call.
One morning our neighbor, Dayon, came over to visit while I was preparing to catch a logging truck ride to the city. I heard a truck coming in the distance and got up to go but Dayon put his hand out and stopped me, warning, “Don’t go. The limukon is calling”. I listened for a moment to the rapid stutter coo of the bird, laughed and then continued moving toward the steps telling Dayon, “I don’t believe in that”. As a good Christian I was not going to compromise and submit to someone else’s suspicious beliefs. I had to set a good example and show that I did not fear demonic things.
The truck reached a fork in the road and turned left, heading back into the mountains. I watched for a moment then sat down again beside Dayon, puzzled by his agitation.
“What did you say?”
“The limukon was calling when you stood up”, he explained. “If you go down from the house or go on a journey when they are calling, then you will be hurt or killed before you arrive at your destination”. The limukon was a delicate looking dove that called in spaced hoots which increased in frequency until it sounded almost like a trill. We had practiced mimicking its call one day by blowing through our thumbs into cupped hands. One bird had answered us from the nearby forest.
“Sometimes it’s all right to go”, Dayon continued. “Someone knowledgeable, like Kayluan, will tell us if it’s safe or not. But if it’s a warning call then you should not go down from your house. Don’t even stand up. Sometimes young people don’t believe the warning of the older people who interpret the calls of the bird. They go ahead and leave and along the way they get cut or hurt in some way. Many have died”. Then he showed me a scar on his leg where he had cut himself. He said that he had disregarded the warning and gone to his field. Sure enough, when he arrived and started work, he cut himself. Now he believed the bird.
He then showed me a complicated set of arm and hand signals that are given to explain whether the bird’s call is good or bad, depending on the direction it came from.
Others told me that the limukon was a pet of God who listens to God and then tells people if they will get hurt or die. Others went further to state that the limukon actually decides who will die or not.
There were other times when we would be preparing to leave while visitors were still in the house. Sometimes the visitors did not want to leave because they had heard the limukon call. At such times I would stubbornly go ahead, obligating them to leave also because I had to lock up the house. I insensitively forced them to violate a very serious taboo in their culture because I did not want to give in to what I felt was superstition. I believed that I was responsible to exhibit uncompromising Christian purity. Loyalty to God before compassion to real people.
The Fear Of God (or Gods)
Traditional Manobo beliefs support a large element of fear in Manobo minds. An early Manobo anthropologist, John Garvan, once wrote, “To the Manobo, his deities and demons, spirits, giants, ghouls, and goblins are as real as his own existence, and his belief in them seems entirely rational and well founded. Fear then seems to be the foundation of the Manobo’s religious belief and observances (I was concluding the same about Evangelical Christianity)… Anything that suggests the unintelligible, the unusual, the suspected, the gloomy, is at once attributed hostile forces. Hence a crow that caws at night is thought to be an evil spirit. The crashing of a falling tree in the forest is the struggle of mighty giants. The rumbling of thunder, the flash of lightning, the tempest’s blast, and all other phenomena of nature are the operation of unseen agencies. The darkness is peopled with hosts of spirits out to destroy men. On the desolate rocks, in the untrodden jungle, on the dark mountain tops, in gloomy caves, by mad torrents, in deep pools, dwell invisible powers whose enmity must be avoided or whose good will must be courted or whose anger must be placated”.
Viewing the world in such a manner made Manobo susceptible to the wildest rumors. One afternoon a man stopped by to tell us an incredible story. Several villagers had heard that Imelda Marcos had become covered with fish scales and she was now like a mermaid- part human and part fish. Some person or animal in the ocean had apparently told Imelda that in order to rid herself of the scales she would have to catch and kill one thousand people as sacrifices. Our visitor then told us that he had just heard of several Manobo children being captured in another area. Frightened, he proposed that they should take all the children and evacuate immediately.
We tried to pooh pooh the silly rumor but it only spread further as fear intensified into panic. Groups of Manobo in the village huddled together for hours, scaring each other silly as they related details of the story, which grew wilder by the minute. One elderly leader came over to ask me, “Is it true that President Marcos is going to kill us all?”
I eventually found an old newspaper picture of Imelda and pointed out to local people that there were no scales on her body. “Look at her arms”, I told them. That helped to squelch the rumor and calm people down. I did not tell anyone that it was a very old picture that predated the mermaid rumor.
Those wild rumors evoked a decidedly anti-government response which made me wonder if they might have been started by the New People’s Army. They had a clear interest in stirring anti-government sentiment among the masses. Kind of like the manipulation of public feeling that is done by the CIA to gain support for US military action (notable examples suggested in recent years are the stories of Noriega’s cocaine- later discovered to be bags of flour. Or the misinformation about Saddam Hussein’s troops stealing the baby incubator from the hospital and leaving babies to die on the floor- later found to be entirely false. But it worked to push public opinion over the edge in support of Bush’s war).
The frightful Manobo view of life peaked at events like an eclipse of the moon. We were settling down one evening to do some work when Kayluan, the village headman, dropped by. He sounded quite agitated as he told us that they had just heard on the radio that there would be an eclipse of the moon that evening. “That means”, he said, “that there will be evil spirits roving around and people will have to stay in their houses”.
I could never understand how hiding behind cracked bark walls protected people from evil spirits.
Word of the eclipse spread quickly- shouted from house to house by terrified people. Soon the moon started to darken and people began to scream wildly as they furiously pounded drums, logs and pots. We asked Kayluan, “Why are they doing that?”
He explained, “A huge snake is trying to swallow the moon but if we shout and make noise then we can scare it away”.
After some 15 minutes of noise, the eclipse passed. “There”, Kayluan breathed, letting his tension go and expressing satisfaction that their own homegrown remedy had worked effectively once more. “We have scared the snake away”.
Others felt that attacking spirits could be bought off with money. I knew a Manobo man named Putarko who was aggressively striving to become a modern western-style capitalist. He was a short wiry man with cropped gray hair that stood straight up on his head like a retro crew-cut. His permanent grin made him look a little silly. The only people who smile like that are those people whose cobs of corn lack a few kernels.
Putarko had isolated himself from his fellow Manobo and lived at the edge of a lowland area where he ran a fairly successful farm. But his success had come at the cost of much scorn from his more traditional tribal friends. He was considered to be a selfish and stingy man who would not share with other Manobo.
One morning he was walking to a nearby lowland village when he heard a strange noise in the trees beside the road. He suspected it to be an evil spirit out to devour him. He panicked and started to run, crying and screaming for help. Then in a flash of entrepreneurial insight he pulled coins from his pocket and dropped them on the ground as he continued running. A lady told us that he did not drop large coins (pesos) but only small ones (centavos). The cheap bugger. He was hoping that the chasing spirit would stop to pick up the coins and that would give him enough distance to escape.
Capitalism was even reshaping tribal views of the spirit world.
Garvan stated that the deities and demons in Manobo land were many. Some of the main ones we heard about regularly were:
Anit or anits- gods of thunder, rain, and lightning
Kalayag- god of sun, crops
Makabibitil- god of drought
Tagonliag- god of sexual desire, marriage
Alimugkat- god of streams, water
Pugak- god of dead people or the realm of the dead
Manobo referred to their spirits or gods roughly in terms of good or bad but the lines between those categories were always blurred. There was no western Christian demarcation between pure good and pure evil. While generally the bantoy (angels) appeared to be the good guys and the busow (evil spirits) appeared to be the bad guys, any given spirit or god could be referred to as either bantoy or busow. Maybe it depended on what the god was up to at the time.
For instance, Tagonliag (the god of sexual desire) was viewed as responsible for drawing people together in marriage but was also responsible for causing people to play around on the side. We often heard people who were caught in adultery or premarital sex plead, “A spirit made me do it”. It sounded so irresponsibly Christian- “The devil made me do it, Ma”.
Violating Anit Taboos
My cultural insensitivity and offensiveness were shameless at times. Manobo have a belief which they call the Anit taboo. In the Anit taboo you are never to do anything unnatural such as talk to animals, dogs being an obvious focus there (birds, fish, and insects were also included). Any conversing with animals would make the spirits angry. Whenever the kids caught us talking to animals they would crook their forefingers at us and warn, “Oganit ka (you will become bent over like this when the lightning or thunder hits you)”. That made the approach of regular afternoon storms a worrisome time as someone may have committed anit and anyone could get hit. It was not just lightning that killed. Thunder also killed.
Children were often suspected of laughing at or talking to some animal and thereby arousing the wrath of Anit who would express his anger in the coming storm. As a precaution, spirit priests would sometimes go out before an approaching storm to wave their arms and cry out in an effort to drive off the storm and any curses that it might bring.
One afternoon as I was walking back from another village with a group of kids and teenagers I called out to a dog running in front of us. Immediately the kids crooked their fingers and shouted “Anit” at me. I responded dismissively, “Look, nothing is happening to me”. A week later a little boy died in that neighboring village. The kids who had been with me the previous week came over and announced accusingly, “There, you see uncle. You committed Anit and that boy died”.
“But I didn’t get sick”, I replied.
“Of course”, they responded, “That’s because you are white. But someone else died because you committed Anit”. They did not follow strict Western logic or reasoning with its appeal to tight cause-effect relationships.
Anit did not just apply to verbal interaction with animals. Laughing at animals could also piss Anit off. Some ladies came over to visit one day and while we were talking on the porch their dog lay down to take a nap between us. I picked up a straw and lightly touched the dog’s hind leg. Without opening its eyes or lifting its head, the dog started kicking the tickled leg in a furious paddling motion as if trying to shake off what it probably thought was a fly. It looked hilarious and I started to laugh. I repeated the tickling and the dog paddled furiously once again while refusing to look up. The ladies became frightened and quickly turned away, tensing their bodies in a desperate struggle to suppress laughter. They looked like they were facing an immediate lightning strike. Those local gods were as unamused as LE’s Tabernacle God was.
There were elaborate systems of taboos. If someone offered food to another person and that person refused, then the offerer could possibly suffer a snakebite. So instead of a direct refusal, people were obligated to at least touch the offered food in order to protect the person offering.
The pamalii class of taboos stated that if people mixed certain prohibited foods in cooking, then they would commit sin and were susceptible to having their souls eaten by offended spirits.
Manobo believed that breaking taboos was sin and the spirits would punish taboo breakers by spearing and eating their souls. In the Manobo worldview spirit spearing was the fundamental reason why people became sick and died. They consequently viewed every sickness as the result of being targeted by an angry spirit for breaking a taboo.
Whether the sick person admitted it or not, everyone else in the village knew that they had broken some taboo. Sickness was irrefutable proof that the suffering person was being punished for having sinned. The opposite also applied- if people were not sick, then it was obvious they had no sin.
One man explained the belief to me, “If anyone is sick, everyone in the village knows they have sinned. If we are not sick, then we have not sinned”. That was the tightest of Manobo logic. I had a hard time arguing with him that according to Evangelical teaching we were all born sinners and God was angry with all of us unless we accepted Jesus and became Christians. If we didn’t, then God would punish us in hell. On hearing that, he became upset with me and stated firmly, “No. I have no sin. I am not going to hell. Can’t you see, I am not sick”.
Frustrated and not fully comprehending his logic, I gave up arguing with him, concluding that he was probably irretrievably damned anyway.
Its All Pagan
The Manobo belief that all sickness and accidents were caused by angry gods is identical to the Christian belief that in all life events and situations God is teaching people lessons, trying to correct them, or punish them.
Over the years I gradually began to realize that Manobo core beliefs were the same as my Christian beliefs. The Evangelical missionary Don Richardson argued that God had given all tribal peoples certain beliefs similar to Christian beliefs in order to prepare them to accept the Christian gospel. That is not likely. It is more rational to conclude that all mythology comes from similar ancient root ideas held by people all over the earth.
This Manobo belief (noted above), that the gods or spirits were angry with people for breaking taboos and would therefore punish people by making them sick or by killing them, is the most fundamental of all Manobo beliefs. And Manobo taboos were the law and morality of Manobo culture.
Those angry gods then demanded blood sacrifices for appeasement of their anger. When a Manobo became sick and was aware that a spirit had speared his soul, he then contacted a spirit priest. The priest would then call on his own personal spirit (bantoy) by drum beating and prayer. When the familiar spirit arrived, it would tell the sick person which god had been offended and what sort of sacrifice must be made to appease the offended spirit. The shaman usually recommended offering a chicken or sometimes a pig if the sickness was serious enough. The blood of the sacrifice would be eaten by the spirit in place of the soul of the sick person, very much like a substitutionary atonement.
That belief in angry punishing gods was identical to the core belief of Christianity which states that God is angry at human failure to obey his law (sinfulness) and therefore punishes people, often in sickness and accident, and ultimately in hell. The Christian God also demands blood sacrifice to appease his anger.
In Manobo practice, the blood from the sacrifice was usually smeared on the part of the body where the sickness or pain was concentrated. The blood was the essential part of the sacrifice. Spirits demanded blood. Only blood could appease the spirits. It was payment for the sin of the taboo breaker- the thing that substituted for the life of the sinner.
While probing for more information on the sin/appeasement beliefs of Manobo, we discovered that some spirits did not make house calls. For instance, when the spirit that resides in the baliti tree had been offended, then the sinner had to take a chicken and go to the base of the tree. There he would sacrifice the chicken, waving it back and forth while chanting a prayer, “Spirit, please send this sickness far away. Don’t eat the soul of this sick person but take and eat this blood in place of the sick one”.
Sacrifices and blood were also offered to gain the assistance of spirits for various endeavors during the yearly farming cycle. Spirits were called on before cutting the fields and asked to protect the men from machete cuts while they worked. The crop gods were called on to grant good crops. After harvest, the gods were also thanked for their assistance.
And don’t forget Makabibitil (god of drought). If you forgot him he would become jealous and send a drought to pay you back. It was much the same with the Christian God- people who forgot him were severely punished (note the Old Testament). Gods do not like to be ignored. They want to be the center of attention just like Idi Amin.
Also, before the men would go hunting they would call on the dog gods to help the dogs to catch pigs. And before the men would go on revenge raids they would call on the spirits to make them fierce and protect them from their enemies.
Now whom have I forgotten? I don’t want any god upset with me because I don’t have any damn chickens.
In Manobo history there are many stories of people being punished by slighted gods who made them sick or struck them with lightning. Christian folklore also has identical stories of people struck by lightning or disease from an angry God, usually for silly things like swearing or being a little too irreverently funny.
Like Christianity, Manobo also have creation myths, flood myths, and Fall myths. The Christian Fall myth holds that Adam and Eve ate an apple (curiosity to know good and evil) which made God very angry and they were subsequently banished from God’s presence forever. They became sinners who were rejected by God. In a peevish snit he went up and away, leaving them with a planet that he had messed up thoroughly (sweat, thorns, birth pain, etc.).
In the Manobo Fall myth, a young lady was pounding rice when she lifted her pounding stick too high and hit heaven which used to be very low and close. People had previously been able to enter heaven which had an open doorway. But after her sin, the door was closed and heaven went up far away. People were abandoned and cut off by the peevish gods.
Imagine- abandoning people forever for one bump on your floor or for eating one lousy rotten apple. What kind of pettiness is that?
When we first moved into Kapatagan, Manobo often asked us if the heaven (also the same word for sky) over in North America was far away. I would always reply that it was the same distance as the sky in Mindanao, thinking they were referring to the physical sky. It was much later that I came to understand that they were asking if the gods had also left us and pulled heaven up far away.
An elderly white-haired shaman, Tangkonay, told us that in the good old days when heaven was still very close, a rice winnowing basket would regularly swing down from the sky and as it arced around the village people would jump on and ride off to glory. Her tale of swing low sweet chariot reminded me of the corny old Fundamentalist song, “I’m gonna ride up to heaven on the wings of a dodo bird”.
In the Manobo flood legends the local mountains were not covered entirely but the peaks were left exposed. I pounced on that insignificant detail as proof that Manobo legends were false. The Bible said that everything on earth was covered with water during the great Flood of Noah. So I argued with Manobo that because their ancestors had not written down the true facts, their Flood story became distorted as it was passed along in subsequent oral traditions. “Now”, I lectured, “we must check all things against God’s true account (in our Bible) and reject all that is false”. Talk about quibbling over minor details, eh.
Manobo even had something similar to a virgin birth legend. Tangkonay told us that at the beginning of the world, 5 young Manobo ladies were squatting in the river washing clothes when a huge penis came floating down river and impregnated them all. That was the beginning of the Manobo. And what a wonderful excuse for an impregnated young lady to tell her parents. The gods did it, ma.
There was also a Manobo belief in being filled with the spirit, which is a very important teaching in Christianity. Christians teach that you need God’s power to witness and do other important things in Christian culture. Manobo asked their gods to come on them and empower them to do things that were important in their culture, like fight their enemies.
The similarities in legends were endless and the differences were minor. But initially, I was rigidly intolerant. I faithfully let Manobo know that everything in their legends was false and demonic. The only true stories from the past were in our Christian Bible.
I eventually began recording Manobo legends in an effort to expose what I believed were false elements and to use the legends to communicate Christian teaching. But it was frustrating to try and record the stories. They were never the same from person to person or from telling to telling. Details were always changing. I would try to check the details with different storytellers and point out changes they had made and then ask for the correct version. People would look at me with a puzzled expression as if to say, “So what?” I did not understand the freedom and flexibility of oral traditions where each person gives his own unique version of events. There are no final, closed versions- rigid and unchangeable- as in written western traditions.
Another thing I tried to point out to Manobo was the lack of historical accuracy in their legends. For instance, in the legend of the penis impregnating the 5 young ladies, it was commonly believed that their children were the first Manobo. But if the children were Manobo, then their mothers would also have to be Manobo, I argued. I received the same puzzled look from Manobo storytellers. Again, I was not grasping the cyclicity and flexibility of tribal thinking. In the West, history is a straight line that moves from left to right in a rigid order of cause and effect. Not so in many other cultures.
There were even rapture legends. Perhaps the single most important aspiration in Manobo life was the desire to be raised up to heaven where people would receive new bodies. The raising of people would occur during a “Pagagano”- a wait for an angel (diwata) of god to descend and fetch faithfully waiting people.
The hope for such rapture was supported by legends of mythic Manobo people who were raised to heaven in the past. Such raising was apparently quite common in the old days. Tangkonay’s story of the swinging basket was one example.
But because of the sin of the rice-pounding maiden- heaven is now far away and Manobo are no longer raised there. Heaven is far away and its gates are tightly locked. But despite that discouraging abandonment, Manobo still hope that another angel might again descend to raise them just as they did for the ancients.
Every couple of years some shaman would get a call from his familiar spirit to gather all the village people together because the gods were going to descend and take them all up into heaven and give them new golden bodies. People would leave their personal belongings, ripening crops and villages to go build special houses somewhere off on a hilltop. We saw one group of people in a remote rainforest area waiting in newly built homes along a ridge top.
Once a pagagano started, Manobo would do whatever the shaman told them to do in order that they would not be left behind when the gods came. They might be asked to dance, sing, slaughter a pig, or whatever. One man with a very large pig left suddenly when asked by the presiding priest to slaughter the animal. He decided that the pig was more valuable than heaven and left the pagagano.
Most Manobo would give everything the priest requested because they had been warned that if they held on to any personal possessions then their hearts would be divided by material desires. Consequently, they would not be taken along with the others when the rapture occurred. That was exactly what Evangelical leaders always told us back home.
Often at pagaganos cooked meat was placed somewhere for the angels to eat when they descended. One mischievous boy went under the meeting hall at a pagagano to eat some of the meat that had been placed there for the coming angel. Later, he heard the priest excitedly telling the assembled people that the angel had come and eaten their offering. The boy then concluded that the pagagano was a fake for he knew which ‘angel’ had eaten the meat.
Sometimes a month or more would pass and the angel would not come. All the animals would be killed to feed the waiting people and the field crops would rot.
Eventually, when all the food had been consumed and it became obvious that the angel was not coming, then the people would begin to disperse. Disillusioned, they would return to whatever could be salvaged of the old village and crops.
The priests who started the movements would usually escape responsibility by blaming their followers for the failure of the rapture. They would typically tell the departing people, “The angel could not come because you have sinned. Someone must have committed immorality (or some other sin)”. That sounded very much like Christian preachers.
One discerning Manobo reasoned that the priests, on realizing that their pagagano was about to fail, then contacted Tagonliag (god of sexual desire) and asked him to cause someone to sin in order that they would have someone to blame for the failure of the movement.
That waiting for the gods to descend, being obedient to leaders and getting rid of sin while waiting to be raptured was very similar to the Christian belief in Jesus’ Second Coming. Christians all over the world sit on hilltops (sometimes literally), ignoring daily worldly concerns as they wait for Jesus to return and rescue them from this evil world. Christians are also promised new bodies.
Despite repeated failures to break the grip of gravity, people keep returning to subsequent pagaganos. Who knows, maybe the next one will be the genuine article.
Some pagaganos had elements similar to cargo cults. For example, leading priests sometimes told people to bring sacks which would magically fill with money. At one movement the priest told the assembled people that for a price they could make contact with dead relatives. They simply had to pay him and then put their hands through a hole cut in a door. The deceased relatives would appear behind the door to shake their hands. Many believed they had actually touched a departed loved one and wept joyously.
After that particular pagagano ended and people had returned to their senses, several Manobo concluded that they had been hoodwinked. They suspected that the priest had placed a little boy behind the door and the boy was the one shaking the hands of those who paid for the privilege of contact with the dead. Most now laugh themselves sick at how easily they were deceived at past pagaganos.
The pagaganos helped me to understand why slander (panausob) was such a serious sin in Manobo thinking. There appeared to be an obsessive concern among Manobo over personal reputation and slander of that reputation. People wanted to be known as good people. I discovered that good character was the central requirement for the fulfillment of the pagagano- the rise to heaven. It was therefore considered a serious offense to slander someone’s character.
Another feature of Manobo life became clear in regard to the pagagano. We were told that the tattoos on people’s forearms, legs and stomachs were a form of name or signature that the descending angels would recognize. Those markings were essential if one wanted to be included in a rapture.
On many essential points our Western religious view of spirituality and God was identical to the Manobo tribal views of gods. Our Christian God was territorial, he had a special clan of people that he protected and gave special treatment to, just as the Manobo gods did. The Christian God was a God of power and domination, helping his people to conquer and dominate their enemies, just as Manobo gods enabled them to defeat their enemies. The Christian God was a punishing God who paid back all who broke his laws (taboos) and he also demanded blood to appease his anger.
Our Christian God was very much the same old tribal God simply dressed up in Western religious thought patterns and expressions.
Despite the essential core similarity of Manobo and Christian beliefs, we insisted stubbornly that all their beliefs were from Satan to deceive them while our beliefs were from the one true God to enlighten us.
Evangelical Christianity has developed an uncompromisingly inflexible belief in the uniqueness of God’s revelation to Christians and the uniqueness of Jesus and his salvation sacrifice. Fundamentalist Christians consequently claim with zealous intolerance that the views of Christianity are alone true in the entire world and all other religious views are condemned as false. In doing that, Christianity has become the ultimate form of exclusive and dominating tribalism.
We need to remember that people of all cultures have long struggled with the very same life issues that Christianity claims to alone faithfully represent. Other’s unique cultural expression of those issues does not make them demonic or wrong. Remember the little cross-cultural maxim, “It’s not wrong, just different”.
But with our Fundamentalist understanding of Christianity, we preached to the Manobo that they had to leave all their old beliefs and practices to come take up ours. If they did not repent and submit completely to our system then they would burn in the fires of hell. We threatened them with the most terrorizing idea that has ever entered the human mind- eternal torture of the worst kind, burning. As my Dad had said, “The way your finger burns when you touch the stove, so your whole body will burn in hell”. One tribal man learned to express it as, “Igsugba ki dio to hapoy (God will cook us on the big roasting spit)”.
Manobo showed much genuine love toward each other, far more toleration than we did, and they shared material possessions more generously than we did. In their daily lives they were more like Jesus than we were, but still we condemned all they did as the worthless efforts of unbelievers. We concluded that their love for each other was self-effort and therefore God did not accept it. It was not inspired or empowered by God as our effort was (Remember the gobbledygook of the televangelists?- “It has to be Christ living his life in us by the power of the Spirit, by faith”). By our standard even Mother Teresa was damned. In fact, Evangelicals commonly used her as an example of the religious effort which God does not accept. He only accepted Evangelical efforts to do his will, efforts inspired by the Evangelical Spirit according to Evangelical formulae.
Many in Kapatagan bravely resisted our teaching despite our ongoing threats of damnation in hell. Kayluan, the village leader, was especially blunt in resisting. He was a tall and slim six-foot man who walked slowly and purposefully with his shoulders held back in good posture. He never came to us to ask for anything, as others in the village commonly did. Kayluan was too proud to demean himself in that manner. He would not allow himself to become subservient to or dependent on anyone else.
He used a careful, measured manner of talking when he spoke and his voice was naturally deep and authoritative. Manobo take pride in being orators. Their respected leaders are good public speakers who can hold people’s attention with relevant stories and convincing tribal reasoning. The culture up until the recent past did not have permanent offices or positions of power so if anyone wanted to lead, then they had to be capable of convincing people through their speaking skills. Among such leaders, Kayluan was exceptional.
In public meetings he would sometimes start by making a few comments, then pause to begin assembling a betel nut chew consisting of a leaf, some powdered shell, the betel nut and another seed. He would take his time, letting his listeners wait for his next comments while he commenced his chew. He would only occasionally look up at his audience until he started to pick up tempo. It was an impressive speaking style to observe.
One morning during a conversation he responded to my witnessing with the convincing claim that, “Our gods are just as powerful as yours. We pray for a pig and we go out and catch one. We once offered a sacrifice to our god and we asked him to help us catch two pigs. The next morning before 7 AM we had the two pigs. Our gods answer prayers too. They give us pigs or whatever we ask for”. He was not moved at all by my witnessing or threats. In later years, I wished that I could have returned before he died in order to apologize for all the harsh things that I had taught his people. I wanted to tell him that I was very wrong and I admired his courage in refusing to yield to our threats.
Other Manobo simply turned away in anger and disgust when we tried to tell them that they were going to hell for following their traditional ways.
But a few did join us for Sunday morning services. They started to leave the old Manobo ways and move toward Evangelical ways.
We were not brutally conquering and subduing indigenous tribes like the colonial Spaniards in Latin America or the British in Asia. But we were doing something more devastating in impact. We were conquering and manipulating people’s spirits and minds with the same old mythical ideas of all past religion. There is nothing of authentic liberation and humanity in that.
But as with other elements of my Christian past, I have some remaining ambivalence about what I taught tribal people. I like to think that it was not all Fundamentalist negativity. For instance, I once visited a small village upriver from Kapatagan. A refreshingly clear stream ran beside the village adding soft background noise to the quiet atmosphere among the coconut and banana trees planted in the rainforest opening.
I stopped by the hut of an older Manobo man who was sitting on the floor making a cone shaped fish trap. He deftly weaved thin strands of rattan around equally thin strips of bamboo while I spoke to him about Jesus and a future life with him. He listened, looking up from time to time to restate things in order to make sure that he had heard them right. After several minutes of listening, he stopped working and said, “You know, sometimes I think of death and I despair utterly. I think of my wife dying, my children dying. I just think of death and sometimes for 2 full days I have no desire to eat. I think about it and all desire to eat goes away completely. I feel terrible and I wonder why we have to die”.
At times like that it was exhilarating to reaffirm the truth of resurrection- that life and consciousness continue after death in an infinitely better reality. Unfortunately, I presented that awesomely liberating reality in terms of exclusive Christian faith. I limited it to only those who believed the Christian way. Such exclusivity severely distorts a comforting reality that belongs freely to every person.
While I regret taking Fundamentalist teaching to the Manobo, I do not regret telling them of Jesus. I only wish that I had known the historical Jesus better (in distinction from the Christian and religious Jesus). He is a much more humane and liberating Jesus. I would discover that years later.
Initially, I was ignorantly unaware of the destructive impact on tribal people when missionaries attack and try to destroy the core beliefs and practices of their culture. I was not aware that when we denigrated and abruptly removed a tribal people’s core myths and values, we were leaving them disoriented and alienated.
I am now more aware of the devastating impact that Christian missionaries have had on native cultures. Early missionaries to British Columbia, for instance, forbade native peoples from celebrating customs like the potlatch. In that festival, elaborate gifts were given to others in a celebration that expressed acceptance and affirmation of others in the society. That ceremony was outlawed by the Christian church simply because Christians did not understand it and therefore concluded that it was from the Devil. But those reaffirming social rituals are vital to human identity and well-being. The potlatch in particular reaffirms the place of participants in their culture.
Without those cultural supports people become alienated or confused and find themselves wandering in a cultural and psychological vacuum. The complex set of beliefs or patterns that people evolve over centuries and even millennia are suited to their specific regions and relationships to other cultures and regions around them. It is inhumane to suddenly and radically replace such unique complexity with a simple set of Western Evangelical beliefs and rituals. The culture and psychology of any people is far too complex for any outsider to make major adjustments to. That caution applies all the more when untrained Fundamentalists are making the changes in a coercive manner.
Fortunately, most newly Christianized peoples in a defensive response learn to syncretize new beliefs and rituals with their old ones. In Latin America when native peoples were forced by the Spanish to adopt Christianity, they consequently accepted the outer forms of those new Christian rituals but gave them their own traditional meanings. That was a necessary survival response. People may give in to our threats but they will work out their own cultural salvation.
We viewed any syncretizing in response to our teaching as the work of the Devil. Manggimindo, our leading convert, once suggested, “You know, I think maybe our Bantoy (watching spirits) are like Jesus”. I quickly squelched that bit of free thinking with, “Oh no. Never, never”. Manggimindo appeared hurt by my condemnation, but anything that was not familiarly Evangelical was from the Devil and we were obligated to nip it in the bud. In our worldview syncretism was evidence of sin, impurity, and weak faith. People who tried to mix the new with the old were weak, backslidden Christians who needed to repent and get right with God.
In another village some young converts were witnessing one morning when one of them unexpectedly blurted out to the village leaders, “God will save the people who believe in Jesus and maybe he will even save Satan and everybody”. He was simply trying to be generous, inclusive, and human toward all. But I hastily took him aside and corrected his heresy, ending any hope he had of including others so freely and mercifully. We constantly watched for signs of syncretizing and dealt bluntly with any such expression of heresy.
Manobo repeatedly tried to convince us that their beliefs were the same as ours. They would argue that just as God spoke to us through the Bible so their gods spoke to them through such things as the limukon (pigeon). And just as God watched over us, so their bantoy spirits watched over them. But we were stubbornly unmoved by such efforts at generous inclusivity and tolerance. We persistently and evangelically shot down all such attempts at finding common ground. They had to be made aware of the harsh reality that all their beliefs were from Satan. Only the truth that we taught them from our Bible was from God. We were rigid.
A tribal leader in the neighboring village of Tagasan stood in a meeting to ask us, “Is God mad at us for sacrificing to our bantoy (the guardian spirits very much like angels)?” Even though Christians believe in similar angels, we assured him that God was very pissed off with those who related in any way with such spirits.
In response to our condemnation, the headman acted out a colorful skit showing us how they would receive a dream telling them that there was a pig caught in their traps. On arriving at the trap, sure enough, there was the pig. His question to us was “How can our spirits be liars or deceivers as you say they are?”
Another Manobo man countered our exclusivity with the thoughtful argument that “God gave us our beliefs because we didn’t have the Bible and our old Manobo beliefs are the same as Christian beliefs”. But I responded that Christianity was very different and exclusive. Our Christ would have nothing to do with their satanic beliefs.
When we were most committed to our religion and to our God, that was when we became the most inhumane and unloving toward others.
Our non-compromising position made life difficult for our Manobo converts. Their traditional beliefs and practices were the core of their culture and the essence of their identity as Manobo. We were wrenching that life identity from them. A spirit priest once asked a young convert, “What tribe are you now?”, inferring that he was no longer Manobo because he had abandoned his traditional beliefs.
In general, tribal cultures are more tolerant, accepting and syncretizing than more formal religions. They readily adopt new ideas and merge them with their old systems. For instance, some Manobo myths can be traced back to ancient East Indian myths that were brought by Indian traders perhaps centuries ago.
Kayluan, in particular, was very good at adopting and using new ideas to his own advantage. For years he had tried to convince surrounding villages and forest dwellers to move up and join his central village. Many Manobo lived in little clusters of 3 to 5 huts of extended family members. Those mini-villages were scattered throughout the mountains, sometimes located on a ridge top or down beside rivers. The separation of people into small clusters of family members enabled people to locate near their fields. It also provided forest buffer space to prevent fights between different clans.
Larger roadside villages were a new concept the government was promoting in order that they could watch tribal people more closely to prevent them from joining the Communist New Peoples Army. To motivate people to move into larger villages the government had promised them lowland goods such as hammers and nails to build houses. Kayluan had tried using such enticements to persuade people to move into Kapatagan but had not been successful. As one man said when asked about joining the central village, “Large groups of people make my head ache”.
One day I was visiting a man and telling him about hell when he interrupted me, saying, “Kayluan told us that if we don’t move into Kapatagan then we are all going to hell”. Kayluan had found a new application for our brutal teaching. I thought it was a crafty, though somewhat nasty manipulation of a new idea. He was using hell to motivate his people to join his program. We did the exact same thing.
Another more dictatorial headman, Awad, governed the village where my sister Barb lived. He ordered his people to work in his fields but one man refused to work for him and Awad developed a dislike for the man. A rumor was then circulated that the disliked man was fooling around with someone else’s wife. Awad then shot and killed him.
The Sunday following the killing, we met at Awad’s house for a church service. Awad was a convert to Christianity and the village preacher. He opened his Bible and spoke on Romans 3:23, “The wages of sin is death”. “That man had sinned”, explained Awad, “So he had to die. I paid him his wages”. He was developing his own unique brand of syncretizing.
So Manobo were learning to apply our teaching to suit their own needs. All Christians do the same but usually more subtly. Most just damn people they don’t like to hell instead of actually killing them.
Our ignorance of tribal culture and our Fundamentalist approach made life miserable for Manobo in many ways. For instance, some missionaries took a hard stance against the local practice which they called “paying a bride price”. They viewed such a custom to be selling women like chattels and therefore considered it evil and barbaric.
When a young woman married, her husband’s family would pay the girl’s clan a variety of things such as pigs, chickens, cloth, and even money. According to anthropologists that exchange of goods is vital to social stability. It forges and cements clan relationships, which can then prevent fighting in an area.
More importantly, when a man’s family pays the bride-wealth to the girl’s family, they are actually offering recompense for the loss of the girl’s productive labor for her family. Giving bride-wealth acknowledges their loss and pays them for it. It is a very human and decent thing to do.
Manobo culture was also matrilocal which served to offer protection for young newly married women. In a matrilocal society the young newly marrieds reside with the bride’s parents for the first year or so.
Often, the parents arranged marriages and sometimes the children were allowed to have input into those decisions. One man said, “I ask my daughter if she likes the boy we have chosen and if she doesn’t then we don’t make her marry him”. Sometimes the parents would first cue in on the kid’s desires and then begin arranging from that expressed desire for someone. Arranged marriages can work out very well, even if the children do not at first agree with their parent’s choice.
I remember one pretty and romantic young lady, Ninita, whose parents contracted for her to marry what in our culture would have been called a geek or nerd. My initial impression was that it just would not work. She seemed more suited to the young Elvis types. But several months later while staying overnight at her house, I was surprised to hear Ninita and her new husband together on the floor under their blankets, giggling and laughing like a couple of kids. They were obviously very pleased with the choice their parents had made. Who knew?
Another time, a young lady obligated by her parents to marry an older man, committed suicide just before the marriage. She did not like him. In response, the man fell on his spear in an apparent suicide try. We took him to the hospital and on the way noticed that his wound was quite superficial. Maybe he had only made a token effort to kill himself, as some such response was a culturally expected way to show grief.
Double And Even Triple Trouble
An interesting thing in relation to Manobo marriage was the custom of having two and sometimes even three wives. Often the multiple wives were sisters, which was supposed to work out better. It did not work out well at all. Sisters often fought like cats and dogs.
As Fundamentalists we faced the self-created quandary of converts with multiple wives. Some of the more liberal among us argued for allowing converted men to keep the extra wives. The more rigid missionaries argued that keeping more than one wife was continuing in adultery. Converts should repent and give up the extra wives. We caused a lot of unnecessary misery for people over such issues.
I remember in particular Datu Sulatan, an exceptionally sweet and gentle-spirited man who was well known as a person who consistently tried to make peace among fighting people and provide whatever other help he could for others. He was a beautiful human being who was tolerant and generous toward everyone he met.
Unfortunately for Sulatan, he had two wives. Some of our missionaries had located in his village and told him that he had committed a terrible sin was and that he should not continue in such an evil situation. He eventually became unnecessarily guilty about his personal married situation and he would embarrassedly apologize to others when they found out about his two wives.
Most Manobo believers respected Sulatan and expressed their wish that he should be made the leader of the new Manobo Church Association that we had created. But OMF missionaries blocked that majority choice because of his ‘sinful’ multiple wives. It was disgusting to watch such a fine person apologize for something that missionaries were making him feel guilty about. His own people were not bothered at all by his married situation.
We made the lives of many gentle, peaceful people into a real hell with our perverted scrupulosity, intolerant teaching, guilt mongering, and threats of burning in eternal fire.
In my years among Manobo I saw some very young women become pregnant. One girl was so small that she had not yet developed breasts and could not breastfeed her own baby. Another woman had to breastfeed the child. When family members told me that the thin waif-like girl was the mother of the large chubby baby held by another lady, I did not at first believe them. Usually, if girls were married too young the husband would wait till they were older before having sexual relations with them. At least that is what they claimed.
Once, I asked a woman whose 13 year old daughter had just been married, “Why do you marry your children so young?” She looked at me with a confused expression and asked, “Why not? She can have babies.”
In Manobo land young people around 12 to 14 years of age were already considered adults and were able to function as competent members of their own culture. They could plant crops, hunt, make crafts, and build houses long before they reached that age. They were knowledgeable and competent in all the things necessary to be considered an adult Manobo. Also, average life-spans were much shorter than in the West, so maybe it was wise to start producing while you still had the time.
In the West we have set adulthood back perhaps too far. We set it according to our educational requirements, which extend long beyond physiological and sexual maturity. As a result, parents often continue exerting control far too long over adult children and that causes much needless conflict.
A very interesting facet of Manobo culture was the understanding of time, age and distance. Manobo have words for the past (recent and more distant past), the present, and the future, but they do not keep track of their ages or the linear progress of their cultural history. Life is viewed more cyclically, as a yearly round of planting, growth, and harvesting, not linearly as a line of time moving straight from left to right and divided into units of succeeding years.
I was sitting on a riverbank one afternoon talking to a very old man, obviously somewhere in his seventies. Out of interest, I asked him how old he was. He pondered for a while then answered, “Baynti singko, tingali? (Maybe 25?)”. He was guessing, using the number system, which he had no real understanding of.
With the introduction of visits to lowland hospitals and their admission forms to fill out, along with government census forms, we had to start assigning ages to people. There was a lot of guesswork involved in determining how old someone actually was. It was also difficult to teach the idea of adding a number as each year passed.
Women had an instinctual feeling that men should be older. Once while filling out a census form for a lady, and just to pull her leg, I told her that she was fifty and her husband was 30. “Oh no, no, no”, she cried, “The man has to be older”.
Adjusting to Western concepts of distance was equally confusing to Manobo. While visiting another area, I stopped at one village to ask some men how far it was to the next village. They had heard of the term kilometer but had forgotten exactly how it went. The village leader replied, “It is two meters to the next village”. “No, no”, interrupted a young man beside him. He was miffed that the older man had used the term wrongly and wanted to correct him, showing off his ability to handle the new knowledge. He knew the right way to use the term and announced proudly, “It is two kilos to the next village”. I put my hand over my mouth to pull the corners appropriately back down.
Manobo estimate distance in curves or bends of a river or road. “It is three more tiku (bends) to that village”, they would say. On long hikes we were always asking how much further it was to our destination. They would reply that it was just over the next ridge. Ten ridges later we were still not there. I think they said, “Just the next ridge” to satisfy our impatience as they knew we always wanted to be almost there.
Another point where we clashed with Manobo values and practices was in the area of revenge and justice issues. Loggers from the lowland areas often offended tribal people. They would make derogatory remarks about the physical appearance of tribal people (e.g. skin diseases where light patches of fungi-infected skin spread over darker skin) or they would make sarcastic comments about Manobo customs such as the men returning from work carrying only a spear while the women labored under heavy baskets full of sweet potatoes and rice.
Lowlanders in general held demeaning views of tribal people and their customs. Some lowland people even asked us if the ‘natibos’ (natives) had tails like monkeys. Manobo were fully aware of how lowlanders perceived them and they hated it.
Once in a public meeting, Kayluan said to a large group of people, “They (lowlanders) think that only hornbills and monkeys live up here in the forest. They don’t even know we are here”. It was much the same way Canadians used to feel that Americans viewed them- as bush Eskimos living in igloos. OK, it’s not quite the same.
Public demeaning or humiliation has traditionally been a fundamental justification for retaliatory attack. Manobo men believed passionately that quick and harsh retaliation for insult or injury was a right and even an obligation.
Garvan, the anthropologist, said, “Revenge is a sacred duty that is bequeathed from generation to generation and from it result the long and terrible feuds that have devastated Manobo-land… vengeance is considered incumbent on the relatives of one who has been killed, and, as a reminder, a piece of rattan is sometimes strung up in the house. The rattan suggests that until it rots the wrong will not be forgotten. If the father is unable to avenge the wrong, be bequeaths it to his son as a sacred legacy”.
When witnessing to Manobo I had often given them lists of Bible sins. Inevitably, when discussing those lists, someone would add, “And we should not say bad things about other people”. We discovered that Manobo considered slander to be one of the worst things a person could do to another person and it often led to severe retaliation from an offended person.
A lowland logger once questioned a Manobo man about his skin disease. The Manobo man took it as an insult and threatened to start shooting at passing logging trucks. He forced the logging company to negotiate a settlement with him. We suspected that the Manobo had reacted opportunistically, using a cultural tradition to get some easy cash.
Sometimes lowland loggers also made the deadly mistake of messing with Manobo women. That was fatal in a number of situations. But despite the fact the lowlanders had committed a crime, when a lowlander was killed, government soldiers would automatically retaliate and punish the tribal people. In the existing social system, tribal people were at the bottom.
A logger once took advantage of a tribal woman, raping her while her husband was away working in his fields. On returning home and discovering what had happened to his wife, the husband speared the logger and threw his body over a cliff. Kayluan, sensing possible retaliation from the military and maybe even the potential for a massacre, ordered his men to go get the head of the retaliating Manobo. One man would have to die to save the village.
I tried to intervene with the protest that we should let the outside government deal with the situation. I argued that the police and courts in a lowland city would handle it. Ha. My suggestion was ignored completely. The only time that the lowland government ever intervened in tribal conflicts was to shoot someone when a lowlander was hurt.
Kayluan’s men took the head of the offending man and delivered it to the logging camp to show the military detachment there that the offender had been punished. That action averted a possible massacre even though it appeared excessively harsh to our Western eyes.
Accident And Intent
Fine legal distinctions of Western law, such as those between accidental and intentional injury, made little sense in Manobo thinking.
Early one morning a Manobo man was hit and killed by a passing logger’s jeep right in front of our house. Neighboring Manobo men immediately rushed out with their machetes to retaliate against the loggers. Seeing their rage, the loggers hastily took off in their vehicle. The enraged Manobo gathered on the road and waited for the next truck to come along. They were going to pursue the loggers to their camp a few kilometers up the road and kill them there. Accident or not, revenge was the foremost and only Manobo response.
I pre-empted the Manobo by getting my bike and rushing off to the camp. I warned the scared loggers that the village men were outraged and it would be wise for them to call the military in for protection. They radioed the nearest detachment and within several hours the military sent a jeep load of soldiers in to calm things down and to negotiate a payment from the logging company to our village. The company paid a sum of money and about six cases of Tanduay (a national brand of rum). That appeased village anger. Everyone then proceeded to get drunk at the wake of the dead man.
Once, while I was driving through a neighboring village on my way to Davao, a man called to me from a house beside the road. I glanced sideways briefly to acknowledge him and just as I looked away from the road a little boy ran out from behind a group of people and into the side of my bike. He fell to the ground crying and I immediately stopped to help. He was not seriously hurt but had a few scratches on his backside.
The man who had called to me came over looking very frightened. He took my arm and pushed me to get back on my bike. “Go right now”, he urged. I resisted, replying, “No, I’ll stay and help the boy”. It went against all my sensibilities to hit and run and I was unaware how common it was throughout Asia and the Near East for family members of hurt people to retaliate immediately and very severely against offenders in an accident.
Finally, the now panicking man said, “The father has gone to get a spear”. I instantly changed my mind and left quickly, telling him that I would return in a few days. Apparently, in many eastern countries the proper response to accidents is to leave and get police assistance before returning to the scene of the accident.
It was an emotionally difficult experience to sort out. When I returned to that village a few days later, they brought the injured child’s father down to the roadside to talk to me. I explained to him that what had happened to his son was an accident, thinking he would accept my Western understanding of accident in distinction from intentional and leave it at that. However, I should have paid him some sort of recompense for injuring the child even though, strictly speaking, it was not my fault. Years later I would realize that in his thinking such fine distinctions between intentional and accidental made no sense. I was guilty of hurting his son and I owed him something. But I did not pay. I was too ignorant of local values and customs.