Chapter Eight: Trying To Fit In
Our ignorance of tribal culture and customs regularly exposed us as western city dwellers. We in the West tend to view forest dwellers as primitive, illiterate, uneducated, and therefore not very skilled or smart. We noted earlier the American jet fighter pilot who said during the Gulf War, “I refuse to believe that some guy riding a camel in the desert can be as smart as I am”. That arrogance pretty much sums up Western views of other less technologically advanced cultures. But living in another culture can quickly alter your ideas about what counts for intelligence, skill, and smartness.
It takes years of learning, training, and experience to understand the complexity of the rainforest and to develop the skills necessary to live and survive in that environment. There are innumerable species of trees, plants, insects, and wildlife to know. Some are useful for food, housing, and clothing, and others can kill you.
We tried repeatedly to prove to the locals that we were not just dumb city guys. Once I asked some men if I could help them cut the thin rattan vines used for binding house posts together. They hesitated, but at my insistence they finally let me have a long strand and a cutting knife. I started pulling the blade of the short curved knife up the center of the thin section of rattan as I had seen them do. Within a few inches of starting, the blade veered off sideways and cut my thumb. I quickly hid my bleeding thumb and embarrassedly handed the rattan back to the owner. I told him that I had just remembered other things I needed to do. He grinned and nodded knowingly.
Another time a fellow missionary and I asked a tribal man if we could take a turn pounding his rice. Manobo pound rice in pestles that are foot and a half long by foot and a half thick sections of log which are hollowed out at one end in a conical depression. They are then stood on end and several cups of rice are placed in the depression. People use four to five foot long hour glass shaped poles (two to three inches thick) to pound the husks off the rice grains. We started and within a few blows we had rice flying out all over the ground. If you do not hit the rice dead center, the force of the blow scatters grains out. After a few more pounds the man’s supper was all over the ground. We sheepishly gave up pounding and helped him pick up rice grains from the dirt. He was typically polite as rural Asians are when around Westerners, not complaining at all about the mess we had made.
When Manobo pound rice, it transcends work and approaches something similar to a dance performance. Sometimes two or even three women will pound in one pestle at the same time. The beat of the poles and the thrusting rhythm of their bodies are actually musical. Hollowed out pole tops, with a little section of wood left inside to clack around while the poles beat, add to the musicality of the event. It was enthralling to watch.
It reminded me of the lowland carpenters who would pound in a harmonized beat, as if they were in a precision drumming band, while they nailed roofing material on houses. Having fun at work.
Manobo made a point of boasting to visiting lowlanders that we Americanos lived in their villages and ate their food with them while lowlanders would not. They therefore considered us to be true Manobo. Those boasts encapsulated some of my proudest moments. Many lowland people considered Manobo to be dirty, smelly people who ate dirty food. We had discovered that tribal people were very conscious of cleanliness but unavoidably smelled of smoke, as we all did from living in one room houses where the cooking was done on a floor fire at one end of the room. But Manobo bathed daily as we did and their food was clean and well cooked. They did the best they could given the circumstances.
Over the years I became more aware of Manobo sensitivity to the issue of smell. They even had legends about ancient Manobo and their unbearable smell. One story was about Pugak, the man who fell to earth and became the god of dead people. Pugak had just eaten pig meat and a variety of local banana (a combination which results in a foul smelling stool) when he was raised to heaven. In heaven, earthly pressures led him to defecate and the consequent stink caused the angels to start dying. After an emergency consultation, the remaining live angels decided to send Pugak and his dog back to earth in order to save themselves.
They lowered him in a basket tied to the end of a long rope. On the way down, his dog started jumping around which sent vibrations up the rope. Feeling the vibrations, the angels thought Pugak had arrived back on earth and they let go of the rope. But he was only halfway down. Poor Pugak. He fell the rest of the way to earth and landed with such force that he was buried underground. When he stood up below ground, his head bumped on the base of a certain type of tree and to this day that tree does not have a central taproot. Most everything in the world has an origin in some similar story of an ancient event.
Another legend tells of a young Manobo man trying to court a lady. But she refuses him and tells him that he stinks and must go take a bath before he can return to success in courting her.
These and other factors have given Manobo a serious complex about how they smell. Lowlanders sometimes comment on their smell and refuse to associate with them or eat with them. A man in Kapatagan said to me, “The angels (the ones that should descend in a pagagano) won’t come here to our village because we stink”. Once when a foreign lady left a crowded building for cooler air outside, one man explained the reason for her move to another man standing beside him, “It’s because we smell”.
While speaking of smelly stools, we tried to eat a purely Manobo diet when we first arrived in Kapatagan. That, we thought, meant eating basically kamote, a type of sweet potato. After a few days of nonstop diarrhea, we gave up on that idea and started smuggling in canned foods.
Amebic dysentery produced far worse diarrhea, if it can even be called that. I did not like to offend people’s kindness by refusing things offered to me, so when a tribal man offered me a cup of water after a meal, I drank it even though it looked clouded. He had scooped it from a local river.
Hours later, during the middle of the night, I felt the sudden urge to visit the toilet. On the way outside to the outhouse, I gave into a further urge to fart and let what I felt was gas, pass. Whoa. It was more than gas. I needed a diaper change. Every half-hour after that, the same urge to visit the great outdoors overcame me. But only water sprayed out. I would sit for 5 to 10 minutes as the intense pressure to empty my bowels continued. It felt as though my intestines were pushing out. Dysentery is not a pleasant experience. It requires quick treatment or people can soon become dangerously dehydrated.
Continuing the delightful subject of toiletries, I think it is also important to let you know that years later in another village I built one of the finest biffies ever constructed by man. It sat beside a house of mine on a hill overlooking a beautiful river below. Because the view was so inspiring, I left the wall off the side of the john that faced the river in order that guests could enjoy the panorama as they sat on my throne. Unfortunately, people would also get wet as the rainstorms blew in from the direction of the view.
In Kapatagan we initially bathed in a backed up slough created by the logging road. It was a large muddy pond. When we stepped into the water, we moved slowly so as not to stir up too much mud from the bottom. The clearer water was at the top. We bathed there until we started seeing feces floating in the water. Local people did not have a germ theory of disease.
The other bathing option was a spring about a kilometer into the forest along a muddy trail that wound up and down several hills. We went there for our drinking water, to wash clothes, and to bathe.
Why am I telling you these dirty details? Tribal life is not an idyllic forest adventure. It is too often a frighteningly insecure struggle for survival in a sometimes very hostile environment. Tribal people do not enjoy many elements of their existence and will honestly tell you so. They are very much like the rest of us in their desire for more comfort and security. Just as we want good housing, clean water, proper sewage, good medical treatment and all other forms of environmental and social improvement, so do they. They are as human as anyone else is.
Sometimes we bathed and washed clothes at the river in the valley below Kapatagan, which was often flooded from upriver storms. Flooded river water was reddish brown and saturated with little specks of dirt and other humic matter. Clothes became dirtier and dirtier looking after repeated washing in the river.
I once took a foolish risk and bathed in a mountain stream just as a lightning storm was approaching. While bent over washing my hair, there was a sudden brilliant flash all around me and a gut chilling sound like cracking, tearing metal as though the sky was being rent apart. The lightning was too close to develop the typical reverberating boom sound of thunder. It was no happy angel announcing a virgin birth. It sounded more like a very angry god ready to zap some people. I instantly confessed my sins.
Crossing rivers was an adventure in its own class. If the rivers were flooded and alternative routes were not available, then we plunged ahead into the water. Holding our backpacks on our heads would keep our feet on the bottom as we bounced across and were carried downstream by the flow. On one crossing, B disappeared completely underwater, leaving his pack floating on top of the water. After a few seconds he resurfaced, sputtering that he had fallen into some sort of hole in the riverbed.
Manggimindo showed us how to float across by draping our arms over a section of bamboo tube.
Other times we had to load our motor bikes into dugout canoes in order to cross rivers. At one particular crossing, the dugout did not have outriggers and it was very difficult to sit on the bike with feet placed on the top of the dugout sides trying to balance. Every movement of the paddling boat owner had to be counteracted with quick little leg adjustments. Lactic acid burn started cramping my thigh muscles long before reaching the other side. The dugout was also narrow which created a very high center of gravity. Once, I fell into the water with my bike. After dragging the bike out and onto shore, the oil had to be drained and replaced.
In another area I was returning in a Landrover late one afternoon from a village far back in the mountains when I came to a river that was starting to flood. I drove into the water trying to follow the route that I had taken earlier in the day when the river was lower. Halfway across, the now stronger current pushed the Landrover off course to hang up on some large rocks. The water on the upstream side was only a hand span below the window and its force made the Jeep quiver as though it were about to topple over. Dark rain clouds over the mountains were dumping more rain, which would soon increase the flow of the already flooding river. It would not be long before the jeep would wash away.
I tried to remind myself that Christians were supposed to remain peaceful and calm in all situations. After a few moments surveying the desperate situation, I decided to hell with that. I then ran like a madman to find help. It was not my Rover. At one house along the river bank there was a carabao but the owner said it was pregnant and he could not let us use it. Another man replied to my pleas with the excuse that he had a sore tooth and could not help. I pleaded with others to come before the river flooded more but they only nodded in halfhearted agreement and then went back to their work. Of all the times for the famously hospitable Filipino to become inhospitable. Finally, one lady volunteered to go get her carabao, which was somewhere further upriver. In the meantime, several other men finally agreed to come and help but we could not budge the Landrover.
A seeming eternity passed (maybe 10 minutes) and the carabao arrived. The owner tied a rope from the animal to the front bumper and the animal then put its nose almost to the ground and struggled to pull. After several moments of digging in, the Rover started to move forward and within seconds the carabao was dragging it up a steep bank and back onto the road. It was an impressive display of power from a 500-600 pound animal.
Privacy Or The Lack Thereof
The lack of personal privacy in tribal villages bothered us a lot in the beginning and it was one of the more difficult things to adjust to. Early with the first light of dawn people would come over and walk right into our house. That was not hard to do as most houses only laid a piece of bark across the door opening. People would climb up the notched pole, come in and make themselves at home. They had little appreciation for Western perceptions of personal space, personal privacy or sleeping in.
Just as an aside- you’re thinking, when do Manobo find privacy for sex in those crowded one-room huts with all the kids and relatives around, including anti-copulatory mother-in-laws? Well, where do you think all those kids came from? There was no in vitro fertilization in the rainforest. When the kids played games outside during the day, they often mimicked the sexual moves of their parents, which showed they had been observing the nightlife well.
There were also isolated field huts, which offered some privacy, and of course the good old ground everywhere. I would have been scared of the biting ants, though.
I was teaching one day in another area from First Corinthians chapter 7 on the responsibilities that married couples have to regularly meet each other’s sexual needs, when the ladies in the assembled group exploded in anger. “Don’t teach that”, they demanded. Acting as the group spokesperson, one elderly lady stated heatedly, “We hate that stuff and we’re glad when we don’t have to do it anymore”.
Somewhat taken aback, I asked follow-up questions to find out what was going on and discovered that the women would often give in to sex only when their husbands came home drunk and pushy for some nooky. Some said that occurred about once a month. Not all the women shared the anger of the lady who spoke for them, but a surprising number did. They felt that sex was dirty. It sounded very much like the attitudes of people in my Fundamentalist background.
Manggimindo, the leading convert in our area, once admitted frankly, “Sex is dirty. I try to avoid it by going away on long trips”.
You have to understand what Manobo faced. The houses were often crowded, hubby was drunk, the kids were watching and snickering, and pregnancy often killed women. Midwives used split bamboo to cut umbilical cords and infections were common, as were other complications. Sex was rushed, not very romantic, and foreplay… what’s that?
I often wondered how guys like Kayluan negotiated lovemaking with three wives. There was severe jealousy among the wives and some nasty fights. When at home, the multi-wife guys seemed to sleep most regularly with wife number one and her kids. That left the other wives feeling neglected. To satisfy number two and number three, Kayluan would sometimes take them along, in turn, when going on trips somewhere.
While there was a lot of public joking about sex, bedroom experience seemed quite unpleasant for many tribals.
Asian Relating And Borrowing
All day long we had visitors looking for medicine, trying to borrow food or trying to get us to buy beads the next time we went to Davao. It was stressful and exhausting at times. While there were limits on the borrowing Manobo could do among each other, we, as outside-based Westerners, were viewed as sources of unlimited good.
It took a long time for us to understand Asian relating. Understanding it more did not make it any easier.
Mary Holsteiner, a Filipina sociologist, once held a seminar for missionaries (Holsteiner a Filipina? She was married to an Austrian businessman). One by one the missionaries at the seminar stood to ask repeated questions about giving things to local people.
“How much should I give to that lady?”
“Do I have to give to him every time he asks?”
“What sort of gift does he expect?”
“I resent her always asking for things”.
A fellow missionary, M J, had often said, “Missionaries are the stingiest people on earth”. They are hesitant to give anything to others and they expect people to give things to them because, after all, they are making “sacrifices for the Lord”. But most missionaries have nice homes in lowland cities (comparatively low rents), good transportation, unique travel opportunities and lots of time at the beach, along with good medical care, and many other benefits. While whining about their hardships and seeking pity for themselves because of the sacrificial lifestyle they claim to live, missionaries conveniently ignore the fact that they sometimes live better than their supporters back home.
Finally, after numerous expressions of resentment from the missionaries at being asked for things, Mary exasperatedly cut in, “Have you been listening to yourselves? All that you Westerners are worrying about is your things and how to protect and hold onto your things”. She then noted that Westerners often wanted ‘pure’ friendships where people accept each other just for who they are, and won’t ‘use’ each other by introducing material goods or borrowing into the relationship. But in the Philippines, she said, as in much of the rest of the world, people in friendship relationships share things reciprocally. It is just normal human relating. What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine. And naturally, the wealthier person in a relationship was expected to give according to their more abundant assets and not just reciprocate with the same amount that the other person had given.
It was a difficult reality for us stingy westerners to adjust to.
One lady missionary, B J, began to dread her Manobo neighbor, Minta, coming over to visit. Minta had an annoying habit of conversing with a person and making them feel like a good friend, and then just as she was leaving she would ask for a can of fish or some other item. That tail-end borrowing deflated B who wanted a pure friendship, the Western kind where people supposedly accept each other purely for who they are. It got to the point that B could not handle the thought of Minta coming over and eventually she refused to leave Davao to visit the tribal villages. She would conveniently become sick whenever it was time for a visit to the Manobo area.
In Minta’s favor, it should be noted that she was generous in return. She would bring fresh vegetables and fruits from the rainforest as her responsibility in a relationship.
Slippery Sliding Slope
Generally, we felt that if we started giving to people who asked for things, then everyone in the area would hear about it and people from all over would come to us for things and it would all get out of control. So giving became a hit and miss affair. We would read the New Testament about Jesus’ generous giving, feel bad, and give to some people but soon stop again if we felt it was starting to get carried away. That selective start and stop giving left some people confused and maybe even bitter. Why would we give to others but not to them?
We simply could not handle the way tribal people viewed us as sources of unlimited good. Sometimes we had visitors from far back in the mountains that had heard of our giving and wanted to try some for themselves. The people from the mountains exhibited a child-like innocence. I remember one young man from a remote forest area who came to our house and pointed to a hanging shirt of mine, fully expecting me to give it to him right there. I made up a story explaining that it was a special gift from my mother and it would hurt her if I gave it away. Liar, liar.
In Kapatagan, which itself was a remote mountain village, local Manobo referred to innocent people from further back in the mountains as “Taga bukid (From the mountains- similar to hillbilly)”. Everyone liked to view themselves as one up on others. They all wanted to be further up the social ladder than their neighbors. No one wanted to be at the bottom. But for Kapatagan people to call their fellow Manobo “hillbillies” was like the cow calling the horse a barnyard animal.
Kayluan had also told us about the Manobo practice of giving anything to anyone who asked. But it was more of a cultural ideal than an actual practice. He boastfully claimed that, “If someone asks us even for our fighting horse (the most prized Manobo possession) we give it to them”. I noticed that no one ever asked for his fighting horses and I am sure he would have cut them up into tiny little pieces if they had ever dared try to ask.
However, it was true that when something such as a wild boar was caught, it was divided among all the villagers. But even that sharing was according to status and debts owed.
The debt relationships were quite complex and the source of much tension. Women coming back from the fields with heavy baskets on their heads would try to walk right on by the houses of neighbors but had to stop and stand quietly, even resignedly, when called by the people they owed debts to. The creditor women would quickly walk out to the road and dig through a debtor’s basket to find the delicacies hidden at the bottom. They all knew the common smuggling tricks.
Once a house burned down and out of pity for the people who lost everything, Bob and I gave them blankets and clothing. The next day we were perplexed to see entirely different people wearing the clothes we had given. They had collected on long standing debts from the burned out family.
During the 1982-83 El Nino drought we delivered emergency rice to Manobo villages all through the central Mindanao mountains. We distributed the rice on a strictly egalitarian basis- a certain amount per person. It was distressing to later hear from people that creditor families had come to them and collected their rice as payment for debts owed. Some ended up with sacks of rice and others with nothing. Such lack of compassion and greed seemed all the crueler during a time of emergency.
Poverty is not an ennobling condition.
Sometimes, if people were slow to pay debts, their creditors would take violent action to encourage the repayment process along. Debts inflamed the revenge killing cycles of regions. But anthropologists also note that debt relationships can serve a useful role in creating a unifying sense of obligation to community. For instance, people invite others to help cut their fields for planting. The invitors are then obligated to return the favor by helping others in their fields. Such mutual aid relationships enable people to accomplish important livelihood tasks.
Share And Share Alike
While there was evidence of egalitarian sharing among tribal people, there was also evidence of the same old inequity that is found in societies everywhere on earth. Big men like Kayluan had bigger houses than others and more prestige possessions such as fighting horses. They also had more status and power than others did and their kids received special privileges such as attending outside schools.
In another area, a headman obtained control over government money that was designated for projects to improve the lives of all his people. He selfishly appropriated the money to build a special wooden bridge from his house across to a guest house on a neighboring hill were government benefactors sometimes stayed. He wanted to impress the visiting donors and make it easier for them to walk across to his house. It was one of the strangest sights I have ever seen. Out in the middle of the rainforest, a full-scale railroad-type trestle bridge between two tribal houses on adjacent hills. It set a new standard for government waste and it should have been in the Guinness Book of Records. That man also purchased motorcycles for his kids while many others in the area went without basic needs being met.
Despite the many outside influences flooding into tribal areas, there was continued pressure to maintain the traditional egalitarian way of life. Gossip and public shame were effective means to that end. Manobo who did not share were called “logoron” (greedy). Some did not appear to mind the shame and chose to suffer community disfavor in order to get ahead and hoard more than others. It was easier to indulge individual advantage if the tribal village was near the lowland areas which had been impacted more by free enterprise capitalism. Traditional community relationships were breaking down more obviously in those areas.
Sharing and giving were issues that we never settled satisfactorily. If we gave to some people and our supplies got low and we then refused later borrowers, how would the later people react? Were we favoring some and selectively refusing others? We simply could not give to everyone that asked. We had tried that numerous times and found that our supplies would become depleted and then we would have to leave earlier than we had planned. In later years I would tell people that I could not give things like money, because if there were a medical emergency then I would have nothing to help sick people. I became selective in my giving, based on most important things first. I don’t know if they understood my position or just considered me to be logoron or stingy.
Missionaries did create resentment by giving preference to their converts, and local people sometimes mentioned that.
On top of other giving issues, add the suspicion of being used just for the goods you bring. That made giving a difficult thing to do at times.
Efforts to show compassion and share did not always make the world a better place. In one village I tried to distribute free clothing sent over from Canada but that spate of generosity quickly turned disastrous. I gave the clothing to the village headman, Uslarin, and told everyone that we would have a random draw the next day to decide the order for choosing clothing and that way everyone would be treated fairly. But people started going over to Uslarin’s house the night before the draw to pick through the clothing and ask him to reserve the best items for them. Uslarin could not prevent that or people would become upset with him and he had to live with them as relatives and neighbors. Some people even started fighting over items of clothing. The situation became so ugly that Uslarin came to me and pleaded, “Take the clothing back. It’s too much trouble and everyone is getting mad at me”. There were such bitter feelings created over that clothing project that Uslarin concluded it would have been better if we had never done it. We never repeated it.
We had the same problems when we tried to start self-financing village medical clinics. People often did not have money so they would borrow the medicine and it was not possible for the person running the clinic to say no to relatives and friends, especially if the clinic operators owed debts to the would-be borrowers. Consequently, the medicine was soon gone and that ended what we thought was another good idea.
But nasty experiences while helping other people are not an excuse to quit giving. They simply mean that we need to make more effort to discover better ways of sharing.
My ignorance of the rainforest almost killed me one Saturday. I wanted a break from the constant presence of people so I took a day off for a private walk out along an old logging road that meandered along a ridge top through the rainforest. As I was leaving the village in the morning, one of our neighbors, Gulinis, saw me and asked, “Hondoi ka? (Where are you going)”. When I responded, “Dio to puaas (There to the forest)”, his face dropped and he said, “You better take a kid along to watch over you” (No, of course not in English). He then called a young boy to come and accompany me.
That offended my sense of self-sufficiency or personal capability and I refused his suggestion. What did he think- that I was incapable of looking after myself or what? And anyway, I wanted a break, just like back home when you could go for a walk alone in the woods to relax and think for hours without interruption. Gulinis insisted more but I refused more stubbornly. “I’ll be all right,” I told him. As I spoke, I was thinking to myself, “I’ll show him that I can take care of myself in the forest. I’ve been independent and looking after myself all my life. I’m no novice. They think we are ignorant city slickers. I’ll show them”.
I left against his continuing protests and spent the morning wandering along the logging road, stopping here and there to rest and look at plants, bugs, and mountain panoramas. It was very hot and I perspired a lot. I had not brought water with me and there were no springs along the way, so early in the afternoon I decided to head back in the direction of the village.
Just before reaching Kapatagan, I spotted an ubod palm tree right beside the road. Those small palms have a delicious core of potato-like consistency that Manobo value as a dietary delicacy.
I did not yet know that out of the ten different kinds of ubod in the local forest, seven were highly poisonous varieties and only three were edible ones. The fact that particular tree was still standing right beside the road and close to the village should have started red lights blinking. Anyone with any rainforest smarts would have known that something was wrong.
After cutting the tree down, I chopped off the fronds and removed the white core, which was some three feet long and 2-3 inches thick. In my intense thirst I started eating the moist palm core. It was sweet. I ate about one third and then hoisted the rest onto my shoulder. I was so proud of myself and felt the ubod would prove to the overly cautious Gulinis that I knew my way around the rainforest. The villagers would envy my huge find and respect me for knowing how to survive on the rainforest bounty. It was a much bigger ubod than the ones that I had seen others bring home.
As I walked proudly back through the village toward our house, Toning the wife of Gulinis, ran out toward me and tried to grab the ubod.
“Where did you get that? Did you eat any? It will poison you. You’ll die”.
I twisted protectively away from her, suspecting that she was just envious and was telling me a lie so that she could get my ubod. She was always trying to bum food off us. I told her that I had eaten a lot of the ubod.
“Ooooh nooo. You’re going to die”, she groaned, turning very serious.
Someone sitting in a house beside the road echoed her. “You are going to die for sure”.
I ignored them and kept walking toward our house. They just wanted my delicious ubod. Toning followed, chattering loudly to the houses we passed, “He ate bangga (the name of the poisonous variety I had eaten). He’s going to die”.
As I climbed up the notched pole to our house, I could hear people in other houses excitedly calling to each other, but the seriousness of the situation did not register with me. I felt all right.
It was around 4 PM in the afternoon and I had to go inject a TB patient, so I got my needles and vials of Streptomycin ready. Just as I was about to leave, Kayluan’s first wife, Tapiag, suddenly rushed up into the house very agitated and very, very angry. She grabbed the ubod and threw it out the window into the bushes behind our house.
“Get some cooking oil, some eggs, and some sugar”, she barked at others who had followed her into the house. She mixed the oil, eggs, and sugar together in a cup and made me drink it all. I did not quarrel with her. She was mad as hell. She then told me to go see Kayluan. I left to go to his house, which was beside ours.
I climbed up the notched pole to his house and bending over I entered under the grass at the roof edge. Kayluan was sitting alone on the bamboo floor at the far side of the house, assembling a betel nut chew- split green betel nut, white powder from burned, crushed shells, and leaves of another plant.
“Anakon (nephew)”, he started, without looking up, “During the war (W.W.II) all the Japanese soldiers who ate bangga died. Not one survived”. He paused to see what my reaction would be. I listened quietly. He continued, “Their stomachs bloated out, their eyes rolled back up into their heads, and they all died”.
The seriousness of my situation had still not fully entered my consciousness. “Well uncle”, I joked carelessly, “If I die, then you can have all my things”. It was an oral will joke.
After some more small talk, I left to inject the TB patient who lived at the far side of the village. Just as I arrived at his house, I was hit with a wave of nausea. Surging up from my lower bowels, it swept my stomach contents up my throat. I threw up on the ground outside his house. I was now feeling dizzy and nauseous so I left immediately without giving him his daily injection. Just a few meters back along the road I felt another wave of nausea and stopped to throw up again. That continued several more times on the way home.
After the first two bouts of nausea there were no more solids left in my stomach to throw up. All that came out was a bitter, greenish yellow foam.
I stumbled back to our house, clambered shakily up the pole and collapsed on the split bamboo floor inside. I found a spot where the bamboo was broken, big enough for my mouth to fit through and lay there face down. It was 5 PM on a Saturday. There were no more logging trucks or any other form of transportation and the nearest hospital was a full day’s journey down at Tagum on the coastal plains. And we had no means of communication with the outside world.
The vomiting was incessant, recurring every few minutes or so. With each spasm of nausea my entire insides felt as though they were twisting into a knot much like someone wringing out a wet rag. That was the actual vomiting. Then instead of releasing after vomiting, the twisting expulsion held as though my body was trying to squeeze my stomach and guts out through my throat. I thought I would suffocate.
After an intolerable length of time, the twisting would release and I could gasp once again for some air until the next spasm of vomiting a few moments or minutes later. I began to lose full consciousness and soon I had little idea of time or anything around me. I was dimly aware that the house was full of people and it was very dark. I could hear their voices as if in the far distance. But it was not quite out-of-body, down a long dark tunnel. Just my luck to miss out on something that exotic and exciting.
I became weaker and weaker as the hours passed and the vomiting continued unabated. I was dying. Sometime later in the evening when I felt that I could not hang on any longer, I faintly gasped for B to pray for me. I was slipping away and was too weak to resist anymore. He anointed my forehead with oil, which is a traditional New Testament ritual for very sick people.
Then, without any melodrama, I realized that it was all over and I weakly told B, “I can’t hang on any longer. I am going now”. I just knew.
A short while later Kayluan picked up my wrist to check my pulse and then stated solemnly, “Walang pulsa (There is no pulse. He’s dead)”. I felt very far away- as though I had receded into darkness at the edge of death. Everything sounded distant and faint.
B told me later that Kayluan, after noting the absence of a heartbeat, began looking through my personal things that I had earlier promised to give him when I died. He could hardly wait to execute the oral will.
Later, people told me that Bob started to cry.
It was around 10 PM when the vomiting finally ceased. Then over the next half-hour I started to recover a little and soon could sit up again. I was still weak and dizzy but things were starting to come out the other end so I had to crawl outside to the bushes.
Amazingly, the next morning, while still a bit weak, I felt mainly recovered. Thanks to Tapiag’s quick response with a homemade concoction to induce vomiting, I had thrown up most of the poison early enough. For someone who hates nausea and vomiting, it was a nightmare experience. And the near-death element did not move on to the full version.
After that severe poisoning event, when I visited other areas people introduced me as the one who ate the bangga. I would laugh and tell them, “Yeah, I’m the only one who has eaten bangga and lived. And it is so sweet. None of you will ever taste that delicious sweetness”. They laughed in response but probably thought that I was crazy. Or maybe they thought that I was a god?!?
Back home in the Prairie community people were referring to it as an attack from the Devil, spiritual warfare to stop us from teaching the gospel. But no, it was just personal stubbornness and ignorance. It was the German in me.
B later took the time to explain to me that if a person dies because they are doing the will of God and it is an honorable death, then that is great. But if they die because of their own stupidity then its not so great. I think he may have been referring to me. But I don’t quite know what his point was.
Decades later on rethinking the experience and after taking a look at near-death experiences, I remembered that as I reached the end of the five hours of vomiting, I knew with certainty that it was time to go. I would die. It was not any attempt at melodrama but just a knowing that it was over, and it was time to die. Most interesting, as I remembered it, was that there was no fear at that point, just resignation and curiosity and a quiet darkness. I was especially conscious of Kayluan’s use of the Tagalog “Walang pulsa”. He is a Manobo man and should have said “Waro pulsa”. My sister, who knows Tagalog, said that he was using the national language to make an official pronunciation of death.
A few people in Kapatagan were meeting with us on Sunday mornings for church services. It was not much to show for years of witnessing and teaching. B went home on furlough in early 1980 after a 5-year term in the Philippines. I stayed on for another 3 or 4 months.
One Sunday morning I asked Manggimindo (the leading convert) to conduct the service. He was doing all right until he forgot the next step at some insignificant part of the meeting. I jumped in and told him what I thought should be next. He did what I suggested but he was hurt by my insensitive intrusion. I had embarrassed him in front of his friends. I then remembered what someone had said regarding giving people responsibility for something. You must also give them full authority and the freedom to make mistakes and learn through their mistakes. It is humiliating for a person who has been given responsibility to have it overridden because the controlling person disagrees with something.
Aside from our teaching, lowland teams of professionals were also making regular visits to Kapatagan in order to help Manobo. They included doctors, nurses, and agriculturists who would vaccinate, treat illnesses, and teach new farming techniques. Others from government ministries supplied anti-tuberculosis medicines and came in to spray houses in order to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
On our retreats out to the lowlands, we often rode the logging trucks that regularly passed our village. The logging companies used big Kenworths and Macks just as at home in Canada. They also used smaller Japanese Hinos to transport shorter logs.
One night I rode out to the lowlands lying on the top of the load of logs among sacks of corn brought by other riders. From that relaxed vantage-point I was able to observe the silhouette of forest trees against the starry sky. It reminded me of a similar night back home in Alberta when a group of us had driven out to a farm. There we had found a stack of hay bales where we prostrated ourselves in the warm summer evening and gazed enthralled at the blinking broad sky of the prairies. Awe-inspiring moments like that lifted my spirit up out of the world to wonder about God and far-away places in the universe.
The trucks frequently overturned on the steep rutted dirt roads of the mountains. We once passed a long descending stretch of road where a truck’s brakes had failed earlier in the day. It had overturned at the bottom, killing several passengers. The bodies were still there beside the road when we passed. They had become grotesquely bloated in the hot sun but no one would remove them because it was Christmas and people believed evil spirits were out looking to kill people on such holy days. When I returned a day later, the bodies were still lying there, but now there was a man kneeling next to one of the bodies trying to inject embalming fluid into the veins.
Riding the trucks also provided some insight into the aggravating differences between Manobo culture and lowland culture. Once, a Manobo passenger signaled the driver that he wanted to get off. The driver stopped the truck and the man climbed down and walked away without saying anything or even looking back. Drivers always stopped to allow the Manobo to get on or off of trucks whenever they signaled such intentions as the drivers were aware that the Manobo had threatened to spear or shoot them if they did not stop.
After we had resumed driving, the truck driver looked at me and snarled, “See, they don’t even say ‘Thank you’”. But Manobo did the same when they borrowed things from us. On receiving some item they would get up and leave without a thank you.
Thank you was the first term that we had asked to learn when we arrived in Kapatagan. It was an important word in our culture. But Manobo had no specific word for thanks, so we used the lowland Cebuano word “Salamat”.
Not saying thank you, did not mean that Manobo were ungrateful. They just expressed gratitude in a different way. After asking for and receiving something, they would later bring the giver something else in return and that was their way of showing gratitude. They reciprocated and shared freely and that is the important thing. It was not wrong, just different.
We found the same applied to greetings. There was no Manobo “Hello” or “How are you?” Again, out of a felt cultural need we borrowed Cebuano words like “Kumusta (how are you)” to use as a substitute greeting. When we encountered Manobo in the village or along the forest trails, they would ask us where we were coming from or where we were going. That was their way of greeting each other. Our initial reaction to such questioning was to assume that Manobo were a very nosy people and in response we would mutter to ourselves, “It’s none of your business where I am going or where I am coming from”. Later, we would come to understand that once again that it was not wrong; it was just different.
Lowland R And R
During one of our regular breaks in the lowlands, all of us on the OMF team and some lowland friends decided to climb Mount Apo, the highest peak in the Philippines at about 10,000 feet. We hired a jeepney at the foot of the mountain to take us to the base village where the climb started a few kilometers up the lower slopes. One section of the road was a long steep hill with a drop off on one side and a bank on the other. As we ground to the top of that hill, the jeepney slowed and then stalled. As soon as the vehicle stopped, it started to roll backwards. The driver had not warned us that his brakes were not working. It could have been fatal to let the jeep roll back down the long grade, so as we started to gather momentum backwards the driver turned the wheel sharply in order to run the jeep back into the bank.
I was in the front outside seat and jumped out just as we stopped. Another man quickly followed me and when he was barely a few feet from the jeepney it began to tip over toward him. He scurried out of the way and the jeepney landed with a dull thud on its side, missing his feet by inches. People scrambled over top of each other to climb out of the side openings. Fortunately, though some noses were bloodied, no one was seriously hurt.
We climbed the rest of the way on foot.
At the base camp we needed to rearrange our backpacks and distribute some of the supplies to the hired packers that would accompany us. While we were sitting around sorting food and blankets, a troop of monkeys approached. Troop? I would call them gangsters. Initially, they looked harmless, so we ignored them as we started to pack. But then they started grabbing things. One grabbed a sandwich and ran off a safe distance to eat it. Another monkey grabbed a box of Kleenexes and climbed into the upper branches of a tree to sit right above us. He sat there, darting his head every which way as monkeys nervously do, all the while pulling out tissues one by one and dropping them on us below.
We started climbing after breakfast and climbed all day through rainforest very different from our Manobo areas. Stringy mosses hung from tree branches and waved in the cold breezes of the higher altitudes. It was a strange feeling to be climbing through forest that looked somewhat like North American Pacific rainforest.
We arrived on top in the late afternoon and looked down on the smoky haze of the lowlands. It was El Nino season and forest fires had blanketed the entire island in smoke. It reminded me of the time that we had climbed the second highest mountain of the Philippines, located near Bagiuo. We had arrived at the top to find ourselves in dense cloud with no visibility at all. The mountain climber’s curse.
After eating our supper, we started to bed down in a grassy area near the summit. One of the missionaries had forgotten to bring a blanket. He had assumed that in the tropics it would be warm. But it can get very cold at higher elevations. Fortunately, someone else had brought an extra tinfoil-like sheet to use as a ground cover. We wrapped and tied that around the chilled man. It was quite a job to complete. Just as we were done, he said, “Sorry guys, but could you undo it. I forgot to take a leak”.
The rest of us tried to sleep on the ground in our sleeping bags and blankets, but it froze and none of us were prepared for that. Ice formed around the shores of the little lake/pond that we were camped beside. Most of us gave up on sleeping and joined the hired packers who had started a fire. There was not enough room for all of us to stand facing the fire so we stood sideways warming one side and then switching to warm the other side. That continued through the rest of a miserably cold night.
The next morning it was some 20 miles of downhill braking back to the base camp. By the time we arrived, our legs were ready to collapse.
There were a lot of things to see in Davao and we took regular breaks there to buy new supplies, wash the dirty brown out of our clothes (which were washed in upland rivers), and catch up on news and movies. We also took time just to relax. Sometimes relaxation involved snorkeling in the ocean, near local coral reefs. Blue, yellow and brown, orange, and purple fish had us all jumping out of the water shouting at each other, “Come here, come here and see this”.
We also swam at night when the cooler air made the warm ocean water feel even warmer. Inevitably, some joker would scream “Shark” and though the rest of us knew there were no sharks in such shallow water, we all ran back to the shore anyway. Just to be sure.
Manobo In The City
It was great fun to bring tribal people to Davao City to stay in our homes and experience lowland life. One morning Manggimindo was upstairs showering and urinated down the drain of the shower, not an unusual practice. As soon as he finished, he heard voices below him and realized to his embarrassment that the shower drain was right above the kitchen. He rushed downstairs and apologized repeatedly to the housegirls for urinating into the kitchen below. There are no pipes in Manobo huts and no understanding of drainage piping.
Another big brave tribal chieftain wandered into the shower fully clothed and turned on the tap to see what it was. He drenched himself.
Another man told us about the time that he and other tribal leaders visited Malacanang palace in Manila (President Marcos’ home). One of the tribal chiefs went to use the toilet and inadvertently locked himself in. Panicked, he erupted into a screaming rage, thinking that he had been purposely trapped. It created an intra-national incident.
In local department stores there were mannequins which were another new experience for Manobo. I took a Manobo friend, Uslarin, to a local store where we came upon a female mannequin leaning into the aisle. As we passed, Uslarin extended his hand out in front of his body, using the polite motion Filipinos use when walking in front of others and said to the mannequin, “Excuse me, I’ll just pass”. He was very embarrassed but laughed heartily when I stopped and tapped the plastic body of the grinning lady.
Lowland city life also presented some temptations. I was having my haircut one afternoon in a barbershop which was connected to a massage parlor. Such multi-service shops are quite common. A very attractive lady came over, sat down across from me and started making conversation. It was pleasant and friendly small talk. “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “What do you think of our country?” That continued for several minutes, then unexpectedly she said, “Gusto ko magkaliwat nimo (I want to have a baby with you)”. I thought I had heard her all right, but the barber standing behind me, seeing my hesitation, laughed and repeated it in English. Just to make sure that I did not miss her point the barber held up his left hand forming a circle with his thumb and forefinger. With his right hand he pointed the forefinger out straight to represent a boner and inserted it into the hole of the left hand, pumping it in and out. Oh, I see. I was blushing now and stumbling around for an answer. I did not want to offend the lady, as she had been friendly and polite. But I had to resist natural urges out of fear of God’s punishment, losing my soul, or being caught and shamed by my religious group. Those were very powerful preventatives. But I certainly did want to ‘kaliwat’ with her.
One missionary, an OMF leader, once made the incredibly stupid remark, intended as a joke, “If the local girls start to look attractive, then it is time to go home. Ha, ha, ha”. Other OMF leaders had said the same thing to us single men. But Filipinas had won several Miss Universe contests and many other regional Asian beauty contests. They are widely viewed as some of the most attractive women in the Asian region and elsewhere. I have no idea what planet that missionary came from. I eventually married the prettiest Filipina of all, my wife Rena Singzon from Cebu.
After five and a half years away, it was time to go home to Canada for a break.
I was starting to recover from my earlier years of confusion and disorientation. Whatever had caused that, I still don’t know. It had probably been the result of cultural and psychological disorientation, the inhumanely impossible standards of LE’s sinless perfection, and generally, the dehumanizing beliefs of Fundamentalist Christianity such as hell. On those life events stress charts, we computed that we had been hit with all the major life crises at one time- a major move, a major career change, loss of family, etc., etc. We all scored over 400, which is in the devastating range.
One of the ladies on our team, L G, told us that she had suffered a nervous breakdown back in her home country of Australia (nerves don’t actually break down- it is a term used to describe some sort of emotional or psychological maladjustment). At the time that she told us I remember wondering why she would admit to something that carried such stigma. I had always assumed that people who suffered nervous breakdowns were emotionally fragile or perhaps even mentally unbalanced. I may have suffered something similar to L’s breakdown, or maybe some form of depression, but I would never have admitted it to others or even to myself. As a male from a macho background I would not permit myself to admit or reveal any sort of emotional/mental suffering. I simply refused to acknowledge anything was really wrong and suffered through by myself.