Chapter Ten: Second Term
When I returned to the Philippines in 1980, I located in the village of Kamansi which was situated South of Kapatagan among low hills rising off the edge of the Davao coastal plain. Rainforest mountains dominated the higher terrain behind us. In front of us banana plantations stretched some 30 kilometers across the flat plain to the blue waters of the Davao Gulf. The panoramic views inspired me to tell my team mates that I felt God wanted me to work in that area. Well, it was some kind of gut feeling.
We had to appeal to God if our choices were to have any credibility with other Evangelicals. And once we appealed to the Deity, then we had set ourselves in the unassailable position of being right, whatever the matter was about. I was learning.
B moved to work in another area nearby.
Kamansi was a village of approximately 16 huts scattered along a ridge about 200 feet above the plain. An old abandoned logging road wound along the ridge top through the center of the village. I could still access the village by motor cycle even though sections of the road were washed out.
The Manobo village of Upper Florida was located a few kilometers downhill below Kamansi along the banks of the Libuganon River. Just across the river on the road toward Tagum was the larger mixed lowland/Manobo village of Florida. Florida? It was named by an American soldier during World War Two. The village was populated with some 40 houses and had the elementary school that served our area. A half-hour out into the banana plantations was the municipal center of Kapalong where the only medical clinic in our area was located. A further half-hour through banana and rice areas brought us to the provincial capital of Tagum which was on the main highway to Davao.
The leaders of Kamansi asked me to stay in a house with two elderly widows until I could build my own house. They were an antiquated set of grannies. One of them could not pronounce the ‘F’ in Florida, the name of the central village in our area. She had made up her own pronunciation of the name and would say- “Pinilorida”. Her pronunciation always prompted laughter from others.
The two grannies had a calendar on the wall of their hut with pictures of naked ladies on each page. As my understanding of God was starting to move toward a more relaxed, less threatening version I did not worry too much about looking away each time I passed the calendar. I no longer believed that God would strike me with lightning for what Evangelicals call impure thoughts. There is no such thing as a nonsexual male mind.
During the afternoon of my first day in Kamansi I was sitting on the porch when a local lady named Binita came up and skipping the usual preliminary small talk she asked me straightforwardly, “Anakon (nephew), why is God punishing me through my son’s deafness?” She caught me off guard. All I could do for Binita was to offer a weak, “No. God is not punishing you”.
The idea that God punishes people through disaster, accident, or disease has caused more distress and human misery than perhaps any other idea in human history. It is a widely held belief found in most human cultures and it is also a central belief of Evangelical Christianity. But in Christianity further stress is caused by the additional spin that God is teaching us lessons in everything we experience, or he is correcting us. Life under such a view of God becomes a confusing and exhausting effort to figure out what God is pissed off about and what we need to do in order to calm him down.
The idea that God causes everything in life that happens and teaches people lessons in everything, raises a lot of contradictory issues. For instance, who is left to learn a lesson when whole areas are wiped out in natural disasters? And how do little children who suffer and die, learn lessons? I had a lot to think through in regard to that harsh idea.
Those two grandmas loved local delicacies like bee larvae. Sometimes for supper they would give me a large salad bowl of larvae soup. I swallowed the larvae unchewed because I did not want to puncture the skins and release the puss-like goo inside. One evening, not able to swallow any more larvae, I threw the remaining soup out the window into the nearby garden when the grannies were not watching. I remembered too late that the ladies would be working in that garden the next morning. Damn it. And sure enough, the next morning as they weeded the garden beside their house they discovered the discarded bee larvae and erupted in anger at the callous bugger who had wasted that delicacy.
It reminded me of the student at Prairie who once visited a staff house for supper. He was a very shy and polite man who hardly ever spoke unless spoken to. The hostess gave him a pudding desert that he did not like, despite his shy refusal. She then left the table to get something from the kitchen and the young man saw his chance to get rid of the desert that he did not want to eat. He threw it backward out an open window. But to his dismay the window had a screen on it and when the lady returned there was the desert dripping down the screen window. I knew how he felt.
The local kids also brought me delicacies like roasted cicada. They were a large noisy bug that fortunately had very little mushy stuff inside when cooked. They were more crunchy than gooey. Over the years I was able to sample monkey, dog, snake, goat, and other delicious morsels. None of them tasted like chicken. They tasted like monkey, dog, snake, goat and other delicious morsels.
When I told one lady in Canada that I had eaten dog, she gasped and said, “Oh nooo. That’s awful. It’s like eating your grandmother”. Teasingly, I looked at her poodle and grinned, licking my lips. Just to be safe she called the poodle over to her side.
One night at the granny’s house we awoke to shouting, screaming, and people rushing outside. Right beneath the house an 11-foot python had swallowed one chicken and had a second one already halfway down it’s throat. One of the men killed the snake with a machete and then stretched it out full length so I could measure it. It was a reticulated python with strikingly beautiful diamond-like markings on its back. The next morning the snake meat was divided among the villagers.
Within a week I had started to build my own house on top of a hill to the side of the village. The hill had a cliff on one side that faced a panoramic view of the Libuganon River below. A huge section of the hill had previously given way and slid down onto a flat area beside the river. People warned me that the area of the hill where I was building would also eventually slide but I took the chance for the sake of the view.
Villagers would sit in the late afternoon at the edge of the slide area to chat while gazing at the mountains and river valley. The late afternoon sun on white puffy cotton ball clouds contrasted beautifully with the blue sky and green forested hills. Soft breezes cooled our squatting bodies as we made small talk about events and concerns common to all of us. It was such a relaxed, peaceful way of life. Well, some of the time.
Several villagers were quite sick, one with TB, so I took them out to the provincial hospital in Tagum. After admitting them, I returned to Kamansi to continue working on my house. Two days later a lady came over to tell me, “The public service announcement on the radio said that one of your patients has died”. She gave me a name but I did not recognize it as the name of the person that I had taken to the hospital. So I replied, “No, that’s not her. They must have made a mistake”.
Throughout the day several others came over to tell me the same thing, but they all used the different name. I did not know that the patient had used her lowland name at the hospital. I only knew her by her village name. Late in the afternoon the village leader, Uslarin, came over and sorted out the name confusion. He said that most of the people in the village had Manobo names, which they used when in the village, but they also had Christian names which were used when in lowland situations.
The lady in question had died the previous day so I left immediately to retrieve the body. First, I went straight to Davao to get our mission Landrover but discovered that a teammate was using it so I had to borrow someone else’s pickup truck.
When I arrived back at the Tagum hospital it was around 10 PM at night. The nurses pointed me to a small one-room building by the trees at the back of the hospital. It served as the morgue. Two hospital workers were sent out to help me.
The windows of the building were just open spaces in the walls. Despite the large openings it was quite dark inside as the closest light was a low-wattage bulb hanging outside on a pole. There were two bodies in the building lying on separate tables. As we stood at the doorway peering inside I became aware of the sound of buzzing flies. Then a soft breeze shifted toward us and I caught my first whiff of the nauseating smell of rotting bodies. I backed away quickly, cutting off my breathing midstream to avoid taking in more of the putrefying stench. They had been there all day in the hot sun. I should have listened to the first people who told me about the radio announcement.
I took a deep breath, held it, and went in to see which body was my patient. They were both covered with blankets. I lifted the blanket off the head of the nearest one and stepped back in disgusted shock. The face was bloated grotesquely and it was unrecognizable. The swollen tongue was protruding straight out of the mouth and on each side of the tongue there were tiny holes at the corners of the lips through which leaking gasses made a low hissing sound. Despite the distorted face the clothing looked familiar so I guessed it to be the lady that I had brought in.
I went back outside for fresh air.
After a short break I returned inside several more times to make weak pokes at the body before hurrying out for fresh breaths of air. I was hoping the two hospital workers would start loading her body into the back of the pickup. But as the minutes passed I could see they were not going to lift the body themselves. I then urged them, “It’s getting late now. Let’s lift her into the truck”. One of the workers followed me inside.
We had two large plastic garbage bags to fit over the body. I started to lift her side in an effort to pull one of the bags underneath, but felt wetness. The blanket she was laying on was soaked with her draining body juices. I recoiled once again in disgust, backing away and shaking my moistened hands. But we had to keep going as it was late. We eventually pulled the bags over her and then lifted her into the back of the pickup. I was very thankful that the LandRover was not at the mission home or I would have been riding inside with a stinking corpse behind me.
One of the workers asked if I could also take the other body of a tribal boy who lived out in the mountains. He had fallen out of a tree and landed on a small sharp stump that had pierced up through his rectum and punctured through his intestines and out through his stomach. Such wounds burst the intestines and dirty the abdominal cavity. Major infection is certain to follow. When I had stopped by his bed in the hospital a few days earlier, he had the distinctly yellow pallor of a seriously infected person. His parents had no money for medicine and the hospital was overbudget and could not offer him any help. He lay there looking helplessly at me, flies buzzing all around him.
He may have been about 10 years old. We put his rotting body in the back also.
After loading the bodies, I went over to an outside water faucet with my soap and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. Under my nails, all up my arms. I had to get every trace of her body juices off. She had TB and I would be eating with my hands again in a matter of hours.
Later, as I sped along a potholed road through the banana plantations I could see in the rear view mirror that the bodies were bouncing around in the back. After every particularly large bump in the road I checked to make sure they weren’t bouncing right out of the truck. The dark shapes bouncing around in the box of the truck scared the shhhh…spit out of me. It looked as though they were getting up in the back and moving around. Fear does strange things to your visual perception, especially in the dark.
When I reached the river below Kamansi it was almost midnight. I called and called till eventually someone across the river answered. It was another half-hour before two men crossed the river. As they came up to the body in the dark and got a whiff of the stink both men pulled back. “Ohhhh. You should have buried her in Tagum”, one said.
I had to leave the body for them to dispose of. I still had to deliver the boy far back in the mountains. It was daylight when I arrived back at Davao. An unsettling realization lingered with me that someday my own body would rot and stink just as theirs had.
During my first year of residence in Kamansi a lot of people died. An old shaman friend, Tangkonay, once said to me, “Wendell, ever since you came in here so many people have been dying. We have never before seen so much death”. I took that as a sign of spiritual warfare. The Devil was fighting the entrance of the Evangelical gospel into that area.
In one week alone an epidemic of measles killed 5 kids in our village, 6 in the neighboring village of Bunawan and 11 in another neighboring village of Taguwangu (Measles does not actually kill. It weakens the immune system and other opportunistic diseases like pneumonia then kill). Those 11 kids were fully 10 percent of that village’s population. The three villages that lost the 22 children had a combined population of roughly 400 people.
According to the UN, the average number of daily deaths per 10,000 people that constitutes an internationally recognized emergency is 2. We had that rate of death regularly in our area of several hundred people.
I had no idea at the time that I was probably the carrier of measles and the Manobo had no protection. Their children were not inoculated. In later years when I reflected back on such things I questioned what right we had as foreigners to go into those areas if people were not first inoculated and protected properly against the diseases that we carried. My wife, formerly a pediatrician, challenges my views on this.
Establishing Manobo Churches
People were interested in listening so I started daily meetings in 4 surrounding villages. Those were all people who lived on the edge of the lowland area and were already making the transition from their traditional culture toward lowland culture. They were already in the midst of profound cultural change.
Also, those villages did not have strong leaders like Kayluan to resist my teaching. It was a great opportunity to turn them into true Evangelicals just like myself.
Over the next few years hundreds of people joined the churches that I was starting. I was getting the numbers and the success story that young Evangelical zealots dream about. I was becoming a successful church planter. It was getting easier to write home to supporters.
No Silence Here Please
In church meetings I tried to use the Western monologue teaching style but it did not suit Manobo culture. If I said something that interested people they would start talking out loud to me or to others sitting beside them. It was very interactive. I had seen that free interaction before in Manobo meetings so I was not unprepared for it. Actually, when people responded like that I knew they had understood what I was saying. It was when they were silent that I knew that I had lost them.
Sometimes during the meetings people would fart out loud. Everyone would laugh for a while and then we would go on. Some people would lay on the benches and snooze. Mothers bared breasts and fed babies. Chickens wandered in as there were no doors and only dirt floors. Sometimes two roosters would have a flying kicks fight or two dogs would bare fangs and have a go at each other. We would stop and watch for awhile till things quieted down before continuing. Even belly-dragging pigs would snort in among us.
At such noisy gatherings I sometimes thought of one conference speaker who had visited Prairie years before. His head shook back and forth sideways in a vibrating quiver as he spoke. He explained to us students why his head shook; “(It was) because of the Lord’s burden on me to speak his word”. He was a persnickety tyrant who would not tolerate any talking when he spoke; not even the quietest whisper. During one meeting, a student who had not seen his mother all semester sat at the very back of the auditorium and engaged her in some quiet catch up conversation. Unfortunately, the shaking-head speaker saw them. He stopped and in front of thousands of people (five thousand to be exact) he pointed them out and warned the crowd sternly, “The Spirit of God can not work unless there is absolute silence and stillness”. They were humiliated.
I wondered if he would suffer a severe spasm in a Manobo meeting trying to get everyone to be silent at the same time. I laughed. Maybe his shaking head would seize up in muscle cramps… from the burden of the Lord.
And what is this silly demand for silence and awe before God, anyway? It portrays God as selfish and tyrannical; a spoiled brat that demands sole attention. Such a God is nothing more than the distorting projection of Christian preachers.
Another time my sister Barb and I had attended a meeting in Calgary where Bob Larson, the anti-rock music preacher, was speaking. We sat up in the balcony and listened to him as he held up rock albums and gave a little comment about the particular evil of each one. At one point he held up a Rolling Stones album which came packaged in a pair of women’s panties. Barb leaned over and whispered, “What was that?” “It was a pair of panties”, I replied. We both then started to giggle uncontrollably because it had struck us as funny. Bob Larson stopped immediately, looked up at us, pointed us out and in front of hundreds of people he warned, “Those two people are laughing at what I am saying. We have ways of dealing with this blasphemy in the church of God”. He was threatening some sort of discipline for what he assumed was our irreverent snickering. It was quite embarrassing.
I often wondered how such people would survive in cross-cultural situations.
There is just one more important thing that you need to know in regard to Manobo church services- toileting. We once held a large conference for believers at Kamansi. The church building used for the conference was an open-walled structure located on top of a hill away from the village. Because of the distance I mentioned to the leaders that we should provide an outhouse for visitors. Manobo do not normally use outhouses but instead use the great outdoors as one big outhouse. But they agreed to make one for the convenience of our guests.
The man who built the outhouse constructed a low wall of woven palm fronds about two feet high. He did not include a roof. He built the frond biffy at the right side of the church near the front where the speakers stood. Remember that the church had no walls as it was too hot and we wanted air to move freely. The outhouse builder obviously had no understanding of basic toilet principles and practices.
When people went out to relieve themselves during services they would squat in the outhouse with their shoulders and heads exposed above the low wall. They would sit quietly and look at the people in the church who sat quietly and looked right back at the squatters. It was ‘em bare ass ing’ if you know what I mean. When I felt nature calling I walked all the way back to my house to use my three-sided biffy with a view.
Adrenaline In Kamansi
Kamansi had the same explosions of village panic that we had experienced in Kapatagan. Late one afternoon just as the sun was setting, screaming erupted from the houses just down the hill from mine. It froze my intestines with the same fear that I had often felt in Kapatagan. I dropped what I was doing and ran down to see what was happening.
A young wife had snapped and had rushed out of her house swinging a machete. She then ran over to a neighboring house and was slashing at the thin bark walls and the steps leading up to the house. Someone said that her dead grandfather had appeared to her in a dream. Others said that she was jealous of her husband and suspected that he was playing around with other ladies.
It appeared that everyone in the village had come to watch. Wisely, we all stood back a safe distance giving ourselves room for a head start in case she came after us. She did. She suddenly turned away from the house that she had been slashing and started chasing a young man named Daroy.
Daroy represented the epitome of cool. He was around 20 years of age; good-looking and notably conscious of how he presented himself. I had often seen him slowly walk through the village with his shirt opened several buttons down his chest obviously hoping to spark some hormonal reaction in the young ladies. He did everything in slow motion. When he conversed with others he spoke in a slow and measured manner. He reminded me of a slow-speed young Elvis.
It was impossible to imagine Daroy becoming visibly upset about anything or ratcheting his movements up to a higher speed. Even when he flicked ashes off his cigarette it was in slow cool motion.
But when the snapped lady turned to chase him he instantly broke out of slow cool and ran for his life in scared fast movement just like any normal scared person. I couldn’t believe it was the same young man. He ran desperately up the road and over a hill with her right at his heels. They both disappeared down the other side. After a few moments of recovering from shock, a large group of us gave chase to see how Daroy would die.
When we arrived at the top of the hill the machete-waving crazy lady had disappeared from view. All we could see was Daroy already at a surprising distance down the road with his open shirt flapping behind him and still running as fast as he could. He was not going to slow down to even check if anyone was still chasing him. His reputation for cool macho was shot.
Those of us in the sadistically-curious-onlookers group stopped immediately and started backing up in fear. Our heads twisted back and forth and our eyes darted around to see where the crazed lady might be. The grass beside the road was some 8 feet high and very dense. She could be hiding anywhere right beside us.
Aliandro, the lanky and disheveled village joker, was standing beside me. Earlier, he had picked up a decayed two-foot long stick that was broken in the middle with one half hanging by a bit of bark to the other half. He turned grinning and offered the thin stick to me, “Here, this is for your protection”.
“Thanks”, I replied as I took it from him. I then dropped it to the ground behind me after he had turned away again.
Suddenly, machete lady burst out of the grass only about thirty feet away and ran toward us with her machete raised as if to strike. Instantly, all of us turned and ran screaming back toward the village. I slowed a bit when I saw Aliandro was not keeping up. How would it look if the big brave missionary left someone behind while he ran cowardly ahead of everyone? But as we ran I turned and shouted at Aliandro, “Hurry, hurry, hurry”.
When we reached the village we scattered among the houses while machete lady continued running on through to the other side of the village center. Adrenaline levels were still pumped to the maximum. The women and children screamed and the men shouted loudly, telling each other and everyone in general what to do. “Run, run fast… Stay back… Grab the knife from her… Watch out…”
It was getting dark and someone handed me a flashlight to point at the homicidal lady in order that we would not lose sight of her. I followed her through the village at an appropriate distance with my guts knotted in fear. If she cut one of us with that sharp machete it could prove fatal.
Shining the flashlight on the lady only annoyed her more so she turned screaming and started running back toward me. I then panicked and ran off the road toward some houses. But at the side of the road there was a carabao wallow, a mudhole of thick gumbo about a foot deep. I ran right into the center where my thonged feet sank deep into the mud. My fear instantly exploded into full-bore terror. I had slowed almost to a full stop and she was about 20 feet behind me and closing fast. I pulled frantically against the sucking mud and freed my feet, leaving my thongs buried in the filthy muck.
I then ran barefoot up to Uslarin who was sitting on his porch watching the chase. I shouted at him, “Here, you take the flashlight, Uslan”.
“No, no. I don’t want it”, he gasped, pushing it back toward me.
Fortunately, instead of continuing to chase me the crazed lady had turned toward the huge slide area at the center of the village. There she stumbled and fell over the edge down onto a lip about 4 feet below the top. Her mother, who was following close behind her, jumped on her and someone else grabbed the machete. People crowded around, grabbed her wrists and then led her away.
Back inside her house the de-macheteed lady lay unconscious on the floor, panting and shaking from exhaustion over the wild chase around the village. The village elders crowded inside to discuss and evaluate what had happened. One elder said, “She was possessed with an evil spirit”. I liked that. Now I had my demon possession story to wow supporters back home.
Uslarin disagreed. “No, no. It’s not a spirit. These young ladies listen to all those silly Tagalog soap operas on the radio and it drives them crazy”. He snickered. I liked the demon possession story better so I asked everyone present to pray that God would cast the evil spirit out of her.
Years later, while studying anthropology at university, I started to read the literature on demon possession. It argued that the people who appeared possessed were often marginalized women who were feeling neglected and had marriage problems. Sometimes under the strain of their problems they would snap and go crazy.
The village shaman would take those women into their care and through a series of rituals they were usually successful in bringing them back to normalcy. It was not so much the rituals that brought healing but rather the focused attention from the shaman that met needs for attention and care. The anthropological explanation made sense and it explained my case of possession to a T. Damn it.
Oh well, it was exciting at the time to think it was a demon.
A further thing to note was that after her outburst the lady calmed down and was reintegrated back into the local community. No one notified local government authorities or the police. In Western society she would have been arrested, charged with attempted murder, and locked away in prison for many years, leaving her children and family abandoned and traumatized. Many similar incidents were resolved locally within the community. There were no prisons in Manobo land. They were more advanced in terms of community conflict resolution and policing than some Western societies were.
Over the following months I had several confrontations with visiting spirit priests in the surrounding villages of Bunawan, Upper Florida and Taguwangu. With uncompromising zeal I bluntly told the priests that what they were telling people were lies from Satan while the Bible that I taught was the pure truth from God.
Carefully, I watched for any expressions of old Manobo beliefs that did not meet the rigid standard of Evangelical orthodoxy. I would then expose and condemn such things publicly in a relentless effort to root them out of local people’s lives. I wanted new converts to fully adopt Evangelical thinking and behavior patterns in order to become true believers of the most committed kind.
While the grip of Fundamentalism on my consciousness was in the early stages of loosening, it still shaped prominent elements of my basic worldview.