Where there are no doctors

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About a month ago I (Jeff) traveled with Mei Solocasa, Peacebuilder’s RN, to Maguindanao, a province located within the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and directly to the west of Davao City. It is a majority Muslim province and Peacebuilder’s Community has a program within there, which focuses on training healthcare volunteers. The program was developed as a way to empower communities, with limited access to healthcare professionals, to be stakeholders in their own health by training several individuals within the communities to provide basic medical assistance, advice and training to other community members. The class is composed of 15 students mostly women.  I assisted Mei in some of the teaching activities and then a practical clinical experience.

We were hosted by Care Channels on the Mindanao State University campus. The first night we spent the evening with a Muslim community to connect with some of the families whose members were students in the healthcare class.  The people who live in the home that we went to are the leaders of the community.  The community refers to them as Mommy and Daddy.  Mommy has a big laugh and welcoming personality.  She is also one of the people being trained by Peacebuilders as a health care volunteer.

The following day I packed medicines in the morning in preparation for our clinic and then joined Mei for the first class session.  I was nervous for the first session, but the students welcomed me quickly. I was the butt of many a joke when I tried to participate in activities by using my small knowledge of Tagalog words.  The focus of this month’s class was mostly about the effects of diarrhea, dehydration, cold and flu assessments and the use of home remedies.  The training for the volunteers occurs over 3 days a month and requires a year for completion. Two of the three days are in the classroom and focused on concept learning, while the third day is putting the learned concepts to use in a practical manner, a healthcare clinic.

For our practical clinic we set off for the clinic at 7 a.m.  I drove one of the vehicles to the clinic site. Driving here in the Philippines is very different from what I am used to in the U.S. It seemed that rather than organized traffic flow there was chaos, but as I drove I began to learn the principle rules of the road. Which are: don’t hit/kil anyone, fill the gap between yourself and the vehicle in front of you as quickly as possible, honk often to let people know of your location and intentions. We did arrive safely to the clinic. It was located in a rural community about 1 hour drive from the University campus.  We drove for about 3 miles off the main highway on muddy, bumpy, dirt roads up to the community.  A dentist and med tech supported the clinic by volunteering their services.

People who came to the clinic were mostly from the nearby village, but some walked hours to be seen. There were a large number from one Indigenous group in particular, the Teduray. After the clinic I learned more about their difficult history one in which they have experienced decades of on again off again displacement due to the armed conflict, illegal mining and illegal logging this has resulted in their being unable to establish permanent homes, secure communities, which in turn has robbed them of the opportunity for self-determination. Many of the patients that were seen in the clinic had common illnesses such as cold, cough or headache. There were some active TB cases in adults as well as malnourished or undernourished children.  There was one difficult case in the clinic that involved a 3 month-old baby who appeared to be severely malnourished because of a liver problem.  The story was heartbreaking the mother had been to the hospital, but the doctors there said the child was anemic and gave the mother some vitamins.  Mei said that anemia was just a symptom and that the underlying cause was the liver issue, but that since the woman can not afford treatment for her child she was given an easy diagnosis for her child and sent away.

I came away from the trip feeling excited at being allowed the opportunity to learn from Mei, to meet all the students, the supporters of Peacebuilders and to participate in the clinic. I appreciate the work of empowering a diverse group of people to be decision makers when it comes to their individual and communal health.

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Drinking from the Pool of Talaandig Wisdom

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 On February 10, we had the honor of visiting the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon, Philippines, where we spent several days learning about Talaandig traditions, spirituality and indigenous practices of peacebuilding. The Talaandig consider themselves the “Guardians of the Mountain” (Jeremy Simons with Datu Migketay Victorino “Vic” Saway. Guardians of the Sacred Oil and Comb). 

“Go to the forest,” Datu Vic advises, “Listen to the Creator. Everything starts there.” And so, nestled among the mountains of Bukidnon, surrounded by the “leaping greenly spirits” of the pine & palm, we began our conversation with Datu Vic.

In recent years the Talaandig have started to vigorously re/claim their traditions, spirituality and land. Datu Vic explained that while studying cultural Anthropology and the religions and traditions of indigenous groups worldwide, he kept asking himself: Who am I?  From Where do I Come? His journey towards self re/invigorated his desire to re/member, sustain and continue the deep spirituality and traditions of his Talaandig tribe, in the midst of the ever-growing pressures to conform to conventional society.

For decades, the Talaandig’s way has been threatened: by the fighting factions and ongoing war in Mindanao, by multi-national corporations and by colonization and globalization. In an effort to confront these outside influences – and maintain connection to their ancestors, their land, their spiritual leaders and their traditions – they have begun the School for Living Tradition, educating their children in the Talaandig way.

They want to re/member with their children.

As Datu Vic says, the children must “drink from the pool of the ancestors –of the living, of the dead, of the spiritual world” – so that they can carry the Talaandig into the future. They must understand the past – all of the challenges the Talaandig have overcome – so that they, too, can become guardians of the mountain.

For the Talaandig, Creation began with 3 gods who came together at the Bublusan Balugtu, or the “sitting place of the rainbow.” The first was a 10-headed god, called Gumagang-aw, some heads were crying, some shouting, some arguing. They were loud. They were emotional. Gumagang-aw was the “forbidden god.” But Gumagang-aw was not evil. In fact, Gumagang-aw held the soil for creating.

The second god, Magbabaya, was “the god of creation.” Magbabaya held the power of life.

The third god, Agtayabun Migbaya, was the “god of peace.” And it was on Agtayabun Migbaya’s outstretched wings that Magbabaya and Gumagang-aw lived. Only Agtayabun Migbaya’s wings were expansive enough to hold in balance the two gods: Love and Anger, balanced together; Despair and Joy, balanced together; Life and Emotion, balanced together; And there they rested, in perfect harmony, on the wings of peace at the “sitting place of the rainbow.”

In order to create life, Magbabaya and Gumagang-aw needed one another. Creation was not possible with only one. Both forces are at work in the spirits and in the people. They relied on Agtayabun Migbaya, the god of peace, to create a peace pact for Creation.

For the Talaandig, Creation began with a peace process. From this peace pact, the gods breathed life into the natural world and eventually the four tribes of Mindanao emerged, the Talaandig, maguindanao, Maranao and Manobo.

The Talaandig ancestor, Apu Saulana, was given the role as peacekeeper. Saulana held the sacred jar of oil and comb, which he used to comb out the tangled hair of conflicts between clans.

The Talaandig have a lived-experience of metaphor, which lies at the core of community healing and reconciliation. These metaphors are employed through traditional rituals and practices. Blood corresponds to water, flesh to land, voice to the words of life, bones to trees, breath to air, body heat to fire, the soul relates to the creator. All elements of earth that give life are found in the body (Jeremy Simons with Datu Migketay Victorino “Vic” Saway. Guardians of the Sacred Oil and Comb). These elements are brought into the ritual sacrifices, in communion with one another and the spiritual world, to cultivate healing and reconciliation.

The metaphors are not just symbols, they are alive in the Talaandig traditions, alive through the communion with their ancestors. As Datu Vic says, “The spirits are the true custodians of land.”

When we arrived to talk peace, the Elders, Mothers for Peace along with Datu Vic and his wife, prepared the sacrifice of chicken, inviting water (blood), flesh (land), voice (life), bones (trees) to our communion. We communed together, inviting all the ancestors and spirits into our sharing, so that our conversations held the fullness of the natural and spiritual world, intertwined together.

For me, the most beautiful aspect of Talaandig spirituality lies in their ability to transcend dichotomies. Physical/Spiritual. Metaphorical/Experiential. Life/Death. Good/Bad. For the Talaandig there are no dichotomies, only different realities simultaneously occurring and interacting in the fullness of the world. In fact, We need both realities — “Bad does not mean evil, there is a time for the bad as well – there are times when anger and despair are needed, like when we must confront and acknowledge injustices.” It is only when both the 10-headed god and the god of creation are imbalanced that we experience conflict, only when they fall off the wings of peace that we witness violence and disorder. Peace is not found in the absence of Conflict, but in the balance of these seemingly contradicting realities.

On March 7, more than 1,000 people will gather at the Talaandig Hall of Peace to perform a re/affirmation of kinship pact between all of the indigenous tribes of Mindanao, including the Bangsamoro (Muslim) tribes. We will have the privilege to witness the Talaandig tribe invoke, once more, the sacred oil and the comb: working through the knots of conflict that have persisted between the tribes of Mindanao for decades. The tribes will once again re/turn to the forest. listen to the creator. And ask themselves: Who are we? Where do we come from? 

And together, we will journey once again towards the sitting place of the rainbow, in search of the rest and healing found on Agtayabun Migbaya’s wings of peace.