Witnessing History: Mindanaoan Tribes Unite for Peace in the Philippines

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“Today we are writing a new chapter in the history of Mindanao.” Filipino historian Rudy Rodil cannot contain his excitement as we enter the Talaandig tribe’s Ancestral domain, located in Mindanao, Philippines, where the decades-long armed conflict continues to affect the lives of its inhabitants. The winding red dirt road leading to the “Hall of Peace” is lined with flags honoring each of the tribes of Mindanao; Tribes who have come – some traveling more than two days from the far islands of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi – to participate in a Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony between the Muslim tribes of the Bangsamoro and the “non-islamized” Indigenous tribes. “This is a historical event, that no historian should miss.” As a historian and a former member of the peace panel between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Professor Rodil knows, intimately, the significance of this historic event. The Reaffirmation of Kinship Ceremony, with over 1,000 representatives from the 18 major indigenous tribes of Mindanao and the 13 ethno-linguistic Moro, is a remarkable step towards sustainable peace in Mindanao; One that deserves recognition from the wider international community.

The ceremony comes at a critical time for the Philippines.  The Aquino administration, engaged in ongoing peace-talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed insurgency in Mindanao, find themselves on the cusp of a signed peace agreement that recognizes a Bangsamoro Sub-State and autonomy within the region. Similar negotiations have failed in the past due, in part, to the animosity between the Indigenous and the Moro tribes.

But today, we are witnessing for the first time in over 400 years the re-joining of these tribes, who have chosen to lay down their arms and unite as kin, upholding a traditional peace pact that their ancestors made centuries ago. They are preparing the way, not only for a signed agreement between the GPH and the MILF, but also for sustainable peace in Mindanao. “We must reaffirm our kinship, which has not been nurtured in the past. We have seen the cracks in the past between our tribes,” explains Attorney Raissa Jajurie, one of the only female consultants to the MILF peace panel, “Today, we want to see equality and mutual respect. It is time to heal the wounds of our past.”

One by one, the elders come forward to retell the history of their tribe and reaffirm their shared ancestry with all of the tribes of Mindanao. Each one signs their name to a new covenant of kinship, based on the ancient history of their ancestors. The covenant upholds the 5 pillars of kinship: co-operation, mutual sharing of information, mutual respect and recognition, mutual protection of life and mutual obligation to help the needy. “This is not just a ritual, but a call to action,” Datu (Chief) Antonio Kinoc, a member of the MILF peace panel remarks as the ceremony comes to an end.

The hope for peace is palpable and for the first time seems to be within reach of those present today. “This event confirms the support of the individual tribes for the peace process and is a key factor in stabilizing the region. Without stability, peace cannot move forward.” The words of, Walee Roslie, a member of the International Monitoring Team, remind us of the importance of this ceremony and the continued need for stability in the region. Though the ceremony marks a historic step towards peace, the road to peace is long and relationships are still fragile.

This new union, between the historically marginalized tribes of the Moro and the Lumad (indigenous) requires support and recognition, not only from the people of the Philippines, but also from the wider international community. We, too, can play a role in promoting lasting peace in the Philippines, by acknowledging the courageous work of the people of Mindanao to bring lasting peace to their country. In the words of Sister Arnold Maria Noel, “We have the responsibility to tell this story, to spread this story to the international community. We must allow the truth to come forward.”


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.

“more fun in the philippines”

The department of tourism has recently announced a new campaign to attract tourists to the Philippines. The tagline: More Fun in the Philippines. The tagline might be lost on people who have never been to the Philippines or who do not know many Filipinos. The spirit of  joy in the Philippines is unmatched anywhere else in the world. A blanket claim, we know, and since we have not spent extensive amounts of time in every part of the world, it is also completely unfounded. But we stand by it! We have compiled just a sampling of why we agree with the Department of Tourism that it really is “more fun in the philippines”

  1. In-flight trivia and entertainment. On our flight from Singapore to the Philippines we knew we were making a cultural shift as soon as we stepped onto the plane. The in-flight entertainment is LIVE, and includes a trivia game with, yes you got it, real prizes! To top it off, everyone (despite age and class) is really really into the trivia game, working hard for the free Cebu-Pacific airlines tote. The trivia or in-flight LIVE entertainment is varied and sometimes includes karoake (yes, using the flight attendants announcement microphone). Whats more, this dance is incorporated into their safety demonstration! Buckle your seatbelts and turn up the beat, filipinos plan to get down if the plane goes down. And in response to a few criticisms, they added an all male crew dance.
  2. And the dancing doesn’t stop there…At the NCCC mall here, the staff stops what they are doing 4 times a day to perform a choreographed dance. And we mean everyone. This mall is 4 stories high. Watch and experience one of our daily encounters!
  3. You may remember a few years ago when a Filipino video went viral featuring Filipino prisoners dancing to “thriller” in one of the largest Cebu prisons. For a refresher, we highly recommend you watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KadX7lqgxpA&feature=fvsr and for a more recent production from the prisons of the Philippines, you can see the radio gaga dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAVVVMcTShQ&feature=fvsr as well as jai ho: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTMUZ39UHgo&feature=related
  4. UNO? I mean, who likes the game uno, right? Unless you are still young and just learning it might be one of the most boring games on the face of the planet, next to go fish. But somehow, filipinos magically transform the game of UNO into an exhilarating and laugh-till-your-stomach-hurts card game.
  5. Videoke. It’s the national pastime in the Philippines, but it’s not about singing well, its just about joining in together and singing your guts out. Bad singing can be heard on every street corner, but somehow coupled with laughter and chatter it becomes a wonderful reminder of the palpable joy that surrounds us daily.
  6. Filipinos LAUGH at everything. They love to laugh. When there is crisis, they laugh. When there is celebration, they laugh. When there is loss, they still manage to laugh. When something is funny, they laugh. When something is kind-of-sort-of-could-have-been-funny-on-another-planet, they laugh (usually followed by shrieks and more laughing).
  7. Filipinos love LOVE. Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy love stories, love quotes, romantic comedies. February 1st marked, for most filipinos, the month of LOVE. Our facebook accounts have been loaded with so many love quotes, not to mention valentines-themed posters that adorn every street corner, we didn’t realize this much cheese could exist in one city. Of course, the philippines makes national news about this time every year because they hold the guiness world record for the most people kissing at the same time. Indeed, Lovapalooza has become an annual tradition. And the sap quotes know no boundary: Men, women, old, young, can be heard shrieking with joy and sharing a giggle in the name of love. Pass the cheese, please.
  8. Icebreakers. You haven’t experienced icebreakers until you have experienced Filipino icebreakers. Every training requires several breaks with very energetically delivered icebreakers (songs, dances, etc) without distinction of age, social class or “professionalism” the best are trainings with older pastors who joyfully participate in all of the icebreakers. Another “training” phenomenon in the Philippines are different “claps” or “pak-pak” (round of applause you clap in a circle, the “rainbow” clap, the “fireworks” clap and the “rodeo” clap are among the top “pak-paks” used here).
  9. Of course, for us landlocked beings, its more fun in the Philippines because of our proximity to pristine islands: scuba diving, tropical fruits, fresh fish, moist cake on every street corner, its really hard to beat. Not to mention the frequency with which filipinos eat. They love snacking! So peanuts, caramelized bananas, taho, ice cream, and all kinds of wonderful snacks abound in every corner of the city! We eat breakfast followed by merienda followed by lunch followed by merienda followed by dinner followed by merienda… And for filipinos, its not a meal unless you have rice, so “snacks or meriendas” here include full plates of spaghetti, tuna sandwiches, and the list goes on…
  10. People Power. Perhaps the most powerful example of Filipino joy is the People Power movement. The People Power Revolution (or EDSA revolution) of 1986 nonviolently overthrew one of the worst dicators in Filipino history. Nonviolent activism doesn’t encompass the movement’s approach. Filipinos literally toppled the dictatorship with flowers, dancing, music and gifts. Photos abound of filipinos showering the military soldiers with cigarettes and flowers. It was a movement fueled, not by anger or despair, but by hope and joy and remains an incredible symbol of the power that continues to reside within the people of this country. Exuberant. Joyful. Infectious. Laughter.
How is it possible to have an entire country full of over-the-top extraverts who have a natural proclivity towards joy & happiness? Where does this abundance of {sustained} joy come from? Is it something in the food (stinky-dried fish does not strike us as particularly joy-inducing). Is it in the air (not unless you find joy in exhaust fumes and burning leaves & trash). Regardless of the mysterious source of incredibly infectious joy remains a mystery, it is hard to deny that it truly is “more fun in the Philippines.”
We’d love to hear your own examples of why its more fun in the Philippines (or WITH filipinos)!

Typhoon Sendong

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 There is no way to write our first post without talking about the Typhoon that hit northern Mindanao 10 days before our arrival to Davao. Much of our work in the next 6 months will be focused on the rehabilitation of the areas affected by the region and we have felt, repeatedly, that we have come at just the right time to offer a few more helping hands in the mid and long-term healing process for northern Mindanao.

We apologize ahead of time if the background and details are a bit lengthy, but much of what we will be writing about in the coming months will be directly related to this post, so we though a bit of background on the flood and the causes of the flood as well as Peacebuilders approach to relief and healing would be helpful:

On December 17th Typhoon Sendong hit the northern coast of Mindanao, causing flash floods in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. Over 1,000 people died & more than 330,000 people were affected as a result of the flash flooding. There are still close to 50,000 displaced people in evacuation centers and make-shift tent cities.

Within hours of hearing about the Typhoon, Peacebuilders Community, Inc. began organizing and meeting to create a long-term relief strategy. Jeff and I arrived in time to accompany PBCI on their second direct relief operation and have now moved into “phase two,” preparing for mid and long-term strategies for the survivors of Typhoon Sendong.

Within our first week here in the Philippines, we have witnessed the incredible generosity and dedication of the Filipino people in response to this crisis. Though there has also been substantial international support, Filipinos have volunteered, donated, and contributed to the relief efforts in northern Mindanao in remarkable ways.

PBCI created 4 teams: direct relief, trauma healing, medical response & long-term strategic planning. The PBCI Relief Team served a total of 2,065 families. The Medical Team cared for a total of 906 patients. The trauma healing Intervention Team cared for a total of 460 traumatized children. Jeff accompanied the medical team, while I participated in long term strategic planning and coordination with a network of pastors in the region.

The flood is only an exacerbation of larger systemic and environmental issues in the Philippines, namely illegal logging. Illegal logging is inevitably connected to multi-national corporations, as well as ongoing conflict between these corporations and the New Peoples Army (one of the armed communist groups in the Philippines). Over the last several years, Peacebuilders has been working in one of the major logging areas, Bukidnon. Starting with the fairtrade coffee project (Coffee for Peace), they were able to build relationships with the people in Bukidnon and have now hired two teams of 3 people to work in strategic areas in order to address illegal logging as well as the ongoing conflict between the NPA and the multinational corporations by training and supporting Peace and Reconciliation teams within these strategic communities. The Coffee for Peace project of Peacebuilders also provides a concrete project, which encourages economic stability in the region, while also promoting sustainable agricultural practices (an alternative to illegal logging). The mudslide and flooding that caused the flash flooding in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro is directly related to the illegal logging in areas of Bukidnon. One of the more immediate and imaginative responses to the “killer logs” (named because many of the bodies were found under the logs) has been to retrieve and utilize them to rebuild homes for the survivors of the flood, being carried out by one of PBCIs partners, Ecoweb.

Since the causes of Sendong are multifaceted, Peacebuilders’ response is also multifaceted: working both at long-term solutions for illegal logging & peacebuilding while also providing direct support for relief and rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation (potential conflict identification and management in the areas devastated by the flooding).

Jeff and I will be part of this multi-faceted approach to Sendong in our time here and the majority of what we will be doing will have a connection to the survivors of Sendong. To be part of an organization that recognizes the connection of environmental justice, peacebuilding, economic justice (fair trade) to Typhoon Sendong is incredibly inspiring and we are very energized to be a small part of these efforts. We are also very glad to dive headfirst into work here at Peacebuilders and are grateful for the ways we have been incorporated so quickly into the organization.

Although we have been here for several weeks, we just recently moved into an apartment (it was too busy and we were traveling before) and we are excited to settle here in the city (although Jeff leaves again for a medical response trip in two days). We’ll be posting more about our life here, the people we are working with, the foods & experiences we love and more stories of our work in the coming weeks and months.