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With tribal Filipinos - page 2

Martial Law experiences
President Marcos’ Martial Law meant that the Philippine Constitution was thrown out and the two houses of Parliament closed down. His men were appointed as judges in the law courts throughout the Philippines. He ruled by daily degree, implemented by the army. Naturally, abuses were rife – people disappearing (desaparecidos); (our confrere, my personal friend, Fr Rudy Romano), extra-judicial killings in the thousands.

A traumatic experience
I had a team with me from LUSSA, the Luzon Secretariat for Social Action. They all had Diplomas in Social Science, three young women and one young man. For almost three years we prayed recollection days together, planned and worked as a team, then made our assessments. The young bloke wasn’t too consistent, but he tagged along. I encouraged facilitators to go through my experience of just living with tribals and being accepted. Being Filipinos, they thought they understood them, but no. To be accepted to some degree is a rather long and painful personal conversion experience.

The team of five had to walk carrying their personal belongings. I heaved along a small battery-powered speaker with a trumpet. We criss-crossed a mountain stream up to 100 yards wide, fast flowing and knee deep. Our brave male companion lost one of his rubber thongs in the currents, and for the next two kilometres he complained bitterly, changing the other thong from one foot to the other. The village (barrio) people were 80% Remontado and we were billeted in different homes. Our male component complained all the first day and then requested to return to base but I had to accompany him. A real wimp!

It was Lent and the four of us had a wonderful two weeks with the people. Each one of us got four or five homes together at a time that suited the men-folk. We had modified sessions of “Functional Literacy”, a la Paulo Freire, Scripture readings with shared experiences of the Makedypat. Some parents wanted children baptised, so there was catechetics but only along the lines of sharing experiences. That’s the only way that tribals grasp anything of God. Teenagers were taught Mass hymns in Tagalog.

Come Tuesday of Holy Week, two of my companions, Susana Pataksil and Rose Apid, asked could they visit  two male Social Workers with a group of Dumagats, a half day’s walk into the mountains. I was hesitant because there was a rumour that the army had a search and destroy operation out there somewhere – a ‘red alert’ area. They persisted and they knew the way. So, off they went, promising to return on Easter Sunday. They didn’t come, as was half expected on account of distances. Next day I left with the remaining young woman. Later on that Easter weekend, I heard that two Amazons had been killed by the army. Women who had joined the NPA in the hills were called Amazon. Quickly I went to their Manila base to have my fears confirmed. I volunteered to try and find the bodies with a half dozen male companions. I knew the way. On Saturday we left quite early in the jeep, as far as possible. Walking in, we made enquiries at each group of homes. We drew blanks until we came to a barrio at the foot of a steep, rugged area. The Pangulo, or one in charge, a Dumagat, told us that on the previous Sunday, four army men threw into their pakwanan, watermelon patch, the bodies of two young women, completely naked, no IDs of any kind. We exhumed the bodies from the shallow grave. It was shattering, absolutely shattering for me – my two beautiful leaders, mutilated by bullet wounds and badly decomposed. We scraped the remains into body bags and arrived in Manila just before midnight.

Sunday night, the army announced on TV that two Amazons had been killed in the mountains, one had a hand grenade in her belt and the other was carrying a M15 attach rifle. Amen! They knew that we had been in and discovered the bodies.

What actually happened? Early Easter morning my two friends and their male Social Workers were descending on a narrow mountain track. Susana was about 150 metres up front. The hills resounded with the “Pak” of a rifle and Susana fell on the footpath. Rose ran up to her, the two young men jumped into the forest and saw what happened. Rose held the head of Susana on her lap and screamed at the four soldiers: a translation: “We are not Amazon. We are not bad women. Have pity on us: two soldiers sprayed her with automatic fire. We counted 48 bullet wounds, and she was two months’ pregnant.

There was a huge funeral in a Quezon City church. The eulogies were passionate, full of praise for Susana and Rose, but also loud denunciations of the government and army. I didn’t attend, but sent a page in Tagalog of my three years’ companionship, our praying, planning and working together for the tribals. They were two true martyrs who gave their lives for them. In my situation, I thought it would be unwise, possibly unhealthy, to be present.

I was an angry man and it seemed to increase. I had become a victim of the atrocity. It would be foolish to return to the mountains. The problem was solved by joining the Trappists on the island of Guim-aras, near Iloilo, 500 kilometres south of Manila. For over three weeks, the monks took me into their community of prayer and work, rising at 2.15am each day. The hurt was healed, but you can’t obliterate such a memory.

Another traumatic experience of Martial Law brutality
This happened in a village (barrio) on the borders of Quezon Province. It was my jumping off base to Dumagat-Remontado groupings 15 or 20 or 25 kilometres in the mountains and inside Quezon Province. During the dry season, I could take the jeep to this barrio. On the outskirts there was a simple home, quite small, with a lovely family – father, mother, two small children – working about two hectares of wet rice cultivation. They were so generous. There were always sweet rice cakes and a glass of spring water. On this occasion, when I drove in there were 50 or 60 people looking over the fence towards the house, about 150 metres in the rice paddies. A gruesome sight froze me. I then ran in and sat in the rice stubble beside my friend. She was holding on her lap the horribly mutilated body of her partner. Deep, deep sobs were coming from the depths, after an hour of uncontrollable screaming. I placed my arm tightly around her shoulders with a hug. She sat, running her fingers through the hair. It was difficult to look at the body – one eye gouged out, one ear gone, also the nose, teeth knocked out, the whole body lacerated, genitals gone. There she sat in the stubble, a Pieta. After 20 minutes, I could literally feel the tensions relax. Her head nestled on my shoulder and I gave her a buss in the forehead. I suppose it would have been 40 minutes later that my friend raised her head and whispered: “maraming salamat po” (“Many, many thanks, Father”). It was time to go. Words are useless. Just silence, the silence of the presence of Christ. A peak moment of my life on reflection, surely!

NPA members passed by that house, the same as I did. That made the man of the home a suspect NPA. At least he could name names. At 5.00am, he was picked up by three soldiers and thrown back at 11.00am. I passed by at 1.00pm.

Other memorable experiences: a Holy Week with the tribals
It was way out in the mountains at the confluence of the rivers Lenatin and Limutan – a beautiful ambience of towering mountains and gushing streams. The people were 100% Dumagat-Remontado.

I was the first priest to visit the barrio and this was my third visit. Tuesday and Wednesday went off quietly with me explaining what Holy Week was all about. On Maundy Thursday I decided to have a washing of the feet, going to great pains to explain again and again the significance of the ceremony. Some kind of expectancy was aroused. Four men and four women were seated on a bench in our outdoor meeting place. An old tin basin of sorts was provided and I proceeded to wash and kiss each foot. It was hilarious. When I finished, the basin was half full of very muddy water. I might have known that the only time they washed their feet was when they waded through streams – a classic example of something completely anti-cultural.

Good Friday had its moments also. I had the 14 Stations of the Cross, quite large and beautifully painted in Manila. These were placed around the barrio. The Kapitan, the one in charge, had to be the Christ. Mary, Veronica and the women, and the soldiers volunteered happily; this was drama which they love. The soldiers almost viciously beat the Kapitan. It turned out that they had grudges against him and it didn’t go unnoticed by the Kapitan tied to his cross. Next morning, I gathered my Stations. Number 12 was missing. Nobody knew anything about it. Ah well, let’s be positive. It will be a source of devotion in somebody’s home.

On Holy Saturday evening, I asked my congregation to light a fire in front of our meeting place. No trouble! A huge bonfire blazoned the night as we gathered around the burning dry bamboo. I explained that the fire was a symbol of the Risen Jesus in all His glory. A large crowd surrounded the blaze. Suddenly, an old woman grabbed a faggot from the fire and began to dance around the fire crying out, “Buhay Pa Si Christo!” One by one, 15 or 20 joined her, myself among them, each brandishing a faggot. All were crying out “Buhay Pa Si Christo” – “Christ is still alive.” The high mountain peaks echoed and re-echoed “Christ is still alive”. It was just awesome, coming from all these non-baptised people with little or no knowledge of our understanding of faith.

An accommodated Easter Mass followed. Towards the end of the Mass, the reality struck home.  The living Christ’s death and resurrection, that had just been proclaimed, was really present. No mere remembering, but actually effectually present. That moment, that majestic moment, Christ’s humanity became one with the Father. But also our humanity, all those non-Christians and the whole of creation were one with the Father. The mountain peaks had echoed with “Christ is still alive”. It was my enrichment, thanks to the tribals, and I might add enjoyed a sound sleep on the bamboo slats.

Another example of how a non-Christian who didn’t recognise Christ, became the Sacrament of the Spirit and Presence of Christ. It took place at Paymuhuan, a Dumagat-Remontado barrio in the heart of the mountains on the river Limutan, Quezon Province. On a couple of visits, a young Dumagat, about 28, begged for baptism. He didn’t know anything about the faith. On this occasion, his young partner was giving birth to their first child and there were all kinds of problems. He invited me to their lean-to. I blessed the mother and child, who was trying to see the light of day. I helped the midwife, an old lady, and the tiny infant was born, and mother survived, but in a very weak condition. My friend was overjoyed and again begged and begged for baptism. I shared with him my and his experience of the Makedypat and in my next Bible service of sharing experiences, I baptised him. The joy was unbelievable and contagious. He seized from my hand the mike of my battery-powered speaker. What followed was an outpouring of the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Fr. Aussie Brennan in the mid forties talked about baptism of desire. Here was a graphic example.

Crossing mountains and tropical streams was always hazardous in the wet season. Kilometres back, 300 to 400 millimetres of rain in 48 hours on mountains denuded by the loggers. The thin topsoil washed into the upland streams which became raging torrents, sometimes up to 200 metres wide. With the currents waist and chest deep they became impassable. It would be foolhardy to take the jeep in with quite large stones rolling down in the murky waters. I just had to wait a week or so.  On a couple of instances, the army 6 x 6, ten-wheeler helped me out. My few belongings, speaker, trumpet, Mass kit, etc. were placed in the army truck. The jeep was then filled with large stones, fan belt taken off, rice sack over the engine, exhaust plugged, blocks under the springs, and a two to three metre cable fastened the jeep firmly to the back of the truck, and off we went with water almost up to my knees. The jeep was washed to an angle of 45 degrees, but we made it. This was one occasion to thank the army. On several occasions, I had to leave the jeep and walk out, tracks impossible even with my four-wheel, low ratio gear and chains.

Some other experiences
Presence at a birth: Birthing is a women’s affair, but the father of the child could be present, but they never do. In this group, an elder could be invited. I was invited, an extraordinary acceptance for a Caucasian foreigner. I observed from a discreet and curious distance. The woman was lying on a mat with something under the lower back to raise the pelvis and legs. Some seven or eight women were there with two elderly midwives. Experience was their teacher. It was a familial scene. One woman wiped her brow with a dirty piece of cloth. Another held her hand with a reassuring word. Her breasts were fondled and caressed to relax her; a hand on the tummy. As the muscles contracted and dilated she breathed rather heavily and groaned a little. All present joined her in a rhythmic breathing and groaning. All were in unison with one of them whispering encouragement. Everybody was involved before the infant was delivered. A great shout of joy welcomed baby from the warmth and security of the womb, a welcome to this hard world of ours. One midwife looked after mother, the other the child, cutting the umbilical cord with a bamboo knife and quickly cleaning nostrils and throat and wiping the whole frame with some kind of herbal mixture. The baby boy was quickly passed around to all of us. I gave a quick blessing on the forehead, then onto mother’s breasts. The support and care for mother and child was extraordinary.  And people say that they are “primitive”.

Presence at a wake
This is men’s business, prerogative, whatever! Again, I had the accepting privilege of being invited. Fifteen or twenty men were there, squatting around the body of a woman, the wife of one of the leaders. We squatted lotus style in silence. I could do that 25 years ago, but no way now with my fossilised knee joints. We sat in complete silence chewing betel nut with a mixture of lime (apog), chewing tobacco (maskara), and a special leaf (ikmo). After about 20 minutes, the leader shared his betel nut with the man on his right; he in turn to the person on his right and so around the group, including myself. No sweat those days! Again silence. Another 20 minutes and the leader approached the body and literally anointed the forehead and upper breast with the betel nut from the mouth. We all followed. I said the prayer we use with the sacramental anointing. Silence again! After about 20 minutes I whispered very respectfully: “Beautiful, very beautiful. Thank you for the invitation to be here, to be one of you.” It was extremely important not to be intrusive in any way. “I wonder why you share the betel nut, and then you anoint the body (bangkay).” No response. “It must have a beautiful meaning.” No response. “Our ancestors taught us.” Silence! Then the leader said: “You are asking questions. Why do you think we do it?” After a long pause, I said very, very quietly, softly. “Sharing the betel nut chewing (nganga) showed me that you are all still one, united, even though our dear one has gone to the Makedypat. The anointing showed me we are still somehow one with our dear one.” Silence! “My parents have returned to the Makedypat. But somehow they are still with me because the Makedypat is with me. That was the golden opportunity for sharing, for evangelisation.

Invitation to a marriage
This was another unique experience, one that showed, to some degree, my acceptance by this Remontado group of 50 homes. I joined the groom’s family and relations. When ready, the groom emerged from his home. We were all waiting for him and together we walked, without any order, to the bride’s home. Her enlarged family had assembled there. There was no sign of the young lady and there wouldn’t be for about 20 minutes. Without fanfare, she appeared on her father’s arm. There was no finery about her dress, a faded Filipino cultural dress for women which had probably been used for a couple of generations. But for her, no doubt, she was arrayed like a queen. The groom wore an old but clean Barong Tagalog.

An aside:  Back in the seventeenth century, the Spanish colonisers obliged Filipino men to wear their shirts outside their pants as a sign of inferiority. With attractive materials (pinya, pineapple thread) and needlework, the shirt evolved into the national formal dress). In a few days he would be back in the Kaingin upland rice plot in his G-string. Pants are most uncomfortable in the groin area.

Back to our wedding. The two parties walked without intermingling while an older woman led them with a slow waltz and a lilting song; all the words were improvised, thoughts re the joy and happiness of a new union, their future children and the contribution they would make to the life of the barrio. Arriving at the compound in the centre of the village, the entrance was blocked by the father of the bride. No entrance! Our songster chanted about the joys, happiness and help the mga apo, the grand-children, would give him. Some tubang lalake was offered. That is fermented coconut juice. No response! Then some Ginebra San Miguel, gin made by the San Miguel brewery. No response! Finally, a full glass of Lambanog, distilled coconut juice, 94% alcohol. A hand was reached out eagerly and he moved away. The couple entered side by side, but no holding of hands. For six or seven metres, sleeping mats were on the ground with the teenage girls on either side. They proceeded to a platform with three steps.

Lying on the bottom step was the mother of the bride. The songster continued singing about a beautiful daughter; she will give you mga apo to love you and help you as you grow older. A glass of Tubang babae (coconut juice recently harvested and quite sweet), and she readily accepted it and moved. The couple sat on the top step, covered by an arc decorated with all kinds of flowers. There was a tremendous shout of joy. That seemed to be the moment of marriage. An elder squatted lotus fashion in front of them and gave a most comprehensive instruction on marriage, every aspect, physical, emotional, handling problems. My regret was that I didn’t have a tape recorder. One couldn’t wish for a better instruction. I solemnly blessed them and the banqueting began. And what a feast of Filipino food and delicacies!

Health
Health was an important aspect of integral evangelisation, people able to live with some kind of dignity. Many were the lives saved during my 15 years in the mountains. Night protection from the Anopheles mosquito was important. In Remontado homes it was possible to use nets, but not with Dumagats sleeping around a fire on the ground. They throw lots of a certain leaf which smokes profusely and drives mozzies away for a while.

Early on I took out a small microscope with glass slides. Nobody believed that it was a parasite in the blood causing the fevers. Clean blood was a deep rich colour. Tainted blood was teeming with parasites according to the degree of infestation. They couldn’t get over it! Different types of Quinine drugs were sometimes effective, but frequently the mosquito is immune to it. I was able to get a new drug from an Italian pharmaceutical company which was effective. I forget the brand name. The big problem was to find somebody who could distribute it as directed.

There were 12 victims of Hansen’s disease whom I tried to help. Three of them were covered with suppurating wounds, very high on the nose; the others had fingers, toes, nose receding or disappeared. I always spent a day or two in their homes to help take away the stigma in the village. Hansen’s disease is dangerous only through long and intimate association. One of Mother Teresa’s sisters was a German doctor who had worked for years in leprosaria in India. She recommended the drugs, one to cure the wounds (six weeks), the other to stay the progress of the disease. She also told me where to find them – The “Peter Donders Centre” run by the Redemptorists in The Hague, Holland.

The tribals have a wide knowledge of herbal medicines. Outback they never see a doctor or nurse and they have no access to western medicines. I approached the College of Generic Medicines at the University of the Philippines (UP). They were most enthusiastic about meeting them in the mountains. Their number had to be restricted to four people – three male and one female. The jeep was not very big. Firstly, I had to contact a mainly Remontado barrio. They had to provide some kind of place to stay and meet with a group. The locals were really happy to have these professionals. Six weeks’ later I would come, weather permitting.

From the UP to the barrio was a two-day journey with some supplies, a Coleman-Petromax kerosene lamp, a short handled shovel and mattock for emergencies. The last hour was hazardous after the heavy downpours. The Doctora was terrified. She had never been out of Manila and environs. The nights were so quiet and peaceful with only the cries of night birds breaking the almost deadly silence. The men-folk’s fear was different, but real. Would the Communist NPA kidnap them and demand a ransom? This was not uncommon. I could only reassure them that I could handle such an eventuality. The get-together aroused tremendous enthusiasm. During the five days, tribals came from all over, men and women. The doctors opined that they learnt more than they were able to give. They did identify more herbs, show them how to preserve them and how to concoct these remedies. A local young woman who had studied for  two years in an Agricultural High School was put in charge and I, in due time, provided the large open-mouthed bottles with screw and clamp tops. We had a Botica sa Barrio, a pharmacy in the mountains.

Another enterprise was to take out a professional dietician. She had no qualms about isolation, etc. For nine days she lived with the women-folk. From the foodstuffs available she produced two nutritious meals per day. Everybody tried to help in any possible way. It was a great success! But, a couple of weeks later they reverted to their former ways. One cannot change generations of procedures in nine days. I could just hope and pray something brushed off.

Conclusion
A final thought, thanks to my beloved tribals. How to face life, poverty, oppression without bitterness, but with hope? There’s no quenching of the flickering light in their lives. They celebrate their God, Makedypat, in their life experience, His experience of His Presence in themselves, their family gatherings, in the whole of life. Thanks to my superiors for the opportunity and privilege to live with them.