TREK Iloilo: Getting to Know One of Visayas’ Gems

8:04 AM Voluntourism


The mountains of Iloilo cradles one of the country's richest treasures. 

It is home to the Tumandoks or Suludnon or Panay Bukidnons. They are known for their epic chants, the longest in Asia; their Binanog Dance or “The Way of the Hawk," a ritual which mimics the flight of the mighty bird; and their detailed form of embroidery known as the Panubok. This is also the tribe of the "binukot", considered a princess among them who is chosen to live her life in seclusion. 

Yet, they have suffered neglect because of their remote location. Their art is dying because of lack of attention. Progress eludes them.

So, we decided to help them.  We targeted three Schools of Living Tradition – Masaroy, Garangan, and Agcalaga.

Masaroy School of Living Tradition

GAMABA Learning Center


Agcalagan School of Learning Tradition

The tribe members were very conservative in their request.  All they asked for are financial assistance for their feeding program, school supplies, and materials for embroidery.

Schools of Living Tradition

In these schools of living tradition, children learn not Science, Math, English, Filipino, and Civics, but their epic chants. Their oral tradition, called “sugidanon,” which uses archaic language and traditionally chanted while lying down in a hammock, is the longest in Asia.

The chants tell stories about the legendary warriors of the tribe and their heroic exploits. There are stories about a dog with extraordinary powers, a strange-looking bamboo tree, a man-eating witch and a hermit who accepts two girls as payment for a misdeed. The maidens are locked down in a golden chamber, cared for and become binukot.

Children also come to these schools to learn their dance called “binanog,” a courtship dance that mimics the flight of a mighty bird and that involves the use of scarves or a piece of cloth to catch or elude a partner.

The children also learn their tribe’s lore, including 48 phases of the moon and names for the constellations. They also learn to read sky patterns and predict the weather.  They also study the “panubok,” their embroidery.  Each design of the panubok has a story and meaning, culled from the tribe’s rich culture.

The Outreach

Years ago, I met Elsie Caballero Padernal, granddaughter of Lucia and Bato Balani Foundation’s The Many Faces of the Teacher honoree, who told me about these schools and her effort, together with her clan, to promote their culture.

Caballero showed me a worn-out notebook where she had written down every detail of her tribe’s identity that she had learned from her elders.

She also shared with me their struggles as indigenous people. They are, just like the other tribes in the Philippines, not exempt from discrimination. They were branded as “mangmang” (ignorant) because they have no Western-style education.

Caballero recalled that once a tribe member called her attention for performing their native dance in public. That person thought it was better for them to just blend in and not brag about their being indigenous people.

As their identity is also our identity as Filipinos, I invited our group to help them.

It was the first time we conducted an outreach program outside Luzon. Our group is not a formal organization and we do not have a budget for logistical expenses. Whenever we go out, we take care of our own expenses so for a long time we have been reaching out to tribes that we can reach by bus.

Fortunately one of our most active volunteers, Ailene Mae Leal, is from Calinog’s neighboring town of Lambunao. She got her family and friends to help.

A local group called Kulas assisted us with logistics. We were also linked up with the Panay 4×4 Club, which helped us transport donations.

The Trek

The road up the mountains of Iloilo was not paved and afternoon rains added to the challenge. No public vehicle operator would take us up the mountains.

We initially planned a two-day activity but there were reports of ambushes in the mountains so we decided to squeeze all activities into one day.

From Lambunao, we went to the first school on our program, Masaroy School of Learning Tradition, which was also the farthest. There was no electricity in the area and most of the people there were farmers.

We were welcomed by the sounds of gongs and drums. I almost ran on the trail in excitement, except that I couldn’t because I was still recovering from an injury I had suffered in a climbing accident.

We brought blackboards, teaching and school supplies for the kids’ weekend classes. We also brought sewing machines, cloth, and threads so the kids could have costumes when they practiced dance.

We also brought tools for minor repairs to the classrooms, and rice to help the community with its feeding program.

We also gave the community a mini-library of storybooks and gifts for the kids, including bags, hygiene kits, toys and loot bags—all donations from our families, relatives, friends, colleagues, and people we met online.

We visited the place two months earlier to check its viability as a beneficiary and research on the needs of the schools.

Festive Welcome

That morning was about festivities, though. The kids danced while the elders led the welcome chant. And we thanked them for sharing their culture with us and handed them the gifts.

After the turnover, we rushed to Garangan, where Federico and Lucia Caballero resided. Immediately, the tribe started the “panimo,” a ritual to bless the newly harvested rice.

The Panimo

Part of the ceremony was drinking rice wine, which I tasted for the first time. It was an honor accorded to the group that heeded the call for help in maintaining their school.

After the ritual, I was invited to lunch with the Caballero family. There were no fine linens and fancy china, but there was something a lot more beautiful—a table covered with grass cuttings and flowers.

Then they served us “binakawan,” a traditional pork dish, and “binakol,” both cooked in bamboo tubes. They also served as “dinuguan.”

They spoke Hiligaynon, which I could not understand but I didn’t mind. We were all smiling and laughing. I understood enough.

After lunch, even with rain clouds darkening the sky, we went the kids and the cultural masters danced.

Prayers


The cultural masters

The volunteers with the members of the Panay Bukidnon Tribe

By the time the program finished, the rain had started to pour and we had to rush to our last stop, the Agcalaga School of Living Tradition, where we barely had time to turn over donations and where I got, as gifts, two traditional musical instruments carved from bamboo from a fellow volunteer.

Last turnover

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