MALAPATAN, SARANGANI -- Among the B’laan in Southern Mindanao, a hand-woven mat spread on the ground or the floor marks sacred space.
“When you tell your story on a B’laan mat, you must tell the truth and must speak of what is true, what is authentic,” stresses Rose Moranos Bantilan.
She says that on these mats, the B’laan believe that the good spirits of the earth would hover to join the communing human beings. But one must believe otherwise it will not work, she added.
Mats like this are spread out, among other commonplace rituals, whenever and wherever Rose and leaders like her or tribal elders would come to negotiate and mediate in the far-flung villages of Malapatan, Saranggani.
These details, Rose Moranos-Bantilan said repeatedly as she cajoled everyone to settle and sit with her on a hand-woven mat to tell her own story at the barely finished mat-weaving center, where mats of resplendent colors are displayed and serve as temporary walls.
Wayfaring native comes home
Hers is a story of coming home, the return of the wayfaring native.
It was close to evening, and Rose and the other women members of the Ded Libon di Lansang (The Women of Lansang) insisted on wearing their ceremonial clothes of intricately embroidered, sequined and appliqued cotton in order to honor the occasion of storytelling.
In 2001, Moranos-Bantilan became involved in conflict management and transformation seminars through the Mindanao Peace Movement. Her uncle, the clan chief Fulong Pepito Moranos, recruited her.
Getting involved in the conflict transformation training and the practical lessons of mediating between groups in the villages is for her, a way of giving back to the world her new-found energy and strength after a hysterectomy.
Besides, she saw that it was also her initiation into the responsibilities of being a clan leader. “Fulong and the other leaders are now getting old, and so I realized it is our generation’s turn to assume leadership.”
According to her, the hilly village of Lasang in Malapatan town, in Sarangani province was deserted in the late 70s after it became the battleground between the warring paramilitary cults, Ilaga and Black Shirts. ”Nothing was left standing except the chapel of a Protestant mission,” she recalled.
The village was resettled on Christmas eve of 1982, about 25 years ago.
But Rose only came back to stay 13 years ago. After her village was burned, her family stayed in the town center and she joined her uncle Pepito’s household when the Fulung’s daughter died in her teens.
Then, she went to college in Davao for two years She wandered throughout Mindanao island, a migrant worker made both streetsmart and mellowed by experiences as she sought employment in department stores and other people’s households in order to send her younger siblings to school and provide for the daily needs of her parents who were subsistence farmers.
She married late, only when she was 35 years old, and a few months after her father died. “I have been everywhere, in Davao, Bukidnon, Cagayan de Oro, and I met a lot of men and ironically I still found my lifetime partner here in my own village.”
As the only unmarried daughter, the filial duties of caregiving to old parents brought her back. “I was asked to return home and take care of my ailing father. And then my mother got sick, too,” she recalled.
She takes great pride in her latest endeavor now of leading a group of women whose hands record dream-stories through weaving mats of romblon and buri.
“Every design is unique as each weaver dreams different designs. Some are like waves of the sea, others are like the skies full of stars while others look like the cornfields,” she observed.
She learned how to weave from her mother and grandmother who also taught her how to dream designs.
Weaving the mats
Last year, she was inspired by a program for indigenous people initiatives by the local government.
“I was urged to organize the group by someone from the governor’s office. When I look back, I remember, we talked about it in snatches , whispering to each other, at a wake,” she said.
Her group has just launched a project of reviving and preserving the mat weaving tradition and craft among the village women in Lansang. The weavers collective has 18 members who are mostly old widows now, and she is the youngest at 46.
“So few of the younger women are not keen on taking up the craft as the mat takes too long to make, and those who can afford go to college to become professionals,” she noted.
Her group recently got a grant which allows each weaver a fellowship allowance of P600 per month so they can concentrate on their unique design and get all the necessary materials. A single mat (3 feet by 6 feet) takes at least a month of persistent weaving.
Weaving women's dreams of peace
Rose looks at activism, meaning her involvement in conflict mediation and management, as the other side of her public sphere as a leader.
“I am new to activism, if you can call what I do now in conflict management as such. It is a newly learned skill and it made me aware of the struggles of my own B’laan tribe and the importance of speaking out for our rights,” she said.
She had earlier resisted the violence-prone activism of youth of her age because she saw no hope in violence, in her mind the memories of her village burning persists.
But this is different, she realized.
Conflict management espouses non-violent change and openness to working with those who are not from the tribe but who are also indigenous peoples in Mindanao.
“It is my turn now. And I hope my daughter will continue what I am doing and even would be able to achieve more. We are telling her to become a lawyer. Imagine, she will be the first woman lawyer and she is a B’laan.”
Aside from becoming adept with tribal craftwork, she wants her daughter to develop a repertory of skills, both tribal and secular.
The chief lessons in her fresh life as a leader include the significance of perseverance. “You must know that nothing comes easy, nothing will bear fruit instantly.”
She found her own kind of epiphany when she joined a group of mediators and scholars to seek out two warring tribes in the town’s farthest village. “We walked for hours and forded 29 streams!”
“We had to walk for 14 hours, and when we had to go back and cross the 20 streams again,” she repeated. ”And I was the only woman in the team.”
ut she also believes that while patience can be a wide swathe of finely woven craft, there should be enough empty space for unraveling righteous anger. “ While I can be patient and know how to wait,” she explained, “ I also know how to be angry.”
She gets incensed by the lack of discipline in some people to whom she assigns responsibilities.“ I want things to be done thoroughly, that instructions be followed correctly. If after a while people refuse to cooperate and follow my instructions again and again, I think I have the right to express anger,” she continued.
Precision akin to math
“Mat weaving requires that kind of discipline since putting it together requires a high level of precision akin to math,” she said.
She also noted that mat weaving also requires the cultivation of a strict sense of time as the weaver must wake up early at dawn. “You can only weave in the early hours of dawn when the strands are soft and pliable. The strands get brittle and break easily if you work after the sun has risen. If you don’t wake up on time, you lose precious hours of work.”
Rose believes in preserving and nurturing the B’laan culture, but that cultural preservation includes spreading the cultural appreciation to the rest of the world as a common and shared legacy.
That’s why she has no qualms about livelihood projects that allows for more products of the beadwork and woven crafts of her tribe.
“Making and selling the products even to outsiders make the crafts alive and useful,” she said.
She noted that today it seems that her own people no longer make mats because they don’t use it anymore even for ceremonial purposes. “They would rather buy plastic sleeping mats from Taiwan which are sold by vendors. Other people like our mats and they use it as décor.”
Unlike other tribeswomen who are wary and weary of tourists, scholars and other outsiders who come to visit her tribe, she thinks of these people who arrive at the threshold of her home as kin.
“We offer hospitality to everyone who come into our homes, that’s part of our being B’laans. We are not only friendly, we trust that people come in peace and do not to harm us,” she said.
She favors that the younger women in the village will become apprentices to weavers as well as to visiting scholars visiting to study the weavers and their craft, and who will then pass on their knowledge to younger generations.
And she stresses the need for a cohesive B’laan family. “We have to make our families be in this together. Our husbands and children must also believe that this is important for their future too.”
Welcoming the old and new, the inside and outside
For her the life of the spirit is a mixed blend of Christianity and B’laan beliefs. Even before her sojourn away from her tribe she has come to worship the Christian god and here in her village she is an active member of a denomination called the Alliance of Christ Fellowship.
Both systems of beliefs are important for her. Christianity gives her an individual connection with the divine while the ceremonies and rituals of her tribe connect bring her into the expanding circle of community in her village.
She believes in striking a balance between ancient tradition and her new religion. Mostly the rituals are now ceremonial just like wearing the costumes. These are performed and worn on special political and social occasions.
But it is in developing the weavers together, preserving the old craft and passing it on that Rose hopes to find the knot of continuity as she weaves old values into new ones, allowing the silence of dawn to sink into the sounds of morning, her hands intuitively letting the story-design to happen with her fingers, creating a sense of wholeness in the mat that she weaves.
A version of this story was first published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer and in my blog, "Archipelago of Scars".