The B’laan and Tagakaulo Tribes of Malita, Digos (A Glimpse on Indigenous Peoples Ministry)

October 9-11, 2011: From Tungawan to Zamboanga. Zamboanga to Davao. Davao to Digos, where I met for the first time Bishop Guillermo Afable and most of the Diocese’s fellow priests during their regular presbyterium at the Diocesan Center. From Digos to Sto. Rosario Parish in Malita.

 It was there in Malita where I was fetched by Dodong, a motorcycle driver (habal-habal), who is to bring me to my final destination: Little Baguio Mission Station, some 2 hours ride from the town center, 40 kilometers from Malita, continuous ascend to what seems to be like one of the tallest peaks in the area. As the motorbike cleverly negotiated with the rough terrain, things were changing. From the busy small town commercial noise of Malita, I was thrown into the almost divine quiet of the mountain. Lush green. Giant trees and ferns. Waters cascading naturally from the sides. Halfway through our trip, we have to make a stop. I have to check my cellular phone for last messages. This is the last place where you get a signal, and for the next 12 days, poofff, you simple free yourself from the wired world.

Finally at around 5pm, drenched in the rain, we reached Little Baguio Mission Station. Fye Kakel! (Welcome in B’laan) I was met by Rose de la Cruz, a middle aged woman from Davao, who heads the mission team. For the next 12 days, they will be my family… and in case you didn’t notice, I haven’t started walking yet… literally. We are just about to.

Sitting in what appears to me like a dried up, flattened lake, surrounded by pillars of mountains, Little Baguio (LB), is populated by a mixture of Cebuano-speaking families mostly coming from Davao, Digos and Malita, and the B’laan, Tagakaulo and Manobo tribes . The weather is cold almost the entire day. There is no electricity, apart from a handful of houses who can afford to have a generator or a solar panel. Going around the community, you’ll get to see basic things you find in a typical Filipino barangay: the elementary and secondary school, the health center, the barangay hall, sari-sari stores around a sleepy market place, a small recreational area, some rice paddies and vegetable gardens.

Aside from the ordinary, two things caught my attention. First, a visibly withdrawn cluster of huts encased on one side of the mountain, like a sentinel on continuous watch day and night: the Philippine Army’s local stronghold. Second, the compound of the Catholic Mission.

Inside the compound is the community chapel. Although LB as a Mission Station is still part of the Sto. Rosario Parish down in Malita, it caters as well to the many farflung chapels inserted in the more mountainous regions of the place, bordering to Saranggani province. All satellite chapels are in principle unreacheable by any form of motor transportation. You either ride a horse or hike. I opted for the latter… And hike we did, from sun up to sun down.

Not far from the chapel is a fully furnished convent for priests who occasionally visit the place for masses. There is also the basketball court which also serves as outdoor dryer for their grains and other crops and the furniture shop meant to train young people for woodworks. On the other side of the chapel are two small buildings of utmost importance to the community. The clinic and the scholars’ dormitory.

Ailyn is in her early 20s. A pure B’laan and a trained paramedic, she heads the health arm of the mission. Operating on limited resources especially medicines, the clinic has become an indispensable part of the community, serving both as a lying-in clinic and dispensing first aid to emergency patients before they are whisked off to Malita for further treatment. The clinic also gives continuous health education to the people.

Lilian in her 30s is a Tagakaulo. She runs the dormitory both for a little less than a hundred boys and girls mostly B’laan in their secondary education.  Highly subsidized by the mission, the dormitory prides itself with students who finished already high school; a few of them coming back to help the mission as Tribal Filipino teachers and cooperative workers.

At the back of the mission house is the youth center. The place has become a training area for the youth. Sewing for the girls. Electronics and simple mechanics for the boys. On a daily basis, youth leaders take turns in cooking for their income generating “karinderia” which serves lunch and snacks especially for the students and teachers of the primary school. Vicky from Davao and Jelyn, 20s and a pure B’laan, supervise the place.

Funny. With the little knowledge I have regarding cooperatives, farming and the water system, acquired and learning hands-on from what was left to us by our veteran and indefatigable Fr. Kaloy here in our Tungawan Mission, I was more than amazed how I “survived” an invitation by Dante, head of the mission’s agriculture area, to give a short talk on farming and hog- raising, to simple B’laan and Tagakaulo farmers, who are relatively just starting to learn the ropes of more permanent wetland farming, lowland style.

A chance encounter with the tribal leaders of their cooperatives of about ten, distributed in several communities in more remote areas, gave me the opportunity to impart with them  my meager know-how, taking my cue from our very own Risen Christ Parish Multi-Purpose Cooperative here in Tungawan.

… and the physical feat is just about to begin. Hike, we will!

Reminders: 1. Bring extra pieces of clothing for the night; 2. Carry a staff, not only to ward off snakes but to assist your balance in steep, muddy and tricky terrains; 3. Water for your thirst and cooked rice, packed and wrapped in banana leaf. Don’t ask for viand. We’ll find it somewhere else… and we did. Yes, I brought some antihistamine just in case. The wisdom of the old perfecty applies: the lighter you travel, the faster you walk, the faster you walk, the earlier you reach your destination, the more time you have for rest. Hmm, much the same with our spiritual trek I guess. The less attachments we have, the easier the journey. TRAVEL LIGHT.

October 13, 2011: Leaving the house at 8am, accompanied by Yag Wanan (lola Wanan), about 60 years old, community leader and a B’laan, we headed for Bolo-Bolo B’laan community. Reaching the place at past lunch time, we had a brief rest, visited their chapel and cooperative store, and continued the hike going to Kisoy, a mixture of B’laan, Tagakaulo and Manobo community, where we spend the night.

Kisoy is the last community of the mission on that side of the mountain. A few more kilometers, and you are already somewhere in the political boundaries of Saranggani Province and General Santos City. Almost engulfed the whole day by fog and mist, Kisoy is an abaca-producing community. Don’t ask now, but sure as it is, men in uniform regularly patrol the slopes. The Army and Insurgency issues. The reds remain in tiptop shape as it goes aggressive in luring the young to their side. On the other hand, the army remains suspicious and at times ballistic, to all sorts of activities and organizations (including church-based), as well as new faces who dare enter their territory. I wasn’t exempted and wasn’t surprised either, that a troop followed us on our way home the next day, on the pretext of “patrol”. Me and Yag Wanan.

October 17, 2011: Leaving the house early in the afternoon with Rose and Jelyn, we headed to Lalon mission post. Reaching the place close to 7pm, barefooted, as it was of no use wearing a pair, we were welcomed by the mission post’s caretaker. Roger, 17 years old, grade 6 pupil, B’laan.

The following day, I’ve got the chance to visit Lanulan Tribal Filipino Mission School. We were warmly welcomed by Nerio, 19 years old, high school graduate, himself a B’laan, and is the tribal teacher for more or less 50 pupils, some of them are just about his age.

Aside from these initiatives, the mission also provides continuous adult education especially in the areas of health and sanitation, agriculture, credit and lending, stressing on the values of frugality and discipline, not to mention the water system provided to several communities benefitting every single household around the place.

All these were made possible because of the collective efforts of the French- speaking, Canada-based PME Fathers through Fr. Pierre Samson, who stayed with both the B’laan and Tagakaulo tribes for almost four decades already. Sometime last year, a lengthy article was written about him and his Indigenous Peoples mission, in one of the issues of the World Mission Magazine. At the time of my visit, Fr. Pierre was in Canada. (Note: you can find Fr. Pierre Samson in my facebook account)

How important is it for me to mention and take extra notice on the ages of the protagonists and present leaders of this tribal mission, with most of them barely out of their teens? Because I was simply amazed on how the Mission Team was able to train the young, to lead and open the minds of the more laidback tribal communities, doing balancing act between practical acceptance of contemporary ways of living and proudly preserving their culture as genuinely indigenous.

On the eve of my departure, all the young scholars, accompanied by a few leaders and the Mission Team, gathered together in the dormitory for some tribal singing and dancing. I found new friends, equally blessed as children of God or Manama. I left Little Baguio October 21, 2011…and for the first time again after 12 days, my cellular phone beeped.

If I may say, this article is never enough to cover what needs to be said about the B’laans and Tagakaulos in LB. Much has yet to be learned from their language, dances and music, ethos and taboos, myths and stories, religiousity and their arts, medicine, conflict resolution and governance, rites and rituals, handicraft, tools and weaponry, etc.

As a Claretian Province, why do we take an important glimpse at the doorstep of this Indigenous Peoples Ministry, long explored by other churches and other Religious Organisms? What can we offer? What can we learn, unlearn and re- learn? What new interpretations can it give us to our collective missionary calling?

Paramount to this new found pastoral interest comes from our recent Congregational and Provincial documents. The last Provincial Chapter opens the door for us to venture into new pastoral possibilities, including the Indigenous Peoples. We are missionaries, and I strongly believe it is intrinsic in our call to be visionaries and creative in our way of responding to this divine call. The urgency to preach the Gospel in a society often beaten by poverty, ignorance and violence all the more invites us to be compelled to preach the same “in the market place.”

At the threshold of this century, the Church has abandoned already its moot proselytizing character, best expressed by the papal apology to the sins of the past committed by the Church. To date, we are maneuvering towards total human development. Part of which is the respect for individual cultures which boils down to the recovery of every single human esteem and dignity, regardless of age, sexes, social standing, color or race, language and even religious beliefs.

Jesus healed the sick, including the non-Jews. Claret defended a black slave during his time in Cuba up against racism. Brother Torres in Lamitan cared for the sick; Bishop Querexeta fed the people of Basilan – Muslims and Christians. Some of our present ministries in Mindanao align themselves to the same ideals.

In time, when the Spirit will unfold to us this new ministry, may we be ready as a Province to face it with a wide vision and hearts full of generosity. It is not so much what we can get as an Organism who wills to survive the changing times, but what we can give, thereby and from which we are receiving from the hands of an all Benevolent God.

Simply put, the Indigenous Peoples Ministry is not about the angst of writing roster of names in our Books of Registry, but about recovering and strengthening minority cultures and peoples, giving back to them what is truly theirs, robbed by the culture of greediness and selfishness and at times ecclesiastical pride: HUMAN DIGNITY.

“Charity cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. LOVE IS FREE; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends…. Those who practice charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est.

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