Monday, September 5, 2011

Adventure in Amas – Part II – The Penglima

It was about a 10 minute tricycle ride. Tricycles are the preferred mode of transport here. It’s a motorcycle with a side-car welded onto it. They’re not standardized body kits, so every one is unique; different places to grab onto and different pieces of unfinished metal to avoid getting sliced on. Like most modes of transport in the developing world, tricycles are usually crammed to their absolute physical limit. On the three wheels and pulled by the small motorcycle motor, I once saw seven people.

The village was beautiful. There was a network of hand-made rice paddies that lay at the foot of this village built on a hill. Houses made from bamboo and woven grasses were scattered about. All the walls were made of woven grasses, and I thought that such work might be in the shape of a basket and sit on a mantelpiece in any first world residence.

We climbed up the hill, passing a group of about 10 young men playing volleyball (as best I could tell). We arrived at the top of where the houses ended with one last, big house. And indeed, that was what it was called in Palawano: kela’ng benwa. Literally, ‘big house.’ It was raised about five feet off the ground, with a bamboo ladder-style staircase leading up to it. At the top waited Undu Apul and his wife, the penglima of the village. I talked with Dale about the meaning of the word, and very literally translated it means roughly “one whose vocation is 5,” but with a bit more poetic license you get something like “right hand man.” Linguistics aside, he was the guy in charge.

I slipped off my shoes at the bottom of the stairs, and walked up into the kela’ng benwa. The floor was made from 1-inch-wide bamboo slats lashed together with about a quarter inch of spacing between the slats. The cool bamboo felt good on my hot feet. The shade of the thatch roof and bits of flowing air on the soles of my feet were quite nice.

I was invited to sit down, and the interview began.

In my dealings with the poor, there is often an extreme deference or shyness, especially around (rich) westerners. But such was not the case with this penglima. He answered me both boldness and energy, far more energy than a lot of 78-year-olds I know. The confidence he had was well deserved. He had been the leader of his 200-something person village for most of his adult life. His position is a quasi-hereditary one (the oldest member of the ‘royal’ family, not necessarily the son of the present leader; i.e. his nephew was next in line over his son), so there was no campaigning or reelections he had to worry about.

I opened the talk with a few general questions. One of them was, “What are the problems your people face?” I had been taught that open-ended questions are better in general at the beginning. It allows for more un-influenced answers and answers that you might not have been looking for.

His response? “We have no problems.”

Come again? No problems? One of the poorest communities in the Philippines has no problems?

I didn’t quite know what to think. Maybe he thought things were OK when they weren’t. Maybe he’s just telling me things were OK. Maybe things really were OK. Maybe it was my Western arrogance to think that people living in grass huts are bad off.

I didn’t know what to think, so I went on to other questions. I talked about his crops, the water supply, the people, ‘kids these days’ and everything in between. We talked for four hours in that bamboo-slatted big house. And over the course of the conversation, it turned out that they did have problems (as all men). They plant rice, but it gets torn up by wild boars. I knew about these boars. The boars are sometimes hunted and, by all accounts, are not very friendly. They try to raise chickens, but they get eaten by wildcats. “Wildcats?” I asked the translator.

“Yes. You know. Like cats, but bigger.”

I had been warned about the boars (and a week before heading home, about the cobras). But about wildcats, I had no knowledge.

I held out my hands approximating a house cat, “This big?” I asked.

“Bigger,” said my translator. I had a picture of a mountain lion in my mind and reflected that we should probably add “Being eaten by a wildcat” to the list of risks of travelling to Palawan.

“How much bigger?”

There was some dialog in Tagalog or Palawano. After a much-longer-than-should-have-been-necessary-to-describe-a-cat’s-size discussion, the council ruled that it was not all that much larger than a housecat. I revised my mountain lion to a bobcat and ceased my worries about being eaten. At least all at once. Or by only one ‘wildcat’ (after all, they could be like raptors in Jurassic Park). Whatever its size, it ate the chickens they tried to raise. I suppose it didn’t matter if it were the size of a mouse if it killed chickens.

I continued my questions. They plant coconuts, but they get eaten by rats. They climb up the trees, pick a coconut, eat through three inches of coconut husk, and then eat out the sweet meat inside.

So no problems. Except the boars and the wildcats and the rats. It was explained to me later that it was common to hide problems from new visitors as a source of pride. Perhaps it was like covering up the shameful parts of one’s society with a metaphorical fig leaf.

Toward the end of the conversation, he started mentioning his parents. Or what I understood to be his parents from the translation. After a while I figured out that it was indeed his parents, and their parents, and so on, and so on. I had always assumed ancestor worship was similar to polytheistic worship in that you honor a being that is above or separate from you. But the aspect I had not anticipated was how the ancestors were spoken of. It was as if they were familiar and still alive, passing judgment on the decisions of this, by comparison, youthful 78-year-old. The penglima thought they were presently disappointed in the present society because they had left the traditions and grown lenient on the laws, particularly those regarding sexual relations.

The young people were ‘eloping.’ They were not going through the somewhat bureaucratic process of first requesting permission to marry from both sets of parents, then with that approval, taking it before the penglima and the council of village elders for approval. Then, there would be the payment of the dowry that would also need to be paid. All of these steps were skipped by young people who, not unlike western boyfriends and girlfriends, just move in together.

Is there nowhere that this is not happening? These people, in a single generation, have abandoned (proper) monogamy. I’ve seen this everywhere I’ve gone in the developing world: the traditional beliefs are strict monogamy or at least strict polygamy. But the young people have pretty well given up on that and take their relationships about as seriously as westerners take theirs.

As we talked, the penglima told me the story of why they lived in Macagua. Around 40 years ago, he persuaded the then-highlanders to take their homes and migrate down to the lowlands. “Why?” I asked. He said with complete confidence, “Because of the salt.”

I had heard of migrations for a lot of reasons. But this one was new to me. I got this through a translator, so I thought it might be an un-translated metaphor. “Does he mean literal salt?” I asked my translator. There was some dialog between my translator and the penglima. Nope. Literal salt. “Why did you come down from the highlands for the salt?”

“Because there’s no salt in the highlands,” he replied, getting confused about my confusion.

And I suppose he’s right. Isn’t the need for salt obvious? Hadn’t it been traded in parts of Africa pound for pound for gold? Isn’t a proper salt balance critical for human health? And isn’t salt hard to come by in a highland jungle?

So yes. An entire village packed up their things and moved to be closer to where the salt was. He explained that, of course, there were other benefits to the lowlands like markets and medicine. But mostly they moved for the salt.

As the sun began to get low in the sky, we said our goodbyes. As we were doing so, he shook my hand enthusiastically and kept repeating a word. My translator said it meant, “Nephew,” and explained, “He now considers you his nephew and hopes that you will visit him again.”

 “I hope so,” I said. 

1 comment:

  1. "But mostly they moved for the salt."

    That's simply amazing. I'm remembering this for the next time I hear about the "right" to health care.