Come Along to the “Land of Fire”
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
DO YOU have a thirst for adventure? Fine! Then accompany us to the “Land of Fire.”
We are heading for the Davao region, which embraces three large provinces in the southern Philippines. Central to the area is the city of Davao, technically the largest city in the world, although its houses do not cover so much area. But the city’s official boundaries enclose hundreds of square miles—reportedly, even some unexplored parts of the country! Many Filipinos from farther north migrate here in search of a better life. But long before them, the Bagobos occupied the area, then called Daba-Daba, or “Land of Fire.”
That name came from the tribal custom of burning the daba-daba, a bush considered sacred by the Bagobos. The people would burn it at the foot of Mount Apo, the highest peak in the Philippines. These original inhabitants, still found among the immigrants, are a peaceful, brown-skinned people with predominantly Indonesian features. Their language has a vocabulary rich in nuances. True, civilization has altered their ancient way of life, but not entirely. Let our friend, Lordo, a typical Bagobo who remembers something of the old ways, tell us about them.
A Simple, Agricultural Life
“Our life once was very primitive,” Lordo begins. “We would wander about the forest, moving to wherever father decided. Once a suitable site was located, we would start clearing land under father’s direction. Huge trees were felled and the thick undergrowth was slashed and burned. This resulted in soft ground—a blessing for us, since we then had no working animals to help us till the soil. We did not even have a plow—just bolos, digging sticks, and other simple tools. We dug holes in the newly made clearing and planted rice, corn, sweet potatoes and abaca. The plants were then left to themselves until harvesttime.
“Harvest was a good time. But, before anyone could savor the fruit of our work, an offering was made to the gods at the foot of the balete tree. We placed boiled rice on a huge banana leaf, and dipped into it the implements that we had used in cultivating the earth. Afterward, the rice was buried in the ground as a form of thanksgiving.
“We lived in a hut that father built of cogon grass, bamboo and lengths of wood chopped from the forest trees. It was a low structure, one hugging the ground. Of course, we had no furniture, just some fire stones in the corner. We slept and ate on the floor, using fingers for forks and coconut shells for bowls.
“Looking back, our family relationship seems to have been very warm and close. Each one knew his place. When father and other men would talk together, usually the women would not join in. Mother always found some way to be out of hearing distance—maybe pounding rice or weaving a mat or a basket under some shady tree. We children let our hair grow long then, and we had black teeth because of chewing some of the wild vegetation. Having black teeth was a matter of pride, and identified the ‘true native.’
“Later, we were able to acquire a horse, some dogs and also a carabao, or water buffalo, for hauling heavy loads. We would snare and tame the wild fowl that filled the forest. Also, we were able to hunt wild pigs and deer, as well as monkeys that we sold or bartered for supplies. Mother would clean and cut the meat into the desired sizes and store it for two days or so in a large earthen jar. Cooked in green bamboo tubes, the food was considered a real delicacy.
“We also learned how to make rough pottery, or how to cast small bells or brass ornaments such as bracelets, armlets, leg bands and necklaces. The women acquired knowledge in weaving, overlacing and coloring hemp with dyes obtained from roots and leaves of certain trees. Not all of us stayed in the forest, however. Some were able to attend school, and these are now working in government service or for private firms. One even became a mayor.”
According to Laura W. Benedict, in her book Bagobo Ceremonial, Magic and Myth, the Bagobos as a whole worship numerous gods and have many religious rites. One of these rituals is the Ginum (from inum, meaning “to drink”). Liquor flows during this ceremony, and at one time it was accompanied by the sacrifice of a fowl, or of even a human. For protection against ghosts and demons, the Bagobos have rites involving much music, chanting, dancing and feasting.
Rice sowing, harvesting, marriage and burial—all are accompanied by ritual. During the Manganito, a night gathering, the people believe that they receive messages from the various anitos (gods) through a medium, usually a woman. But Bagobo religion seems more concerned with avoiding the effects of the buso (demons) than with the worshiping of gods.
The village head is called a datu, and he is assisted by the older men and some influential women. They handle religious or secular problems in an informal council. Also, there are priest-doctors, men or women who have some knowledge of healing with herbs or magic. They perform marriages and officiate at harvest sacrifices.
Courtship and Marriage
Among the Bagobos, courtship is encouraged so that the young people can get to know one another well. Girls are free to accept or reject suitors. Usually, the boy will ask a girl directly for her hand in marriage. If her parents object, he will give them a gift to appease them. But if the boy is accepted, the girl’s father will return the equivalent of half the value of the gift, so that it does not appear that his daughter is being sold.
“In some instances,” Lordo says, “the young man will go straight to the girl’s parents and ask for her hand. The parents will call the girl and ask if she wants the boy. Guided by her feelings, the father will make a decision. Sometimes the parents will ask for presents. If the boy cannot afford gifts, he will work to obtain them.” In other cases, a boy may tell his father that he wants to marry a certain girl. In turn, the father will go to her parents and arrange the whole matter.
A wife is honored in the household and has an influential role even in major decisions. Usually, the man is monogamous. However, according to Lordo, he can have additional wives if he can afford them.
Rites accompanying the marriage ceremony include the discarding of old garments by throwing them into the river to cast away disease. Spears are pointed toward the mountain to ward off misfortune. Then locks of hair from the couple are plaited together to symbolize their union. Also, gifts are exchanged. The entire ritual covers more than 24 hours, and informal drinking and feasting often begin a day or two before the formal ceremony.
What About Death and Burial?
These sad events have their own ritual, too. After death, the body is laid on a mat on the floor (with a little cushion placed under the head) and is covered with a piece of hemp or cotton. “At death,” says Lordo, “it is believed that a ‘soul’ departs from the body and is reborn into other forms of life. Hence, the Bagobos will not harm a butterfly, mosquito, lizard, fly or cicada, particularly at night. It could be the ‘soul’ of the departed one!”
One or two nights before burial, an all-night watch (damag) is observed to protect the corpse from the demons. On the coffin or on the pall one sees a crocodile design, with open jaws showing tongue and teeth. This device is considered effective in scaring away the demons. “As the funeral procession starts to leave,” Lordo adds, “water is poured near the lifeless body in the hope that the ‘soul’ will not return. Ashes are spread at the foot of the stairs to catch footprints. In this way, the survivors will know whether or not the deceased has returned on the third day. If a grasshopper or another insect appears on that day, it is said that the dead person is returning, and so food is offered wherever the creature alights. If the one who died was a man, tobacco is offered too, while for a woman a flower is added.”
The body is disposed of in different ways. At one time, it was just lowered onto a mat spread at the bottom of a pit. Sometimes the body was wrapped in bark, or simply left high up in a tree! Another custom was to leave it in the house with doors and windows tightly shut. The family would abandon that house and build a new one nearby. After a year, the traditional black mourning clothes are thrown downstream so that the “soul” of the dead will not bother the living anymore.
Although many of these interesting people profess to be Christians, the ordinary Bagobo still makes offerings at the foot of the balete tree. Yes, he carries on the old pagan traditions of his forefathers.
When Lordo was 12 years old, he seemed to be the ideal choice to succeed his grandfather, who had many occult powers. In retrospect, Lordo states:
“I longed for the time that I would have all his power, and more. I dreamed of becoming a datu, having the most beautiful girl as my bride, or even having several wives! I wanted the power of life and death. Therefore, every day before lessons with grandfather, I would make offerings to the gods at the foot of the balete tree.
“Grandfather taught me how to use local weapons, how to mount a horse and dismount with lightning speed, and how to throw a spear with uncanny precision. Not only did he teach me all the other arts of offense and defense that he knew; he also taught me how to kill for a price. Homelife no longer interested me. I was obsessed with my dreams, and would roam deep into the forest after lessons in order to commune with nature. Often I would spend days without food, sleeping on the giant roots of the huge forest trees.
“My progress was excellent. But then grandfather died, and all my dreams were for nothing! Distraught, I became a drunkard and a gambler, and squandered my youth in the pursuit of worldly pleasures. Then, sometime in 1948, I found another dream on the basis of which to build and work.
“One of the Kamatuoran, or ‘Truth people,’ as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known, left on my doorstep a copy of their Cebuano booklet Uncovered. Previously I had avoided the Witnesses, but now I read some of the booklet and the message appealed to me. Eventually I spoke with them, and they have been my regular visitors ever since.
“Of course, this newfound dream brought on me the wrath of my father, who did everything he could to dissuade me. Even my dear wife (yes, I was married by then) called me names to discourage me. Nevertheless, I was determined. After a most difficult struggle, in Jehovah’s strength I was able to abandon all my vices and become a clean-living man.—Phil. 4:13.
“After observing the dramatic change in my life, my wife also became interested in Bible truth. In fact, she chided me for not telling her about my newfound faith right from the start! She would have joined me earlier, she said. Later, we were both accepted for baptism, and throughout the years since then have seen Jehovah’s rich blessing on us. Now I am an elder in one of the many congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the ‘Land of Fire.’”
Generally, Jehovah’s Witnesses find it easy to talk with the Bagobos, although most of them have difficulty accepting Bible truths in place of their age-old traditions. Nevertheless, there are those who, like Lordo, have made the change and are holding fast to true Christianity. They are among the throngs now streaming ‘to the mountain of Jehovah’s house.’—Isa. 2:2-4.