Glimpses of the Ifugao
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
THE immense rice terraces of Banaue, in the majestic cordillera 250 miles (400 km) north of Manila, have long been a key attraction for visitors to the Philippines. Here, over thousands of years, the Ifugao people have hewn the precipitous mountainsides into a spectacular series of stepped rice terraces. If all the narrow fields were stretched out end to end, it has been said, they would reach halfway around the globe.
Almost all tourists come here just to see the monumental terraces. But Edita and Priscilla have chosen to live and work among the Ifugaos. As a result, they have gained an intimate and rewarding experience that few others have enjoyed. Come along and let us share their experience together.
The language of the Ifugaos proved to be our first challenge. The pronunciation changes in just a short distance, even from village to village. But, with plenty of practice and a simple dictionary kindly lent to us by the mayor’s mother, we soon overcame that obstacle.
Up here in the cool mountains, walking is a way of life. But advancing along the narrow footpaths at the edge of the rice terraces is quite an experience. If you should stumble and fall, you have the choice of falling either into the muddy rice field on one side or down 20 feet (6 m) or more onto the next terrace on the other side. But take courage, you will soon get used to it.
The village—when you eventually reach one—is no more than a cluster of huts on stilts four or five feet (1.2 or 1.5 m) tall. Near the top of each stilt and under the house itself is a large wooden disk. We are told these are used to prevent rats from climbing into the house. The windowless house has just one room and one doorway. Access is by means of a ladder that is pulled up at night. The high, thatched, pyramid-shaped roof provides space for rice storage.
Some customs of the Ifugaos seem strange indeed to us outsiders. For example, in some remote places they do not bury their dead. The corpses are wrapped and hung to drip during decomposition. The skeletons are then wrapped in woven death-blankets and kept under the eaves of the huts.
Elaborate ritual feasts called “cañao” are held to appease the dead ancestors and to console the heirs. A priest offers incantations pleading with the deceased not to take away sick persons. They offer animal sacrifices in the belief that the ancestors will accept them as substitute souls. Sometimes they mix with their ceremonies Bible stories that they have heard. They will recount the story of Abel’s offering, for example, when making their animal sacrifices.
The dancing around the sacrifice and the smell of rice wine, boiling meat, duck and chicken never seem to fail to dispel the grief of the bereaved. Everything usually ends up well—except for the hangover.
We find the Ifugaos an extremely intelligent and friendly people. As we tramp along the narrow trails by the fields, women bent over while planting rice will rise and greet us. People tell us how glad they are that we have come to visit them. When we finally reach the village, we are welcomed by being offered rice wine in a communal cup—a symbol of friendship. As we talk to the villagers, we find that many have traveled and know something of the modern way of life.
The Ifugaos are eager to accept our invitation to study the Bible with them. One of them stops his work and calls his employees together for a group discussion. A woman tells us that her ancestors visited her. How does she know? Well, her rice pot jerked and a small portion of the rice was spoiled. That, to her, was the evidence. We show her from the Bible that the dead return to the dust. They are unconscious. It is Satan who is playing his game of deception. Didn’t he tell Eve that she would not die? But when our first parents did die, he had to do something to cover himself. So, Satan was responsible for the idea that something invisible inside the body keeps on living after death.—Gen. 2:7; 3:4, 5.
Another woman who is skilled in weaving the traditional skirts, bags and blankets asks: “Why do we get sick after passing by the graves of our relatives?” We reason with her: Your relatives loved you when they were alive. When you got sick they prayed for you and got medicine or herbs for you to get well. Why do you think they would try to make you sick now? Then we show them from the Bible the real condition of the dead.—Eccl. 9:4-10.
While we are sitting down eating, a native woman asks us about the Bible’s view on chewing betel nuts. This habit blackens the teeth and ruins the gum and is a very difficult habit to break. We ask her if she would give a thirsty traveler a drink in a dirty cup. Noses everywhere wrinkle in disgust. Of course the cup should be clean. Well, we explain, we are like cups that Jehovah can use to give waters of truth to spiritually thirsty ones. So we must be clean and not be tainted with betel nuts, nicotine or drugs. They see the point easily. “Can you imagine Jesus Christ chewing betel nut?” we ask. They all laugh.
By now, we feel a part of the Ifugao community. The local people begin calling us anakko, meaning “my child,” and we are glad to be viewed as a part of their family. As we observe individuals of this intelligent, ancient race gradually change their way of thinking and turn from their ancestral gods to serve the true God, Jehovah, our hearts warm up to them.
Truly, it has been a rare privilege for us to get to know the Ifugaos, and we are glad that you came along with us.