MANILA, January 10, 2004 (STAR) By Julie Cabatit-Alegre - Liberty "Libby" Sayansan is a daycare worker at the Sitio Bamyan Daycare Center in Nalapaan, Pikit, North Cotabato. Libby, whose grandmother studied under the Americans, taught her Aromanen parents how to read and write. We’ve heard of Pikit in the news before as a military hot spot in Mindanao but, as Libby says, "It is now a space for peace."

Early in November this year, Libby joined 19 other participants, representing indigenous peoples from all over the country, in a weeklong cultural immersion in Ifugao Province under the Philippine Cultural Exchange Program (PCEP), sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, together with the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples, Office on Muslim Affairs and Department of Tourism.

By introducing the participants to the variety of Filipino culture, heritage and resources through first-hand experience, the PCEP aims to reduce, if not totally eliminate, certain personal cultural biases. With increased awareness and appreciation of the uniqueness, similarities and differences of each other’s culture, it is hoped that the participants will learn not only from each other but also from the communities they will visit and vise versa.

"This is the essence of the immersion," says NCCA Commissioner Romeo "Toto" De La Cruz, a moving force behind the program.

The participants, who gathered in Manila on a cloudless Sunday afternoon, joined an annotated walking tour of historic Rizal Park and Intramuros and then spent the night at the Manila Hotel.

De La Cruz explained, "We wanted you to experience this premier hotel, owned by the Filipino people, which is part of our national patrimony."

At breakfast the next day, I shared a table with Leoann Datahan from Tagbilaran, Bohol. An English major who enjoyed writing poems when she was a child, Datahan studied the Eskaya alphabet, which is similar to the Indian script. However, she discontinued her studies when she got sick after hiking through forested mountains for her lessons among her Eskaya elders.

At the opening program at the NCCA Bldg. in Intramuros, the diversity and beauty of the participants in their native costumes simply take your breath away.

Dalyn Gilbaliga, a Bukidnon from Tapaz, Capiz, wore heirloom necklaces, a headband and a waistband made of US minted silver coins, embossed with such dates as 1902, 1907, 1871, and 1944.

Anwar-Faiz Tumbas, a Maranao, stood regal in a datu’s garb, while Uso Dan Salasim, a Yakan from Basilan, wore his grandfather’s multicolored hand-woven sawal, or pants, and a 15 meter-long sash that was wound around his waist.

"Our cultural and artistic diversity is one of the best things about being Filipino," remarked NCCA chair Evelyn B. Pantig.

During the opening program, the participants each received a pasiking, a rattan backpack, which contained a journal where they were to make daily entries of their experiences and insights. Other mementos they would be gathering during their journey included the hand-woven vest they received in Kiangan, which was to serve as their uniform during the immersion, and the hand-carved wooden bulol, the guardian spirit of granaries and forests, which they received at the closing ceremonies at the Banaue Hotel.

"These will serve as reminders of your visit, when you return to your communities," De La Cruz noted. "More than just souvenirs, they are meant to create meaning and a deeper appreciation of our rich heritage."

"The culture in Ifugao is very distinctive and evident," observed NCIP Commissioner Evelyn S. Dunuan. "There is no need to seek it out. The people are warm, talkative and hospitable. Environmental awareness is inherent in them. They take great pride in their rice terraces, which have been recognized by the Unesco as a world heritage site. Some parts of the province have been described as the Switzerland of the Philippines."

Ifugao is one of the five provinces in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). It lies within the heart of the Cordillera central mountains in northern Luzon, bounded on the north by Mountain Province, on the east by Isabela, on the west by Benguet and on the south by Nueva Vizcaya. The major ethno-linguistic sub-groups here are the Tuwali, Ayangan and Kalanguya.

In all four of the 11 municipalities of Ifugao which the PCEP participants visited, namely Kiangan, Mayoyao, Banaue, and Hungduan, the local officials were generous with their welcome, which more than made up for the extreme discomfort the participants experienced in getting there.

With the various road works along the way, the arduous bus ride from Manila to Banaue, going up to an altitude of about 1,200 meters, stretched from eight to 12 hours. It was another seven-hour bus ride from Kiangan to Mayoyao, 41 kilometers from Banaue, via Aguinaldo Highway, beside Ifugao’s highest mountains with the old Spanish horse trails. By the time they reached Hungduan, their destination, the participants must have seen enough mountains, rice terraces, forests, valleys and winding roads to last them a lifetime.

The deep ravines were horrifying especially for those more accustomed to water, like Anwar, a Maranao, or "people of the lake." All he could do was close his eyes as the bus negotiated the narrow zigzag roads carved out of the mountainsides.

It is within this inhospitable environment of extensive mountain ranges, with peaks rising to as high as 2,600 meters above sea level and steep slopes of more than 50 degrees, that the sturdy Ifugaos live.

"The Ifugaos are known for their strong forbearance for inconvenience," says NCCA consultant Manuel Dulawan, who gave a lecture on Ifugao history and culture at the War Memorial Shrine in Kiangan, where the surrender of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita to American forces marked the end of World War II in the Philippines. Kiangan is also believed to be the site of the first human settlement in Ifugao, and thus it is considered the cradle of the Ifugao race.

The participants listened to the recitation of the hudhud, or Ifugao epics depicting the life and heroic exploits of the early Ifugaos, and the jovial liwliwa, a parody done by a group of males and a group of females, chanting alternately. They were entertained with Ifugao dances, and before long, the participants, too, learned the steps and arm and hand movements following the beating of the gangha or brass gongs.

We ate with our hands, with banana stalks for plates – chicken, pork, fish, vegetables and tinawon, the native rice, which is pounded manually and is unpolished. And always, there was the baya, a rice wine, that was passed around for everyone to share.

There were overnight home-stays, where the participants were hosted by families in each of the municipalities they visited.

In Kiangan, my host was Juan B. Dait, Jr., the executive director of the former Rice Terraces Commission, and his gracious wife, Linda. Over coffee and binakle, or sticky rice cake, we talked about Ifugao burial practices – how pigs are butchered on each day of the wake, which could last for weeks among the wealthy, and the bogwa, the practice of exhuming the dead.

In Mayoyao, I spent the night in an Ifugao hut, or pfalay, where my host, Sanguniang Bayan member, John Liwayan Martin, was born and raised. Martin was among those who performed the Ifugao dance during the welcome lunch, and his wife, Lillian Limang Martin, a social worker, would have joined him had she not been at work.

I was saddened to hear from John that the younger people of Ifugao were no longer interested in learning the traditional dances. It was with difficulty that he was trying to introduce it as a PE subject in school.

In contrast, in Brgy. Poitan in Banaue, preschool children performed the Ifugao dance during the welcome program. My host in Banaue was the barangay’s sole female Kagawad, Rosalina Pakiwon, a widow with eight children. She showed me her gamulang, the hand tool used for harvesting rice, stalk by stalk. She lent me her Ifugao costume so I can have my picture taken as a souvenir.

Of the many impressions of our visit to Ifugao, this will linger long in my memory: The selflessness and generosity of the people that we met, not only among our hosts, but also among our fellow participants.

For our Muslim brothers – Kharim Amil, a Tausug, Uso Dan Salasim, a Yakan, Anwar-Faiz Tumbas, a Maranao, and Kasim Kusain, a Maguindanaoan, who were observing the Ramadan – it must have been a real sacrifice to fast while at the same time trek, hike and travel at such a grueling pace. Beyond the effort of travel, the participants were also expected to implement a re-entry plan upon their return to their community. Macario Castillo, an Ivatan who is married to an Ifugao, was so impressed by the concept of the School of Living Tradition, which was started in Kiangan, where traditional chants, songs, and dances, as well as native arts and crafts are taught, that he would also like to start an SLT in his hometown in Basco, Batanes.

Liberty was delighted by the preschool children dancing Ifugao dances in Banaue that she plans to start teaching traditional dances to the children in the daycare center where she works in Pikit, Cotabato.

Erik Don Ignacio, an Ibaloi from Benguet, wondered if the denudation of the forests in his home province, due to commercial mining activities, could have been avoided if the successful Myong system of forest use and management in Banaue had been adopted.

Jenefe Elosando, an Ati from Iloilo, who knows the pain of discrimination, returned home with lessons in pride and self-esteem, buoyed by the warm acceptance and affection that she received from those she met in Ifugao.

The participants were all coming home from another place, and their minds were filled with a different set of images: Of Kasim from Maguindanao, singing about a boy about to go to war, bidding his mother good-bye; of Berly Enano, a Mangyan from Occidental Mindoro, playing the subing, a thin wooden wind instrument; of Regan Variacion from Camiguin, moving to the beat of an Ifugao gong while chanting a prayer to ward off evil spirits in Higaonon; of Marieta Pelon from Bicol, singing the haunting Sarungbanggi; of Dalyn, dancing and gliding like an eagle; and of Jonasan Samoc from Pagadian, performing the awesome plisat or hot dance of the Subanen.

These are the things that make us proud to be Filipino – our rich culture, the beauty of our land and our people. So, why should anyone want to destroy that?

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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