Interview with Fr. Peter Robb, C.Ss.R.

Fr. Peter Robb C.Ss.R. served for many years in the Philippines. In an interview during October, 2007, he reflected on his time living with tribal Filipinos in the forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Fr. Peter describes this time as “the most enriching years” of his life.- How did it begin? – In 1973 I had a severe attack of typhoid fever and was hospitalised in San Juan de Dios Hospital, near Baclaran, Manila. Quarantine was rigid, however, a Philippine bishop and a good friend paid me a visit. During his visit he told me about 150 families who had resettled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. They had been squatters around the Manila Cathedral for many years. – After a couple of warnings to relocate, 15 6 x 6, ten-wheeler army trucks arrived to take the people away. There was great consternation! Within one hour the men-folk had arrived from their jobs or casual labour. Despite great anger, nothing could be done. Each truck had an army man with an American M15 attack rifle. The squatters were taken about 40 kilometres away to the town of Montalban, then across the upper reaches of the Marikina River and inland some 6 kilometres on roads accessible only by 4 four-wheel drive army trucks. – Tree hut The bishop asked me to visit the people when I was able. This I did after some months. a I spent three months living with them. While there I met a group of Dumagats, one of the major groups of indigenous people living in this area. They were a different physiognomy from the locals – a bit taller, quite dark, very kinky hair and dressed in G-strings. I chatted with them in broken Tagalog on their part and also on mine. “Where do you come from?” I asked. They gave a nod of the head with a movement of the eyebrows towards the mountains. Then one of them gave the Gospel invitation: “Come and see”. That’s how this apostolate began. – “Is it far to your place?” I asked? “For us, three hours; for you, maybe four hours,” they replied. “Two days from now, I will meet you here at this time,” I said. Sure enough, they turned up. I gave them a stick of pressed tobacco to chew with their betel nut and off we went. It did take me almost four hours, climbing steep tropical mountains and down to the rivers. They told me: “Halik tuhod ‘yong bundok”, which means: “You kiss your knee while you climb.” It was a good novitiate for the years to come. On arriving at a community of about 15 lean-tos for homes, the kids all fled to the surrounding bush. – They had never seen Kapre (a giant from popular fairy tales) before. “Kapre”, they shouted. The women-folk retired to their lean-tos and covered their breasts for the present. I spent two days with them, ate their diet of carbohydrate roots from the mountains and the tender tips of different plants (Mga talbos). It was a very nutritious diet! Each lean-to had three stones arranged as a stove for cooking. After the simple meal, we gathered around the fire. There was no light of any kind except for the fire. This became the pattern of my life for 12 years. The night was dark. The log caught fire. I could see it in the eyes of all intently looking at the fire. The fire of the Holy Spirit was in our midst. Conversation was very quiet and sporadic. – It was time for “bed”. We all slept on the ground around the fire. The log had been smouldering all day and the ground around it was warm. Next morning, before sunrise, we were awakened. The fire was rekindled and all of us sat with smoke curling from the morning fire. Few words were spoken. The tribals are very comfortable with silence. They can sit around in one another’s presence without words for long periods of time. This doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. They are highly sensitive to non-verbal communication. A part of the understanding of silence as a spiritual value has to do with waiting and not being impatient – Sleeping around the fire was something I experienced for a number of years. Sometimes the ground was damp after heavy rains but it was always warm. After a couple of years I developed kidney trouble. The solution: cut a few branches with my machete (itak) and sleep in them. We all bedded down together; men on one side, women on the other, and children all over the place. The dogs were also with us. If the ground was a bit dusty there was the possibility of a wee mite or insect called a niknik. When it nicked you it was very painful. In the early hours of one morning I was nicked in the groin area – once, then twice. It was painful so I headed to the mountain river about 100 metres away and sat in waste-deep water to cool off. A couple of men-folk had followed me. Next morning around the fire, my night predicament was the source of great merriment. The padre’s family jewels had been attacked by the niknik! – Who are these people – about 100 families – I worked with? – My information comes from the Ethical Studies and Development Centre (ESDEC), a department of the University of the Philippines (UP). We worked closely together. They came with me to the mountains. Most of my reflection comes from my living with these people.

Dumagats: Dagat means “sea”; people of the sea; people who came by the sea; Island hoppers from southern Philippines, possibly from the Celebes of Indonesia, even western Papua, New Guinea. So why did I find them in the deep forests of the Sierra Madres? When they arrived on the east coast of Luzon, they found their way up the rivers to the upland streams (UP). They are animistic in background, but most have arrived at monotheism (one spirit who is number one in every way). I didn’t find any who are henotheistic (each major tribal group with their god or gods). What follows are a few thoughts on animism from my exposure to it. – Animism gives primacy to the spirit. It is a sign and symbol of transcendence; a sense of God; a sense of mystery which is often lacking in our scientific, technological, secular society which has little appreciation of the sacredness of nature and men and women. In my time, there were many conflicts between transnational agro-industrial business corporations, government logging and mining concessionaires and tribal peoples about their forests and lands. – The Dumagats were still hunters or food-gatherers. In my time, there was little introduction to the ‘cash economy’.

Remontados: On two occasions I took members of the Ethical Studies Centre with me. In the late seventeenth century, numbers of the distant village (barrio) people refused to submit to Spanish rule. They returned to the mountains (Re Mons) where they inter-married with Dumagats or Agtas and assumed a tribal way of life. They have more ‘social mobility’, engage in upland rice cultivation (dalatan), build a better type of home, and encourage children to take some study in the village school (if any). – I brought out four or five members of the Ethical Studies Centre to a barrio, found a small dwelling and provided simple provisions. They came on Monday in the morning, about 12 kilometres and returned on Friday afternoon. They persevered for  four years. Remontado parents also seek baptisms for children. It’s a social ceremony with little religious significance.

Where are they? Remontados are located in small, enlarged family groupings in eastern Rizal, east of Manila, on the Lenatin River’s upper reaches, stretching towards Bulacan, and the Limutan River, part in Rizal, part in Quezon Province. They have long distances to walk; very steep tropical mountains; up to 35 kilometres walking. They are also present along the Umiray River in the heart of Quezon, which takes all day to walk with guides. The Sierra Madre Mountains run down the eastern Pacific coast like a spinal column. 1974-1978: First stage of my journey with the tribals – I call this the missionary stage in the former understanding of the word “missionary”. The tribals invited me to their many groupings. I joined them, and to a certain extent, immersed myself in their families. I didn’t really know the people, but their basic needs were obvious. Government and private agencies were contacted and teams were formed.

Some of the agencies who helped over the years included: ECTF Episcopal Commission for Tribal Filipinos – KAMP Alliance of Filipino Tribal Citizens ESDEC   Ethical Studies and Development Centre (UP) – LUSSA Luzon Secretariat for Social Action LEGAL ASSISTANCE CENTRE for Indigenous Filipinos

The help was rather sporadic but useful at times. This included social services, health and education, while I inserted instruction and elements of faith. Gradually, I realised the paternalism of this approach. It was condescending. I had everything to give and they had nothing. It was creating situations of dependence. No true personal relationships were established. I was a slow learner. 1979-1981: Stage of immersion, sharing and being ONE with them For 18 months I lived with the tribals, shared life and hardships, asked for no exceptions, worked with them, ate their simple diet of root-crops, slept together around the fire at night, made myself dependent on them, tried to show that we were equals, and to some extent captured their values, attitudes and rhythm of life. Any talk of ‘belief’ was useless. It didn’t register. But when any hint of “experience” of my ‘Makedypat’ (or God) came up, I could share with them my experience of my ‘Makedypat’. I suppose I was a sort of “commodity” to be shared. That was evangelisation. 1981-1989: Stage of service as equal partners Tribals became subjects not objects of evangelisation. I recognised some important features of the tribal outlook on life and their way of life, learnt from experience and reflection. I suspect that many of my reflections here would apply to Australian Aborigines within the framework of their “Dreaming”. I speak as one less wise!

Fully in touch with “being” – The tribal is not interested in becoming and achieving. Hence they are co-operative and not competitive with nature and with one another. They see themselves as a part of creation and nature. They experience the harmony and rhythm of nature, the land, the forests and the people as a part of each other. In an unspoken way, they show gratitude and thanks to their “Makedypat”. This attitude was of immense help to me to realise what I knew all the time. In my Eucharist, I not only give thanks for creation but with creation. The bread and wine are thanks offerings to God who gave them to us. I affirm the whole of creation which Christ affirmed in the incarnation.

Fully in touch with reality – They co-operate with nature and do not compete against it. The destruction of forests and environment by logging companies is inconceivable. Their swidden or slash-and-burn systems are environmentally astute. For centuries their system has thrived on the lush, forest slopes. Their technology in the shifting cultivation is economically non-destructive. They cultivate their one to two hectare upland plot for one season only and leave them for five to six years before returning. This gives ample time for the land to renew itself. But low-landers, who come and see the semi-cleared land, proceed to harvest year after year consecutively. This destroys the land and depletes the top soil.

Co-operation – Relationships within the tribal family. One does not compete with one’s neighbour (kabalat). Frequently, I heard them say: “We are all brothers”. If one has no sweet potatoes or mountain roots, he approaches his neighbour and they share what they have. There is no question of payment or barter. “Food is the gift of the Makedypat for us all.” Steeped as they are in non-material values, their lives are independent of riches and material well-being. Concepts of hoarding wealth, acquiring possessions and saving for bad times are foreign to them.

Concept of time – The tribal lives in close harmony, a partnership with the forest and rivers, the flora and fauna, the land and nature. From this is derived his concept of time. Time, as divided into small segments – weeks, days, minutes – has little significance. They are not people of the clock or watch. They don’t have any. Time is the rhythm of nature – the rising of the sun, midday, the setting of the sun, the succession of days and nights, light and darkness. Time is the rhythm of the two seasons – the dry season and the wet season. The tribal’s yearly cycle, which for many years I became part of, can be described roughly as follows. Life revolves around the annual cyclical phases of the upland rice season (for the Remontados). The kaingin are one or two hectares plots. Between January and February, the kaingin sites (environmentally non-destructive) are chosen. Between March and April, clearing the lots – burning and cutting vegetation – is done wisely. In late April, the corn crops are planted. At the end of May, with the onset of the monsoon wet season, sowing rice seed begins. In August, the crop is weeded and protected from birds, rats, monkeys and wild pigs. This is the job of the women and children. Corn and root crops are harvested after three or four months and upland rice after six months. At the end of October harvest rituals are held. – Rituals are associated with the selection of site, the first planting, and of course, the harvest. The only one I became acquainted with was the Harvest Ritual. Harvest season is the end of October. I went up three days beforehand, a very steep three hours to a rather extensive plateau. The Remontados told me: “halik tuhod po iyan”, which means very graphically and truly: “you kiss your knees as you climb.” How true! I joined them in their final preparations for this important yearly event. The day arrived and I had set up a rickety bamboo altar.  Fifteen or twenty men had dried half-coconut shells containing the new rice. A couple of women led the rhythmic dance to the altar. I joined them with my bread and wine and danced the ‘light fantastic’. All the gifts were placed on the altar. Then we squatted around and discussed the meaning of it. My approach was in no way peremptory. I was one less wise looking for help to understand. Why do we do this each year? Thanks to the Makedypat. But why do we say thank you? Because He gives us our daily food. And why is that important? It keeps us alive; LIFE! This was the springboard for discussing the Mass. We all stood around the altar holding high our gifts. In the meantime, the women-folk were cooking some of these first fruits. We sat around the altar, men and women, and shared our communion! For the Remontados, it is a must to plant a small section of glutinous rice called lagkitan. It is used to make sweet rice cakes, pinipig, sometimes ginamis. The making of pinipig is inevitable in the kaingin cycle. It calls for a celebration and one is expected to join. It seems to be some kind of ‘offering’ to the rice (palay), and if neglected, the rice harvest will not be good. They say, “nagtatampo and palay”. The rice is sulking or “in a huff”. I thought this experience worth sharing.

Time is the life cycle

Birth: Couples live together at an early age – early teens – but there is no marriage at this age. Tribal marriage occurs when the couple are 19 or 20 if there’s a child. If there is no child, there is no marriage. After the formal marriage, they are very faithful, more so than the Christian lowlanders, despite what the government maintains.

Dying: Death holds no fear for the tribals. It is a part of the holistic concept of life. Death is a returning to Mother Earth, the resting place of the mga ninuno, the ancestors. I recall a conversation around the fire (siga) at night. The soil beneath us is sacred. It is rich with the dust of our ancestors and our parents. We will go back to join them. Memories of those who have died are very much a part of daily life but not in an oppressive way. Time and space does not separate us.

A reflection: The tribal Filipino has not escaped from time and things. Rather, he lives with their essential rhythm. To some extent, he has assimilated the deepest core of life and things. Living with this interior harmony and rhythm of nature is a kind of secret prayer. Something I learned: Is not this interior harmony a secret prayer, a pre-fabricated liturgy hidden in the visible universe? Silently, it awaits the person of reflection and prayer to capture, disengage and make it known in all its splendours. In their own unsophisticated way, the tribals have done this. Twenty-five years ago, I spent an evening with a Dumagat in his lean-to with the evening mists coming in, an apology for a roof. He had stoked the fire (siga), throwing on it some special leaves to make it smoke vigorously and drive away the mosquitoes. Lying on the ground beside the fire, we talked about his roots, his people, his experience of the Makedypat, and way of life. It was an amazing acceptance of a Caucasian, a foreigner. I asked him if he ever talked to the Makedypat. Almost indignantly, he answered “No! I live with Him. Tomorrow we go up the mountain to check the bitag, the traps. Maybe… I have trapped a mountain cat or rat or a baboy damo, a wild pig. Our companion is the Makedypat. If we catch something we come down, two hours’ walk, and share it with the enlarged family. The Makedypat is happy because we are sharing His caring for us.” Here was a contemplative in a G-string, completely unschooled but experiencing the presence of God at the heart of his life. Apart from my lying on the ground, the thought of my own penury prevented sleep for a long time. One of many inspirations with these beautiful people, taught to me by Palasapis, the name of this old man, a contemplative in a G-string. He experienced the presence of his Makedypat at the heart of his life. Lying beside that fire I realised more profoundly that this is what my life is really all about – to live fully this presence to God, to ourselves and to our Filipinos.

Work:  For us, work is an activity occurring within a defined portion of the day. Not so for the tribals. Work is defined or determined by the needs of the day and the seasonal cycles. Work is a part of the ongoing and unified activity of being and living. It is an experience to live and join them in their completely unstructured attitude towards work. In recent years, as a result of more contact with logging and mining companies, and the army and lowland settlers stealing their land, they have inevitably been introduced to the cash economy.

Education:  For the Dumagats, there is one school on the upper Limutan River. It is the Province of Quezon and the teacher spends two days to get there from the town of General Nakar. The Dumagats attend off and on depending on the movements of the family. The Remontados generally attend if possible. Not always so! In general, tribal children are not encouraged to question, to explore ideas and seek understanding. The patterns have already been determined by ancestors and they are taught to accept these patterns. They learn by rote, observance and imitation, rather than inductive or deductive thinking.

Functional Literacy:  This programme was initiated by a Brazilian Educator, Paulo Freire (1921-1997). He had great success training community leaders and social activists. The key question: What is it that people really want to happen in their communities? How can we help them to achieve it? Two questions asked in the meeting: 1)    What issue or problem do the people feel strongly about? What fires them up? 2)    How to get large numbers involved? Leaders are not experts. All have important contributions. All are teachers; all are learners; channel strong feelings towards practical action. One can see the possibility of encouraging subversion here – action from the masses. The army under Martial Law was very suspicious and we had our moments. I became a sympathiser, possibly a collaborator of the NPA, the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party. Two tribals who had been dragooned into the army to spy on their fellow tribals warned me: never bring my jeep, cream colour, into the mountains. It identifies you. And never go alone on those long treks, up to 30 kilometres. Contact the village first and ask the pangulo or leader to pick me up with five or six men. There is safety in numbers. For two years that situation prevailed. It was quite inconvenient, but necessary.

The Land: The land is a very pervading concept for the tribals. So often I heard them say: “The Land is our Mother”, our Ina. The land provides everything, nourishment for living, a welcome for the dead. It is a part of the life of each person. Our ancestors returned to this land we stand on, we came from it, and to it we will return. The land is not only the soil; it is the plants, trees, creatures of the forest. All are part of the land, the whole world. No one owns the land. It belongs to the Makedypat. We have the use of it, not individually, but a defined area for the tribal group. I recall that two or three well-to-do lowlanders came with three armed soldiers to claim the land. They waved Torrens Title Deeds. The leader of the Remontado group asked to see the papers. Publicly, he proceeded to tear them up. I jumped up and stood beside him for support. “What’s this he shouted? A piece of paper, just a piece of paper.” (He couldn’t read it). Then he tore it up and shouted: “Who named the mountains? Our ancestors! Who named the river beside us and all the streams? Our ancestors, hundreds of years’ ago. What is the use of a piece of paper?” I then took over: “Kapitan, thanks for reminding us all. It’s time to go home.” I then spoke to the soldiers: “My friends, we cannot solve this problem here in the mountains. A judicial solution is necessary.”

Martial Law experiences: President Marcos’ Martial Law meant that the Philippine Constitution was thrown out and the two houses of Parliament closed down. His men were appointed as judges in the law courts throughout the Philippines. He ruled by daily degree, implemented by the army. Naturally, abuses were rife – people disappearing (desaparecidos); (our confrere, my personal friend, Fr Rudy Romano), extra-judicial killings in the thousands.

A traumatic experience: I had a team with me from LUSSA, the Luzon Secretariat for Social Action. They all had Diplomas in Social Science, three young women and one young man. For almost three years we prayed recollection days together, planned and worked as a team, then made our assessments. The young bloke wasn’t too consistent, but he tagged along. I encouraged facilitators to go through my experience of just living with tribals and being accepted. Being Filipinos, they thought they understood them, but no. To be accepted to some degree is a rather long and painful personal conversion experience. The team of five had to walk carrying their personal belongings. I heaved along a small battery-powered speaker with a trumpet. We criss-crossed a mountain stream up to 100 yards wide, fast flowing and knee deep. Our brave male companion lost one of his rubber thongs in the currents, and for the next two kilometres he complained bitterly, changing the other thong from one foot to the other. The village (barrio) people were 80% Remontado and we were billeted in different homes. Our male component complained all the first day and then requested to return to base but I had to accompany him. A real wimp! It was Lent and the four of us had a wonderful two weeks with the people. Each one of us got four or five homes together at a time that suited the men-folk. We had modified sessions of “Functional Literacy”, a la Paulo Freire, Scripture readings with shared experiences of the Makedypat. Some parents wanted children baptised, so there was catechetics but only along the lines of sharing experiences. That’s the only way that tribals grasp anything of God. Teenagers were taught Mass hymns in Tagalog. Come Tuesday of Holy Week, two of my companions, Susana Pataksil and Rose Apid, asked could they visit  two male Social Workers with a group of Dumagats, a half day’s walk into the mountains. I was hesitant because there was a rumour that the army had a search and destroy operation out there somewhere – a ‘red alert’ area. They persisted and they knew the way. So, off they went, promising to return on Easter Sunday. They didn’t come, as was half expected on account of distances. Next day I left with the remaining young woman. Later on that Easter weekend, I heard that two Amazons had been killed by the army. Women who had joined the NPA in the hills were called Amazon. Quickly I went to their Manila base to have my fears confirmed. I volunteered to try and find the bodies with a half dozen male companions. I knew the way. On Saturday we left quite early in the jeep, as far as possible. Walking in, we made enquiries at each group of homes. We drew blanks until we came to a barrio at the foot of a steep, rugged area. The Pangulo, or one in charge, a Dumagat, told us that on the previous Sunday, four army men threw into their pakwanan, watermelon patch, the bodies of two young women, completely naked, no IDs of any kind. We exhumed the bodies from the shallow grave. It was shattering, absolutely shattering for me – my two beautiful leaders, mutilated by bullet wounds and badly decomposed. We scraped the remains into body bags and arrived in Manila just before midnight. Sunday night, the army announced on TV that two Amazons had been killed in the mountains, one had a hand grenade in her belt and the other was carrying a M15 attach rifle. Amen! They knew that we had been in and discovered the bodies. What actually happened? Early Easter morning my two friends and their male Social Workers were descending on a narrow mountain track. Susana was about 150 metres up front. The hills resounded with the “Pak” of a rifle and Susana fell on the footpath. Rose ran up to her, the two young men jumped into the forest and saw what happened. Rose held the head of Susana on her lap and screamed at the four soldiers: a translation: “We are not Amazon. We are not bad women. Have pity on us: two soldiers sprayed her with automatic fire. We counted 48 bullet wounds, and she was two months’ pregnant. There was a huge funeral in a Quezon City church. The eulogies were passionate, full of praise for Susana and Rose, but also loud denunciations of the government and army. I didn’t attend, but sent a page in Tagalog of my three years’ companionship, our praying, planning and working together for the tribals. They were two true martyrs who gave their lives for them. In my situation, I thought it would be unwise, possibly unhealthy, to be present. I was an angry man and it seemed to increase. I had become a victim of the atrocity. It would be foolish to return to the mountains. The problem was solved by joining the Trappists on the island of Guim-aras, near Iloilo, 500 kilometres south of Manila. For over three weeks, the monks took me into their community of prayer and work, rising at 2.15am each day. The hurt was healed, but you can’t obliterate such a memory.

Another traumatic experience of Martial Law brutality: This happened in a village (barrio) on the borders of Quezon Province. It was my jumping off base to Dumagat-Remontado groupings 15 or 20 or 25 kilometres in the mountains and inside Quezon Province. During the dry season, I could take the jeep to this barrio. On the outskirts there was a simple home, quite small, with a lovely family – father, mother, two small children – working about two hectares of wet rice cultivation. They were so generous. There were always sweet rice cakes and a glass of spring water. On this occasion, when I drove in there were 50 or 60 people looking over the fence towards the house, about 150 metres in the rice paddies. A gruesome sight froze me. I then ran in and sat in the rice stubble beside my friend. She was holding on her lap the horribly mutilated body of her partner. Deep, deep sobs were coming from the depths, after an hour of uncontrollable screaming. I placed my arm tightly around her shoulders with a hug. She sat, running her fingers through the hair. It was difficult to look at the body – one eye gouged out, one ear gone, also the nose, teeth knocked out, the whole body lacerated, genitals gone. There she sat in the stubble, a Pieta. After 20 minutes, I could literally feel the tensions relax. Her head nestled on my shoulder and I gave her a buss in the forehead. I suppose it would have been 40 minutes later that my friend raised her head and whispered: “maraming salamat po” (“Many, many thanks, Father”). It was time to go. Words are useless. Just silence, the silence of the presence of Christ. A peak moment of my life on reflection, surely! NPA members passed by that house, the same as I did. That made the man of the home a suspect NPA. At least he could name names. At 5.00am, he was picked up by three soldiers and thrown back at 11.00am. I passed by at 1.00pm.

Other memorable experiences: a Holy Week with the tribals: It was way out in the mountains at the confluence of the rivers Lenatin and Limutan – a beautiful ambience of towering mountains and gushing streams. The people were 100% Dumagat-Remontado. I was the first priest to visit the barrio and this was my third visit. Tuesday and Wednesday went off quietly with me explaining what Holy Week was all about. On Maundy Thursday I decided to have a washing of the feet, going to great pains to explain again and again the significance of the ceremony. Some kind of expectancy was aroused. Four men and four women were seated on a bench in our outdoor meeting place. An old tin basin of sorts was provided and I proceeded to wash and kiss each foot. It was hilarious. When I finished, the basin was half full of very muddy water. I might have known that the only time they washed their feet was when they waded through streams – a classic example of something completely anti-cultural. Good Friday had its moments also. I had the 14 Stations of the Cross, quite large and beautifully painted in Manila. These were placed around the barrio. The Kapitan, the one in charge, had to be the Christ. Mary, Veronica and the women, and the soldiers volunteered happily; this was drama which they love. The soldiers almost viciously beat the Kapitan. It turned out that they had grudges against him and it didn’t go unnoticed by the Kapitan tied to his cross. Next morning, I gathered my Stations. Number 12 was missing. Nobody knew anything about it. Ah well, let’s be positive. It will be a source of devotion in somebody’s home. On Holy Saturday evening, I asked my congregation to light a fire in front of our meeting place. No trouble! A huge bonfire blazoned the night as we gathered around the burning dry bamboo. I explained that the fire was a symbol of the Risen Jesus in all His glory. A large crowd surrounded the blaze. Suddenly, an old woman grabbed a faggot from the fire and began to dance around the fire crying out, “Buhay Pa Si Christo!” One by one, 15 or 20 joined her, myself among them, each brandishing a faggot. All were crying out “Buhay Pa Si Christo” – “Christ is still alive.” The high mountain peaks echoed and re-echoed “Christ is still alive”. It was just awesome, coming from all these non-baptised people with little or no knowledge of our understanding of faith. An accommodated Easter Mass followed. Towards the end of the Mass, the reality struck home.  The living Christ’s death and resurrection, that had just been proclaimed, was really present. No mere remembering, but actually effectually present. That moment, that majestic moment, Christ’s humanity became one with the Father. But also our humanity, all those non-Christians and the whole of creation were one with the Father. The mountain peaks had echoed with “Christ is still alive”. It was my enrichment, thanks to the tribals, and I might add enjoyed a sound sleep on the bamboo slats. Another example of how a non-Christian who didn’t recognise Christ, became the Sacrament of the Spirit and Presence of Christ. It took place at Paymuhuan, a Dumagat-Remontado barrio in the heart of the mountains on the river Limutan, Quezon Province. On a couple of visits, a young Dumagat, about 28, begged for baptism. He didn’t know anything about the faith. On this occasion, his young partner was giving birth to their first child and there were all kinds of problems. He invited me to their lean-to. I blessed the mother and child, who was trying to see the light of day. I helped the midwife, an old lady, and the tiny infant was born, and mother survived, but in a very weak condition. My friend was overjoyed and again begged and begged for baptism. I shared with him my and his experience of the Makedypat and in my next Bible service of sharing experiences, I baptised him. The joy was unbelievable and contagious. He seized from my hand the mike of my battery-powered speaker. What followed was an outpouring of the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Fr. Aussie Brennan in the mid forties talked about baptism of desire. Here was a graphic example. Crossing mountains and tropical streams was always hazardous in the wet season. Kilometres back, 300 to 400 millimetres of rain in 48 hours on mountains denuded by the loggers. The thin topsoil washed into the upland streams which became raging torrents, sometimes up to 200 metres wide. With the currents waist and chest deep they became impassable. It would be foolhardy to take the jeep in with quite large stones rolling down in the murky waters. I just had to wait a week or so.  On a couple of instances, the army 6 x 6, ten-wheeler helped me out. My few belongings, speaker, trumpet, Mass kit, etc. were placed in the army truck. The jeep was then filled with large stones, fan belt taken off, rice sack over the engine, exhaust plugged, blocks under the springs, and a two to three metre cable fastened the jeep firmly to the back of the truck, and off we went with water almost up to my knees. The jeep was washed to an angle of 45 degrees, but we made it. This was one occasion to thank the army. On several occasions, I had to leave the jeep and walk out, tracks impossible even with my four-wheel, low ratio gear and chains.

Some other experiences – Presence at a birth: Birthing is a women’s affair, but the father of the child could be present, but they never do. In this group, an elder could be invited. I was invited, an extraordinary acceptance for a Caucasian foreigner. I observed from a discreet and curious distance. The woman was lying on a mat with something under the lower back to raise the pelvis and legs. Some seven or eight women were there with two elderly midwives. Experience was their teacher. It was a familial scene. One woman wiped her brow with a dirty piece of cloth. Another held her hand with a reassuring word. Her breasts were fondled and caressed to relax her; a hand on the tummy. As the muscles contracted and dilated she breathed rather heavily and groaned a little. All present joined her in a rhythmic breathing and groaning. All were in unison with one of them whispering encouragement. Everybody was involved before the infant was delivered. A great shout of joy welcomed baby from the warmth and security of the womb, a welcome to this hard world of ours. One midwife looked after mother, the other the child, cutting the umbilical cord with a bamboo knife and quickly cleaning nostrils and throat and wiping the whole frame with some kind of herbal mixture. The baby boy was quickly passed around to all of us. I gave a quick blessing on the forehead, then onto mother’s breasts. The support and care for mother and child was extraordinary.  And people say that they are “primitive”.

Presence at a wake – This is men’s business, prerogative, whatever! Again, I had the accepting privilege of being invited. Fifteen or twenty men were there, squatting around the body of a woman, the wife of one of the leaders. We squatted lotus style in silence. I could do that 25 years ago, but no way now with my fossilised knee joints. We sat in complete silence chewing betel nut with a mixture of lime (apog), chewing tobacco (maskara), and a special leaf (ikmo). After about 20 minutes, the leader shared his betel nut with the man on his right; he in turn to the person on his right and so around the group, including myself. No sweat those days! Again silence. Another 20 minutes and the leader approached the body and literally anointed the forehead and upper breast with the betel nut from the mouth. We all followed. I said the prayer we use with the sacramental anointing. Silence again! After about 20 minutes I whispered very respectfully: “Beautiful, very beautiful. Thank you for the invitation to be here, to be one of you.” It was extremely important not to be intrusive in any way. “I wonder why you share the betel nut, and then you anoint the body (bangkay).” No response. “It must have a beautiful meaning.” No response. “Our ancestors taught us.” Silence! Then the leader said: “You are asking questions. Why do you think we do it?” After a long pause, I said very, very quietly, softly. “Sharing the betel nut chewing (nganga) showed me that you are all still one, united, even though our dear one has gone to the Makedypat. The anointing showed me we are still somehow one with our dear one.” Silence! “My parents have returned to the Makedypat. But somehow they are still with me because the Makedypat is with me. That was the golden opportunity for sharing, for evangelisation.

Invitation to a marriage – This was another unique experience, one that showed, to some degree, my acceptance by this Remontado group of 50 homes. I joined the groom’s family and relations. When ready, the groom emerged from his home. We were all waiting for him and together we walked, without any order, to the bride’s home. Her enlarged family had assembled there. There was no sign of the young lady and there wouldn’t be for about 20 minutes. Without fanfare, she appeared on her father’s arm. There was no finery about her dress, a faded Filipino cultural dress for women which had probably been used for a couple of generations. But for her, no doubt, she was arrayed like a queen. The groom wore an old but clean Barong Tagalog. An aside:  Back in the seventeenth century, the Spanish colonisers obliged Filipino men to wear their shirts outside their pants as a sign of inferiority. With attractive materials (pinya, pineapple thread) and needlework, the shirt evolved into the national formal dress). In a few days he would be back in the Kaingin upland rice plot in his G-string. Pants are most uncomfortable in the groin area. Back to our wedding. The two parties walked without intermingling while an older woman led them with a slow waltz and a lilting song; all the words were improvised, thoughts re the joy and happiness of a new union, their future children and the contribution they would make to the life of the barrio. Arriving at the compound in the centre of the village, the entrance was blocked by the father of the bride. No entrance! Our songster chanted about the joys, happiness and help the mga apo, the grand-children, would give him. Some tubang lalake was offered. That is fermented coconut juice. No response! Then some Ginebra San Miguel, gin made by the San Miguel brewery. No response! Finally, a full glass of Lambanog, distilled coconut juice, 94% alcohol. A hand was reached out eagerly and he moved away. The couple entered side by side, but no holding of hands. For six or seven metres, sleeping mats were on the ground with the teenage girls on either side. They proceeded to a platform with three steps. Lying on the bottom step was the mother of the bride. The songster continued singing about a beautiful daughter; she will give you mga apo to love you and help you as you grow older. A glass of Tubang babae (coconut juice recently harvested and quite sweet), and she readily accepted it and moved. The couple sat on the top step, covered by an arc decorated with all kinds of flowers. There was a tremendous shout of joy. That seemed to be the moment of marriage. An elder squatted lotus fashion in front of them and gave a most comprehensive instruction on marriage, every aspect, physical, emotional, handling problems. My regret was that I didn’t have a tape recorder. One couldn’t wish for a better instruction. I solemnly blessed them and the banqueting began. And what a feast of Filipino food and delicacies!

Health – Health was an important aspect of integral evangelisation, people able to live with some kind of dignity. Many were the lives saved during my 15 years in the mountains. Night protection from the Anopheles mosquito was important. In Remontado homes it was possible to use nets, but not with Dumagats sleeping around a fire on the ground. They throw lots of a certain leaf which smokes profusely and drives mozzies away for a while. Early on I took out a small microscope with glass slides. Nobody believed that it was a parasite in the blood causing the fevers. Clean blood was a deep rich colour. Tainted blood was teeming with parasites according to the degree of infestation. They couldn’t get over it! Different types of Quinine drugs were sometimes effective, but frequently the mosquito is immune to it. I was able to get a new drug from an Italian pharmaceutical company which was effective. I forget the brand name. The big problem was to find somebody who could distribute it as directed. There were 12 victims of Hansen’s disease whom I tried to help. Three of them were covered with suppurating wounds, very high on the nose; the others had fingers, toes, nose receding or disappeared. I always spent a day or two in their homes to help take away the stigma in the village. Hansen’s disease is dangerous only through long and intimate association. One of Mother Teresa’s sisters was a German doctor who had worked for years in leprosaria in India. She recommended the drugs, one to cure the wounds (six weeks), the other to stay the progress of the disease. She also told me where to find them – The “Peter Donders Centre” run by the Redemptorists in The Hague, Holland. The tribals have a wide knowledge of herbal medicines. Outback they never see a doctor or nurse and they have no access to western medicines. I approached the College of Generic Medicines at the University of the Philippines (UP). They were most enthusiastic about meeting them in the mountains. Their number had to be restricted to four people – three male and one female. The jeep was not very big. Firstly, I had to contact a mainly Remontado barrio. They had to provide some kind of place to stay and meet with a group. The locals were really happy to have these professionals. Six weeks’ later I would come, weather permitting. From the UP to the barrio was a two-day journey with some supplies, a Coleman-Petromax kerosene lamp, a short handled shovel and mattock for emergencies. The last hour was hazardous after the heavy downpours. The Doctora was terrified. She had never been out of Manila and environs. The nights were so quiet and peaceful with only the cries of night birds breaking the almost deadly silence. The men-folk’s fear was different, but real. Would the Communist NPA kidnap them and demand a ransom? This was not uncommon. I could only reassure them that I could handle such an eventuality. The get-together aroused tremendous enthusiasm. During the five days, tribals came from all over, men and women. The doctors opined that they learnt more than they were able to give. They did identify more herbs, show them how to preserve them and how to concoct these remedies. A local young woman who had studied for  two years in an Agricultural High School was put in charge and I, in due time, provided the large open-mouthed bottles with screw and clamp tops. We had a Botica sa Barrio, a pharmacy in the mountains. Another enterprise was to take out a professional dietician. She had no qualms about isolation, etc. For nine days she lived with the women-folk. From the foodstuffs available she produced two nutritious meals per day. Everybody tried to help in any possible way. It was a great success! But, a couple of weeks later they reverted to their former ways. One cannot change generations of procedures in nine days. I could just hope and pray something brushed off.


A final thought, thanks to my beloved tribals. How to face life, poverty, oppression without bitterness, but with hope? There’s no quenching of the flickering light in their lives. They celebrate their God, Makedypat, in their life experience, His experience of His Presence in themselves, their family gatherings, in the whole of life. Thanks to my superiors for the opportunity and privilege to live with them.