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BOOK REVIEW. A story we need to share: Si Menda ug ang Bagani’ng Gitahapan nga mao si Mangulayon

 TITLE: Si Menda u gang Baganin’ng gitahspan nga mao si Mangulayon
AUTHOR: Melchor M Morante (aka Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR)
Cover design by Kenneth Gallamaso, CSsR
Published and printed by Aletheia Printing and Publishing House, Davao City

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/30 December) — Growing up in Lupon, Davao Oriental I remember asking as a child what the name of our town meant and from where it came. The most coherent answer was that it likely came from the word “lunop” which meant flood and was in reference to a great flood caused by the Sumlog River.

As the river Sumlog had by this time been reduced to a wide strip of water in the middle of a many times more wide riverbed, I wasn’t very impressed. How could that river be remarkable enough to have inspired our town’s name? Sure it was still deep and one could imagine that in the past it must have had considerable power by the way it surged. But enough to continue to define the present? I wasn’t so sure.

Later on I learned that our town’s name came from the Kalagan word ‘naluponan‘, which referred to land that had accumulated at the mouth of a river over a period of time, and that it had been abbreviated by migrant settlers to Lupon.

I thought about the Sumlog River again because I wondered if it was the same river mentioned in the new novel Si Menda ug ang Bagani’ng Gitahapan nga mao si Mangulayon which indicated a river named Sumug. Sumlog had previously been cited as Summug in the book Reconstructing Davao from Text and Memory of Mindanao historian Dr. Macario Tiu.

In the recently launched novel by Melchor M. Morante, Datu Mangulayon, a leader of the Manobo tribe, was rumored to have escaped to Sumug after he killed Lt. Francis Bolton, the first District Governor of Davao, and another American named Benjamin Christian in 1906.

Mangulayon and other datu and bagani (warrior) from the Manobo and Tagakaolo orchestrated the killing on June 6, 1906 after Bolton and Christian attacked Datu Sulutan and killed his son, and also to register their opposition to the increasing violent practice of the Americans to encroach on lands of the indigenous peoples of the area and conscript them as slaves in abaca plantations.

A historical novel in Cebuano, Morante’s book Si Menda ug ang Bagani’ng Gitahapan nga mao si Mangulayon, is the first of the Inahan sa Kaliwatan trilogy that explores the stories of those who used to people the Davao Gulf, formerly called Taglooc: the Tagakaolo, the Sarangani Manobo, and the Mandaya.

Unlike other historical novels that focus on documented figures, usually male heroes celebrated as having accomplished great exploits, the novel re-narrates the killing of Bolton in Malalag from the perspective of Menda, a Tagakaolo woman, and her family who live in Malita. The town of Malita was once part of modern-day Davao del Sur and will become the capital of the new province of Davao Occidental starting 2016.

Menda along with her husband Lakinan, who is from the Kulaman Manobo tribe, their three children, and Menda’s mother Lingay, live through the events in Taglooc surrounding the death of Bolton. From the rapid expansion of the American farms, the increasing numbers of migrants whom the indigenous peoples called Bisaya, the creation of political structures like the tribal wards that would facilitate control of the different tribes, to the death of Bolton and Christian, and the huwes de kutsilyo, the brutal attacks against communities, that followed after.

In all these, Menda, her family, and the different tribes, as well as the datu and bagani are not clueless victims but are people who are trying their utmost to understand the situations unfolding around them and within their groups, and to respond in different ways, including spontaneously performing the ‘dance of Lavi,’ viewed as subversive by the Americans.

In the process and through the use of Tagakaolo words and phrases, the story provides a textured description of Tagakaolo daily life, not only activities–from family and household activities to agricultural processes to rituals–but also the interactions of wife and husband, parents and children, among siblings, among young women and men, and among leaders, elders and community members.

Writing creatively about and around a historical event, the writer Morante succeeds in providing a coherent narrative about what happened, how and why more than a century ago. But he does so without privileging the usual suspects. Sure the hero Mangulayon is there, but he does not have a monopoly of brave deeds. In a story set against the early years of the American colonial period, it is inevitable that there would be Caucasian characters, but here Bolton is not the white man who does good on his burden of civilizing the wild population. Instead he is the military administrator who schemes with others to dispossess communities of their land and to quell any resistance. He arrogantly thinks that the Americans have subjugated the population enough that colonizers could walk among armed tribes unarmed and unescorted, and that the residents are so simple that they would not resort to subterfuge.

In the story Menda has to endure the uncertainties that comes with being the kaubayan of a bagani, but she is no stereotyped subordinate and helpless female. She and her aging inaq manage the farm in the absence of Lakinan and look after their family’s wellbeing when they have to flee to and live in the forest. She is empowered enough to air her doubts and argue with Lakinan about a bagani’s accountabilities to his family and tribe–the age-old seemingly irreconcilable difference between individualist and collectivist views of the world. With the support of other woman, her inaq and her daughter, she is not overcome by grief and in the end she encourages her son Utad to earnestly continue his training as a bagani.

Although she and many other women in Mindanao share the same experiences of being wife and mother in colonized and conflict-affected communities, her Tagakaolo roots help Menda overcome the desolation of losing her life partner. She is reminded that a bagani is responsible not only to his family and immediate community but to the entire tribe. In Lakinan’s sacrifice for the tribe and in Menda’s resolve to carry on for herself, her family and the tribe are manifested the everyday heroism of peoples that do not get celebrated by history books.

We will never know what happens to Menda afterwards. But we root for her, and her family and community trusting that they will flourish amid adversity, and that they and others, looking back, will honor her as one of their inahan sa kaliwatan–a mother not just of her tribe, but of our race.

The novel is an interesting must-read for those who want to know and understand in story form what happened to the people who lived around the Taglooc at the turn of the 20th century before the Gulf became dominated by migrants from the Visayas and Luzon because of colonial policies that were later continued and even intensified by the State of the Philippine Republic.

It is a welcome addition to a body of literature that is unfortunately not fast growing, and double unfortunately not regularly accessed by mainstream culture-bearing institutions like schools, mass media and religious institutions.

Despite the challenges of reading Cebuano text–not easy for those like me who have been trained by the country’s educational system to mainly peruse English–and encountering typo errors that must have come from encoding non-English texts in a word processor set for English, I could not put down the copy of the novel until I finished. The novel also got me interested to read up on how social scientists like Dr. Tiu view the story of Mangulayon, and to ask why Matet Gonzalo, whom Morante cites as his teacher in Tagakaolo culture, refers to herself and her tribe as “Tagakolu” as a matter of assertion.

But I think Morante’s real contribution through this novel is that it encourages readers to go beyond asking “what happened, how and why, to whom” and instead to think about “why does it matter.”. For indeed, why does it matter that we who in the 21st century now call the places around the Davao Gulf home, know and understand what the Taglooc of the early 20th century was like?

Because our appreciation of the diversity of Davao City, del Norte, Oriental, del Sur, Occidental, Compostela and Sarangani must spring not only from the knowledge that there are many indigenous peoples in these areas but also from the acknowledgement that these places were once traditionally theirs but they have been systematically dispossessed, and that this displacement constitutes a historical injustice.

Because while places like the Davao region and Sarangani wish to disassociate themselves from strife-torn areas now called the Bangsamoro, there was a time Davao, Zamboanga, Cotabato, Lanao and Sulu were part of the Moro Province. Because while the divides and conflicts between and among Islamized and non-Islamized indigenous peoples and migrants are real, there have been many points in time when we worked together to confront common enemies and problems.

According to historical accounts like Dr. Macario Tiu’s 1890-1910: Conquest and Resistance in the Garden of the Gods, which was one of the references cited by Morante, Mangulayon was a Manobo who became a ward leader for the Tagakaolo and he seemed to have been well respected. The ‘dance of Lavi’, which has a strong slant against abuses committed by Americans, was popularized by two Moro datu from Sumlug and was said to have caught on with other natives in the other side of Taglooc as far as Samal, Tagum and Padada.

The conflicts we experience and our struggles may have more similarities and shared roots than we have been led to think. Because ours is a society that has come to glorify foreign conquerors in the educational system and in public places, and instead has made invisible those who resisted against them. So in Davao City, Bolton is memorialized and is top of mind as the location of a private university and one of the first big department stores and also the name of a bridge.

Other places in Davao named after or associated with colonizers included Oyanguren and Claveria. As far as I know, there is no place named after Mangulayon. While Davao City has begun to correct this by renaming streets to Filipino heroes like Ramon Magsaysay and CM Recto, it has not gone far enough. To this day the only street in downtown Davao City named after an indigenous person is Datu Bago, a small side street in Bangkerohan terminating near the Davao River.

Why does it matter that we peer back in time through stories? Because like the name of the hometown of my childhood, the present can be understood better when one appreciates the past, particularly the state of the environment at that time, and the interplay of actions and meanings of those who were originally from the place, and those who later came and stayed.

Si Menda ug ang Bagani’ng Gitahapan nga mao si Mangulayon. Get a copy, read it to your children, talk about with your friends, incorporate it in your lesson plan, broadcast, sermon or talk, post about it in your social network page, produce a telenovela inspired by it. Make Menda, Lakinan and Mangulayon part of the social memory of those who live around Taglooc. (Mags Z. Maglana was born in Luzon of parents who originated from the Visayas and migrated to Mindanao. She grew up as Mindanawon and continues to journey, learn, and serve as one. You may e-mail feedback to magszmaglana@gmail.com)

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