She had been lying down on a mat in the corner of the one-room hut that could be reached only after a precarious uphill motorcycle ride on rocky terrain and a twenty-minute trek on foot, somewhere near the headwaters of the Davao River. As we were introducing ourselves, the lady known as Bai Bibiaon begins looking through a small, battered handbag. She brings out a fistful of tikos, the woven leglets many lumad wear below the knee joint, and slowly begins unravelling them. It crosses my mind if it was possible that Bibiaon couldn’t be anymore affected by our presence, and preferred to busy herself with something else. But her fingers extricate one tikos among the many she had, which she holds out to me. “Testing daw,” our guide, JP, says. “Oh, on me?” I ask. Bibiaon nods; she is giving me a tikos to try out for myself. I take it from her and pull my leggings up past the knee. I gingerly pass my foot through the tikos, slowly bringing it up my leg where it stops at mid-calf, too tight a fit to continue. “Ay, dakul gyud diay,” (“Oh, your leg is too big!”) JP exclaims, laughing, and even Bibiaon smiles.
I take off the tikos, mildly embarrassed. Ever the practical woman, Bibiaon takes the tikos from me, places it back in her bag, and then peers back at us. She has moved on, and is patiently waiting to hear why we had come. I didn’t even have time to realize that I still should have asked her if I could have the tikos, even if it didn’t fit my big leg.
And this is how I met the greatest (and perhaps only) woman leader of the Pantaron Manobos in recent times. Bai Bibiaon, a Matigsalug, could be anywhere between sixty to seventy years old, but there is not a single white or graying strand of hair on her head. She had the grave dignity of someone who had never allowed herself to feel low or insecure. At first it was intimidating until you understand that this is a person who knows how to be compassionate, as well as fierce, and was unafraid to toggle from one to the other as she sees fit. The banig, or mat, she sat on is well-worn and her quarters small, but she filled it with a serene and serious countenance as a benevolent ruler in her throne room, or a holy man in a temple. Sitting on that floor she appeared to be taller than anyone else in the room.
We explained that we were there for both academic and political reasons (in this line of work, the political and the intellectual cannot be extricated from each other, and we believe that neither should they be), and we wanted to talk to her and ask if she would be willing to come with us back to Davao City. As an elder, she is a trove of insights and information about her people, their lifeways, and their struggles. As a leader, her presence was needed at that time in Davao City because of the second wave of bakwit of Manobos after the relentless militarization of their communities since late last year. Her real name is Abiok Bigkay, but she is better known by the honorific Bai Bibiaon, bestowed upon her by her people as a sign of the highest respect and recognition of her sense of justice and fearlessness.
When she finally arrived here in Davao City, her presence ignited the weary evacuees camped at the UCCP compound. It was so palpable among the often-solemn Manobos that it took even me by surprise. The second they saw her, their faces instantly lit up with wide grins, their arms spread open, welcoming her all at the same time – they were immediately inspired, galvanized, their resolve made whole again.
While she was here in Davao we let her narrate the story of her life, a technique that anthropologists call collecting a life history. Anthropologists do this in order to know more about the perceptions and motivations of individuals within the wider sphere of their community, and how they make sense of and contribute to the historical developments their people have undergone. It is important that life histories be in their own words, so that when they are published it really is the voice of the person that is heard. Needless to say, it is quite a process, and more so since Bai Bibiaon spoke only Manobo. But nevertheless, it is apparent, even with just merely the outline of her life, what an extraordinary woman she is.
We pinpointed her year of birth to somewhere in the vicinity of 1942, for she says that her family had moved to the interior of the Pantaron mountain range because of the arrival of the Japanese. With her mother as a role model, Bibiaon from an early age did not feel boxed in by her gender, though leaders among the Manobo are more frequently male. Her father was what she called a “taladagon nu utow”, roughly equivalent to “recluse” but without the negative undertones: he was a man who simply preferred the company of the mountains than other people. It was her mother who took charge of the public sphere. She was already known as a Bibiaon (in Bisaya, a tagahusay), a fair arbitrator who settled conflicts and dispensed advice. In addition to that, she was also a potter and a tattoo artist of the traditional Manobo tattoo called pangotoeb. Anthropological studies will tell you that such specialized roles were certainly related to gender and social relations. Ethnoarchaeologists (such as Bill Longacre who worked in the province of Kalinga) have shown that before pottery began to be mass produced for the market, it was a female expertise that could earn them their community’s high regard. Our own research has shown that tattooing for the Manobo is the domain of women, with more women tattoo artists and tattoo recipients. These are realms where women could assert control over material and cultural production.
Moreover, for a people who only needed a minimal suite of skills to live (like planting and gathering and hunting), and where practically everybody had those skills, tattooing and potting were exceptional bodies of knowledge to have and to practice. And in egalitarian societies where leadership wasn’t determined by wealth or pedigree, such skills could earn the respect and recognition of a wide network of people, even beyond one’s home village.
Bai Bibiaon grew up with a strong woman-leader for a mother and a father who kept her in touch with her Pantaron roots. For her and her brothers, the forest was a playground. They built small huts, sardine tins substituted for dolls. They caught eels and crabs in the rivers, they practiced hunting and setting traps (she recalled getting in trouble after one of their traps caught a neighbor’s chicken). At home her mother taught her how to tattoo and to make pots out of clay, how to weave mats and clothing out of plant materials, as well as the binokol bracelet made out of the plant sat, a medicinal species that grew only in the interior Pantaron, and that we haven’t been able to scientifically identify.
More importantly, she would accompany her mother when her wisdom as tagahusay was needed by a neighboring family or village. When she became a young woman, her mother gradually gave her more tagahusay responsibilities, setting the scene for her daughter to be a Bibiaon in her own right.
(To be continued – This piece is written on the occasion of the Dumalongdong Datu-Bai Conference, to be held in Davao City this week)