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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I am One of the Mountain People (Macario D. Tiu)

I did not want to go to Santa Barbara, but Ita Magdum forced me to go there. He wanted me to have a Christian education. He told me that he was not going to let me remain idle in the mountains, and consequently become as stupid as ignorant as the rest of his people. He said that I could learn many things from the Christian and in that way I could help improve the lot of the whole tribe.

I was then seven summers old and I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Although he made the prospect of going there very tempting, I refuse to go. Not even the trace of the three-storey school building, of running houses and plenty of food and toys convinced me that I should leave my home and my friends for Santa Barbara. And so Ita had to beat me to make me go with him to the Christian town.

We traveled for five days before we reached our destination. The trip was hazardous and formidable. W crossed the river, Subangdaku, which was infested with deadly crocodiles, on a raft. We struggled in the deep
marches and inched our way through thick forest.

It was nightfall when we reached the town. Ita immediately left me to the care of the elderly woman called Nana Loling. She was a kind woman. She assured me that everything would be alright. But I was not comforted. That night, a nagging desire to escape a run home kept me awake. But how? In the still of the night, dogs were howling intermittently. A bad Omen? Then I feared I might get lost on the way or a sawa might be waiting for me.

In school, I was the laughing stock, because I was not of their kind. How they laughed when I told them I came from the Green Area, that part of land where no Christian had ever gone. For that, I was always in trouble. And I was always brought to the principal’s office for disciplinary action. Why did you pull Elinita’s hair, he would ask. Or why did you box Berto’s ears? And I would answer, because Elinita kicked me and Berto called me “pig” and “monkey”. But I was whipped anyway, no matter what reason I gave. That was the only way to tame me, I heard them say.

Ita visited me once every two months. Every time he would visit me, I’d plead with him to bring me home. But he would refuse. It was not yet time for me to go home, he would say.

I was terribly homesick. How I wish I could be at Ina’s side. I’d plead with him to be with my own people; to sit by the bonfire and listen to the weird stories of the long past – of how the early Balangays at the seacoast of Caraga were attacked by fierce Allah worshippers and how gallantly our early forebears fought, but were forced to move out to the mountains. I loved to hear the vaunting of the hunters on how they got the fangs of the wild boars and crocodile teeth that decorated their necks. I wanted to be like them.

The three-storey building in Santa Barbara was indeed tall, but the trees in Kapalong were much taller. These was nothing glamorous with those running houses either. They only frightened me as they whizzed by carrying logs on their backs and screaming infernally at people to keep out of the road. Food was plenty so were the fruits. But money was needed before we could get them. At Kapatagan, I could get all the fruits I wanted for free.

Six years I suffered. Then Ita brought me home for a visit as a gift for my graduation. How happy I was to home again! I was so happy I didn’t mind the hardships of the trek, I even about the sawa. But my Ita, really I feared nothing. He was the master of the jungle. He had said once that he owned the vast tract of land from Caraga to Santa Barbara, but that some parts of it were stolen by the outsiders.

I expected some Jubilation upon my return. But our place was bleak. Later I learned that my own people now considered me as Christian, therefore an infidel. Indeed, what was there to be happy about the return of an infidel? I found them to be indifferent to me, even hostile. Ita told me not to mind them. They didn’t understand what was his design for me, he said, and the whole tribe.

Bal-og, my younger brother, thought me as a hero. He said he envied me. He confessed that dislike the tattoos he had. How he cursed the man who pierced his earlobes. It was in one of these talks with Bal-og that I realized how different I was from them, from my own people. I had no tattoos. I had no holes in my earlobes. Yet I knew deep inside me I was one of them. There was a deep pain of being unwanted. The agony I felt. Constantly I cried: “I am of the mountains. I am one of the mountain people.” And yet somehow I was not.

It would still be some four r five years before Bal-og was allowed to go to Santa Barbara. Therefore he had a great thirst to know more of the other Christian town. I told him many stories about it: my studies, the three-storey school building, the running houses and the Christians.

“What does Christian mean?” he asked me once.

I didn’t know too, to be honest. But I told him about the big house with steeples and a belfry. It was owned by the tall white man who always wore a white dress. I described it to him: there were big anitos inside it. Beautiful anitos. Their hands were outstretched as if ready to embrace. I told him that these anitos were quite different from ours. Our anitos grasped their knees and their eyes were abnormally large and protruding.

“How else do we differ from them?” he became more curious.

“Well, for one thing,” I told him, “the Christian do not worship big trees or flying wild geese like we do. In fact they cut big trees and shot wild geese.”

He muttered a curse upon hearing this. “Then, they would also cut the Magu?” he asked in disbelief. How na├»ve my brother is, I thought and I laughed. The Magu was the biggest tree in the forest. It was said to be abode of the anitos. We gave offerings to the Magu during the full moon to appease the anitos.

I learned while in Santa Barbara, however that there was only one God. Our teacher, Mrs. Martinez, taught us that this God was to be loved by all, not feared. The mountan people feared the Magu, therefore the Magu must be a fake God. So I told Bal-og that “Magu” was just another big tree, and when the and when finally the place would be accessible to the Christians, they would cut it. Bal-og ran away from horror when I said that.

I did not know what prodded me to go to the Magu one day and make a dirty mark, a big cross, on its gnarled bark. Perhaps I just wanted to test the veracity of Mrs. Martinez teachings. When the elders heard about it, they immediately went to the Magu to offer sacrifices. I could have been the one sacrificed; but then I was the son of Datu Magdum. So they burned instead five chickens, a pig, wild fruits and sack of rice. They danced hysterically around the Magu. The priest, after the sacrificed offerings shook his head, and said that surely the anitos would punish me. I wouldn’t see another tomorrow he said, for the would get me in my sleep.

I was afraid of what the priest said. Meanwhile, Ita just kept silent. He didn’t comfort me nor scold me. And that night, I prayed myself to sleep. I prayed hard to the Blessed Virgin as I never prayed before. I also asked forgiveness from the Magu, promising not to do a thing like that again. And I survived to see another tomorrow.

The elders then thought that maybe the anitos were pleased with the offerings did not have to punish me. They again went to the Magu and offered sacrifices. They scrapped off the mark I made.

When the furor over the incident died down, I started going openly to the bonfire said sat with the younger group and listened to the tales of the old men and warriors. The stories usually centered on the exploits of our ancestors and the glory of our tribe before the Allah-worshippers came. How the elders cursed these infidels! Never, never befriend an infidel of this kind for the Magu wouldn’t like it.

I didn’t believe them ofcourse. In Santa Barbara, my only friend was Abdul. My classmates were afraid to chide and make fun of him because he had warned them that his grandfather was a baraungan and owned a tame bee colony that could kill a man at his command. Abdul never went inside the big house. He said that the pandita told him it was the house of the devil. See those idols there? He asked. People who worshipped in that house would be punished by Allah, he said.

I felt awkward, whenever I was with my old friends whom I befriended again seeing how different I was from them. I just loved their tattoos. I had none. And my earlobes were desperately unattractive. However, I let myself forget to brush my teeth and I started chewing betel nut. I let my fingernails grow, I dirtied my body with charcoal dust. And I enjoyed everything of it. I loved that kind of life.

Ita, however, didn’t like what I was doing. He had tried hard to spare me the tribal customs how of tattooing and boring the earlobes so I could be presentable to the people of Santa Barbara. Now I must not destroy his hopes for me. He warned. But everyday, I was drawn closer and closer to the ways of my people. Finally, forgetting Ita warnings I let Apo Ugpo carve a tattoo on my chest. When Ita discovered this, he whipped me! You disobeyed me! His whole body shook with anger as he hit my back with a lash.

I told him I wanted his kind of life and I pleaded him to let me stay forever, but it made him angrier. He told me I was his only hope, his people’s hope. That I must learn from the Christians and discover their source of power, for they were continually advancing toward the Green Area, stealing large tracts of our land. He said that I should learn from them so that our tribe would know how to deal with them when, as Allah worshippers did the Christians would drive us out from our homes. Learn from them, and stay in Santa Barbara to speak for us. Try to love the place, he said, I told him I tried but that I failed for I still hated Santa Barbara. Try again, and he left me.

The next morning, Ita sent me back with Isog as my guide. He was as old as I was. He was being trained as a warrior. On a way, he showed me a village burned by the Christians at the edge of the Green Area. It was my uncle’s village. He said the Christians killed many of my uncle’s people, and now all the tribes were arming themselves except ours. Your father, Datu Magdum, wants us to change according to Christian ways, he said, spitting at the word Christian. We are a great tribe, he added, I say we fight them when they touch us, like our forefathers did when Allah worshippers came. And he looked at me with angry eyes.

I languished in Santa for another year. What was there to learn? High school education was worthless. It hadn’t done anything good for me nor my classmate. On the contrary, Berto became a habitual drunkard and was expelled from school. Elenita became pregnant and was driven away by her own parents.

As days rolled by, my desire to go home became more intense. It was getting unbearable. Too, it had been seven years already that I had stayed in Santa Barbara, but I was considered an outsider, an outcast. That was more unbearable. And at night I always pray to the Blessed Virgin to make my classmates love me. Then maybe I could like Santa Barbara and stay there, forever like what Ita wanted. But my prayers were not heard. Everything was wasted. Not even kneeling for hours and kissing each bead of the rosary over and over again did much good. The Virgin seemed to have forgotten me.

The last time Ita visited me, I was surprised to see how he changed. He looked very old. He told me to be patient and to be stronger in my determination. With him was Isog who took me aside when Ita was talking with Nana Loling. There was another massacre in Kapatagan, he said. Many are discontented with your father. He talks of you learning the Christian magic. They don’t have magic, they have guns. That’s their source of power, he said. His eyes burned with hate, I knew he was mocking me.

I thought of nothing else for days but Isog’s angry words. My people! My people! They were being slaughtered like pigs while I did nothing but try to learn something I didn’t want to learn. And I was ashamed of myself.

So I decided to go home, I pierce my earlobes with a needle and forced sharpened matchsticks into the holes t enlarge them. It hurt, but, I cried silently. Now, I was one of them, and Ita wouldn’t be able to do anything anymore but accept me.

I didn’t let Nana Loling know of my plan because she would object to it. She would do everything to keep me, even call the police. She knew also that it was it was impossible for me to reach our place. Only Ita Magdum and a selected few knew the way. But I slipped out of the house one night a week ago, anyway. It was the full moon and I ran and ran away from Santa Barbara.

When daylight came, I knew that I was lost. Yet I walked on and on. Maybe far ahead was Subangdaku, I amused myself. It was my only hope.

I didn’t want to go Santa Barbara but Ita Magdum forced me to go there.

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