2015 PAMATI – Reflections

Pamati: Listen to the Water and Songs of Ancestors

An Encounter with the Elders

Balay Agusan, July 1-12, 2015

By S. Lily Mendoza

It was a historic encounter. Twenty-five babaylan/indigenous elders from different parts of the Philippines and an equal number of babaylan-inspired Filipino and Filipino decolonization activists, scholars, artists, and religious/health/environmental/cultural workers from both the homeland and the diaspora gathered together in the summer of 2015 at the Balay Agusan in Northeastern Mindanao.

Dubbed Pamati (deep listening), the event, co-sponsored by the Tao Foundation, the Center for Babaylan Studies (CfBS), Ginhawa, Inc., and the Institute of Spirituality in Asia was held for the express purpose of giving urbanized Filipinos the opportunity to meet living babaylan elders, sit at their feet, and learn from their embodied wisdom and teachings, and for the elders, in turn, to benefit from the gift of being able to share their knowledge and traditions with a receptive audience, the likes of which have become scarce among tribal youth who no longer take interest in what the elders have to teach once seduced by the very different culture of modern schooling. For many of the elders, it was also their first time to leave their respective locales and meet their counterpart healers from other regions—an occasion that allowed for a rich sharing of stories and experiences of struggle and survivance, as well as a fascinating witnessing of each other’s differing rituals, knowledges, and traditions.

Four members of the CfBS Core attended the encounter, namely, Grace Villarin Dueñas, Lizae Cervantes Reyes, Mila Anguluan-Coger, and S. Lily Mendoza. Grace Nono, who serves simultaneously as CfBS elder/adviser and head of Tao Foundation, served as the on-site event planner and overall coordinator. CfBS resident mumbaki/elder/adviser Mamerto Tindongan shared from his unique location as a diasporic indigenous healer that also benefitted from other native healing traditions on Turtle Island. Other attendees from the U.S.  and Canada were Rebecca Anne Saxton, Lukayo Faye Estrella, Lilac Caña, and Nenita Domingo.  One of the many highlights of the event was an overnight visit to the floating village of Agusan Marsh where the resident babaylan, elder Boyet Reyes, has successfully led a struggle to keep out illegal industrial fishing in their community. As he shared his  personal story of how he was called to serve as a healer/babaylan in the part of the marsh called Sitio Panlabuhan—his storytelling punctuated by much laughter amidst the gentle  undulation of the marsh waters in the moonlit night—another elder, speaking in his native tongue, was moved to offer a spontaneous response in chanted verse, which, when ranslated, praised (not without undisguised envy) the rare gift of life and freedom that the loving care of the mother waters and her beings afforded Boyet’s community. (Just the year before, a group of us had visited the same community and found the people beleaguered by the destructive operations of illegal fishing and a nearby mining industry that was causing siltation and a shallowing of the waters.) As it turned out, Boyet’s community was the lucky one, as the rest of elders shared one wrenching story after another of their communities having had to virtually fight for their lives as corporate development increasingly threatened their very survival. Yet, the miracle for us—those who no longer live on the land and who have come to sit at the elders’ feet to learn—is the courage and undaunted persistence to keep alive the ancient ways that we witnessed in these faithful culture bearers.

Often harrassed by forces beyond their control—on the one hand, military and paramilitary operatives working hand-in-glove with corporate developers, and on the other, the insurgent New People’s Army—they find a way to continue living indigenously anyway, nurturing the land with their beautiful rituals, dances, and ceremonies even in the face so much loss, suffering, and grief.

It is the hope of the organizers to make Pamati a continuing event—one that empowers and inspires. Through the communalization of courage, beauty, and indigenous grace in the face of struggle and suffering we hope to deepen the giving of mutual help and encouragement.