ON THE night of May 1st, the Matigtalomo Manobos (Ata-Manobo) were gathered inside the UCCP (United Church of Christ in the Philippines) for the solidarity rite and thanksgiving, for they will go back home to Talaingod the next day. In the large crowd of bobbing heads and moving bodies, I spotted Datu Tungig Mansumuy-at, a leader of the Salugpungan.
He was seated on a plastic chair while trying out a guitar. He was easy to spot with the strange white patch of hair at the back of his head, just above his neck. He was surrounded by a small crowd, so I situated myself in the hut that served as headquarters for the support group.
A while later, I came up to him after spotting hi alone. He said he was looking for his son. I could see his mind was on his son, so I walked back to my spot. Around an hour later, the event started. He was called to give a speech, which he delivered passionately.
“Peoples living in hardship should unite. We should consider the lives of everyone and not just ours. If we don’t unite, we will not rise and prosper,” Datu Mansumuy-at in the vernacular with quiet conviction.
Immediately after his speech, the Datu, wearing a colorful jacket over a blue shirt, walked with his son Sarlan towards me. He reached out his hand to shake mine, and in the firm grip his rough hand held mine in, I realize now that it held a meaning. It was a handshake of gratitude.
How it inspires me, to be thanked only because I had written his thoughts in my notebook. How it inspires me, realizing that he has faith in me. That in the three hours we had interacted, he has given me his trust. He has given me his thoughts, trusting that I will give him voice.
Then I looked at Sarlan, just reaching past my knees, whose lips were pulled down to a frown. When I reached out my hand to his, Datu raised his son's hand to meet mine. Sarlan looked sullen. I crouched down and talked to him, repeating his name, and holding his side, with my right hand at the small of his spine, tapping my fingers lightly.
Clad in the red knee-long shirt he wore the night before, it covered his parts in the absence of underwear. Sarlan looked up at me with his chin glued to his chest. His eyes were round like his father's. He had red, protruding spots on his forehead. His hair was matted and I could tell he hadn't been bathed in a while.
Datu crooned to his son, telling him, "Dakkok pheylow, dakkok kahadlok (Don't be scared).” I asked Datu if I can carry his son. He gestured that it's fine. I put my hand beneath Sarlan's armpits and raised him to my chest. He was very light. I carried him in an upright position for a while, before sitting down with him on my lap. Sarlan never reacted in any way until he wiggled his legs slightly, signaling that he wanted to go down. I brought him down in front of his father, who, like me, was crouched down on the ground as well, with our weight supported by our hind legs. I was still holding Sarlan when, in his quiet voice, Datu told me that Sarlan had not been bathed for there was no water. I was quiet. Then he said, "Kung matarong na ang dalan, adto ka sa amo (When the roads are fixed, come to our place).
I went back to my seat and hid my face. A few renegade tears had escaped my eyes. I returned to sit beside Datu and asked if I could take a picture of him. I had to turn away again. He noticed and smiled. What that smile meant is still a matter of speculation for me today. Then I photographed him under the dim light with his son. I also asked Iggie, an intern from Davao Today, to take a photo of us together.
I wanted to give them a token of remembrance. I found group and prom photos. Most were too phony and staged, so I looked some more. I found my ID picture taken four years ago. Although I look different now, my features are still recognizable. I took out my journal and quickly wrote Sarlan a short letter, but stopped for all my pens had dried out, so I borrowed one from the girl behind me. I then carefully ripped out the sheet of paper and enclosed in its folds my photo. I gave it to Datu Tungig, asking him to give it to Sarlan when he is older. He nodded, no questions asked. I put my hand on his shoulder and he inclined his head towards me, so that he could hear what I was saying because the speakers were right behind us. I told him also in the vernacular, “I hope that all your dreams will come true, and that your son will grow up fighting for justice, just as what you are doing now. I hope that I will get to see you successful, and I hope that we will meet again.”
To which he replied, "Magkita ta samtang buhi pa (We will meet again so long as we are alive).”
I seldom pray, Datu, but for you I will. Andrea Isabelle F. Mejos
Andrea is a mass communication student of Ateneo de Davao University.