Trekking Mountains to Create a Book

On 21 April 2014, I was part of a group that trekked the mountains of Malungon, Sarangani Province in search of material for a children’s book. The group, which was composed of three staff from Save the Children and myself, was led by five Blaan women of the Lamlifew Tribal Women’s Association, a SEC-registered community-initiated group based in Datal Tampal, Malungon.

Our goal was to document smakul, the Blaan’s indigenous ritual of processing a certain species of palm tree to produce food in times of famine, and create a reading material about it for their children.

The Blaan is an ethnic group of the Bilic language family that inhabits areas in southern Mindanao, mostly in the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani, and Davao Occidental. Lamlifew in Datal Tampal, Malungon is one of the Blaan communities that actively promotes and preserves their traditional culture.



The Trek

We started our journey before mid-morning at the Lamlifew School of Living Traditions, the jump-off point. I brought with me a notebook for my notes, a camera, my medicines, and a litre of water (which was not enough). My baggage was nothing compared to the ones carried by the Blaan women elders – a kettle, a large cooking pot, a quarter-sack of rice, fish inside a Styrofoam box, a traditional basket, and bolos, among many others.

It was a three-hour walk to our destination, which was a spot in one of the mountains in the area where the needed species of palm tree could be found. I enjoyed the first hour since there were farms, the river, and the sparse houses to marvel at. Soon, the scenery just became a series of mountainsides or a thick forest. So, to break the boredom, two elders chanted a song that I recorded but did not understand.




We reached our destination around noon. The men were already there since early morning to prepare for the ritual. The only male elder in the group chewed his betel nut and chanted to commence the ritual. Four men then chopped down the palm tree, slit a rectangular opening in its trunk, and pounded its pulp with a handmade wooden mortar. Meanwhile, the male elder created a sifting apparatus out of sticks and a certain tree’s bark. The pulp would be sifted to separate the gluey transparent sap, which would be cooked like sago.

After a series of pounding and sifting, however, we did not yield enough of the needed sap. The ritual, therefore, failed. While we were cooking our lunch, they theorised the reasons of failure – one said that she heard the omen bird at one point of the trek; there should be no woman involved in the ritual; it was not a famine season so the spirits did not approve of it; and there were outsiders.

So, after devouring our lunch, we headed back to the village proper for another three-hour walk.




A Book about Smakul

This journey was part of our process of finding materials for a book for Blaan children. Our first attempt was to adapt their traditional stories but this posed challenges, including the inappropriateness of the length and language of the stories and the presentation of violence. Selecting, restating, and removing some parts did not sit well with the Blaan as they saw these as a form of disrespect of their literature and culture.

After a series of brainstorming sessions with the Blaan book development group, we decided to feature a cultural practice. Their first suggestion was the smakul because children and many adults in the village did not know the ritual. The last time smakul had been performed by the village was during the drought season in the mid-1990s.




Our vision was to have spreads showing the different stages of the smakul. Two characters, a boy and a girl, would silently follow the whole process. One or two lines would accompany most of the spreads. We would also include plants and animals that could be found in the community in the illustrations. Adults reading the story could use this to interact with the children. The time frame would be from sunrise to sunset to provide a subtle way of teaching the passing of time.

Because only the few elders in the community knew the exact process, we set a simulation of smakul to document it.

Really, the idea for the book was promising until after we had simulated the ritual.




Shelving the Idea

We had to shelve the idea of featuring smakul. That was the consensus of both sides. For Save the Children, they did not think that smakul was particularly engaging for young children, especially after we had known that children could not actively participate in the process. In fact, the elders told us that women and children, unless they are young adults, are not allowed to even be present in the ritual.

The Blaan community, on the other hand, would not approve the portrayal of a story based on a failed ritual. That would be a cultural taboo. Some of the elders mentioned that the community is not even allowed to talk about the ritual unless it is a season of famine. Simulating smakul during an inappropriate time was seen as breaking their traditional beliefs.




I agreed with their verdict without hesitation. Though smakul was a cultural practice that would certainly mirror the rich traditional culture and beliefs of the Blaan, it would not complement the other aspects of the book development process. We expected the book, for instance, to portray the child as an active character and as a reader who can relate with the content. Children, however, were not traditionally involved in smakul, except perhaps as passive observers.

Since we were working with an indigenous group, the approval of the community also carried a huge weight in the final decision.

Getting the right fit for all of the aspects of children’s book development is sometimes, if not most of the time, a trial and error game. So, we decided to shelve the smakul idea and try another one.


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