Pinoy Kasi

Sorcery talk


The rceptionist and the barbers literally jumped to their feet when I entered the shop, thankful they had a customer. It was the fourth day of rains, and shop owners and staff everywhere were clearly depressed, a cabin fever caused by a combination of being cooped up indoors and a lack of customers.

I’ve intentionally been using different barbershops lately, weary of places where a suki (frequent customer) relationship means that the barbers get too familiar and constantly try to persuade you to get extra services: manicures, pedicures, facials, antidandruff, antibalding, hair dyeing, cellophane or whatever.

Paradoxically, I’ve found too that barbers and other staff actually become more candid with each other when they don’t know the customer, almost as if the latter’s anonymity creates safe spaces for them to discuss personal matters. This rainy day when I was getting a haircut, the absence of other barbers seemed to create even more of these safe spaces for them to talk.

We anthropologists love to eavesdrop into conversations, not so much for  tsismis  or gossip as to get a feel of what people’s main concerns are.  Kuwentong barbero  or barbers’ tales can run a whole gamut of issues, from politics to love life, with very strong opinions about the concerns. You just never know what you’ll hear, and often enough, it’s not so much the content of the story itself as the “subtexts,” the commentaries people have about life, that are so captivating.


Barely had the barber started with my haircut when one of his co-barbers walked into the shop. He was reporting late, and explained that he had to go to a “doc” first. He actually used the term “doc,” who seemed to be someone the other barbershop staff knew. Apparently, the barber had some skin problem, and here I’m being literal with the translation—eruptions with water inside. The barber said he had actually suspected “kulam” or sorcery when his body first erupted with the boil-like lesions. They were itchy, and they covered different parts of his body.

Then he went to see this “doc,” who explained it was an allergy. I was intrigued by a reversal of diagnoses. Usually, a patient with skin problems will go to a physician who will explain it is an infection, or an allergy, and if the problem persists, the patient then goes to a traditional healer, who will perform a ritual involving candle droppings or  tawas  (alum) in water. The healer would then read the wax or alum and say that he sees the figure of some human being, presumably someone who, out of anger or envy, uses kulam to afflict the patient.

With this barber, a self-diagnosis of kulam came first, followed by a traditional healer correcting him and saying it was an allergy. The barber said it looked like he might have gotten the allergy from eating fish. I was tempted to jump into the conversation to ask what kind of fish, and if he had previous experiences of allergies to fish, but kept my silence.

The barber described the “doc” as magaling—galing being a combination of being knowledgeable and skillful. I cringed as the barber described how the “doc” incised the eruptions to let out the water, but again kept my silence.

My barber took over the conversation, agreeing that this “doc” was magaling, not just for skin eruptions but also for all kinds of venomous bites from snakes and dogs in particular. This “doc” had once treated him for a dog bite, and the barber was certain the treatment saved him from rabies. He was aware of how expensive rabies injections were, and said that with this “doc,” you didn’t have to pay for the shots.

Such stories explain why we continue to have such a high death rate from rabies. People think that a dog bite causes rabies… unless a good traditional healer can be found to take out the venom. In reality, you get rabies only if a dog has already been infected, and then bites you. Many dog bites do not involve rabies, but people don’t know that and attribute a “cure” to a traditional healer.

My barber went on to talk about how expensive the treatment of bites can be, and how we have to be always prepared for medical emergencies. He said he always had a fund of P15,000 in the bank, not to be touched except for medical needs.

“It’s difficult,” he explained in Filipino, “to look for money only when someone has gotten seriously ill, or if you have an accident. You have to have ‘emergency’ money on hand, so you don’t have to borrow, or to go to ‘Charity’ (Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office) or to a politician.”

He then cited his own experience with some medical condition where he had to be operated. The receptionist now joined the conversation, saying how she once had “appendix” (appendicitis) and how her family had to go through a desperate search for money for the operation. She was covered by PhilHealth, she said, but for only 20 percent of hospital costs. My barber said, “No, 20 percent is too low.

PhilHealth should cover 30 percent.” I wanted to butt in and explain PhilHealth reimbursements are not based on percentages of hospital costs but are fixed amounts with a maximum cap.

But I was happy to hear my barber had a P15,000 emergency fund. You rarely hear about such provisions from lower- and middle-income households. Health emergencies always seem remote, especially when family members are all young. And then the emergency strikes and people have to scamper around because their savings are so small.

Now, the weather

As expected, the discussions about health care began to drift. The barber who had just walked in began to help with my hair, which startled then amused me: Imagine having two barbers working on you. Talk about slow days.

Then the inevitable came: the weather. The staff talked about the latest they heard from the radio—of towns submerged, of relief efforts, and the latest weather report. The idea of having more of these rains until the end of the week seemed particularly depressing.

Then my barber proposed: “These are bakla rains, lalakas, hihina (get stronger, then weaken). They’re the worst kind of rains because they just keep going, but can’t make up their mind whether to stay or to leave, whether to strengthen or weaken.”

Ha, I thought, something to write about:  bakla rains. A few days earlier a market vendor was trying to get me to buy  bakla  crabs. It would be a mistake to translate the term to “gay rains.” Bakla  is not so much a gender term here than a way of describing the uncertain and the ambiguous. It’s not surprising “alanganin,” or uncertainty, is also used to describe gay men.

For a haircut on a lazy rainy day, it wasn’t too bad learning about  bakla  rains and sorcery and traditional healers of allergies. Metro Manila has them all, the stories making life a little less dreary.

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  • Edgar Lores

    And so the Filipino mentality steeped in superstition persists to live another day. To weather the next typhoon. To bear the injustice of corruption. “To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

  • ConnieLee90

    Professor Tan, lucky you to see your barber and listen to their interesting tales. My top is kaput ! Have tried all sorts of fertilizer but my hair won’t grow back. Hook me up with your barber’s “doc.” He might just be the one I need to help me grow my hair back.

  • josh_alexei

    About 8 decades or so ago as history will tell me, the same discussion were going on in our barber shops and we are glad it just not ended up being discussed. Now even the poorest of the poor among us do not have to worry the day they will get sick..thanks to our leaders the likes of Tommy Douglas, Joseph Atkinson and many others who just did not pay lip service to the plight of their people…

  • WeAry_Bat

    I observed that a long time ago. The rains in the northern parts are like a woman (or bakla). But the rains in Mindanao, as I remember in my youth, were like a man that when they decide to rain, they rained hard with thunder & lightning. But in the few times I was there, the Mindanao rains has become a little Charlie Brown, wishy-washy.

  • virgoyap

    Usually skin afflictions due to allergy or fungi or virus are seen by the common masses as “buyag” in Cebuano. So the patient is “nabuyagan” and the best healer for this kind of illness are the sorcerers or “mananawal” in Cebuano. They use different kind of rituals including spitting with their saliva to the affected area. Until today many still believe in this form of healing because according to them it’s very effective.

    • Maglalawis

      I think the translation of mananawal as sorcerer is incorrect. It should be traditional healer/s as mentioned in the above article. A sorcerer is someone who practice sorcery which is the use of power gained from the assistance or control of evil spirits especially for divining or necromancy according to Merriam-Webster.

      • virgoyap

        Yes this is not really the exact translation Merriam-Webster has far far different world view from the Asian.

      • Maglalawis

        And that is the reason why it is highly discouraged and dangerous to find a direct translation to some of our “indigenous vocabulary” into English because you yourself has stated that theirs is a different world view from us Orientals. That’s the reason why our Anthropologist writer here, Dean Tan just used the generic translation of “traditional healer”.

    • Bantayanon

      Im Cebuano but I haven’t heard of mananawal perhaps you mean mananambal. The mananawal I guess is the one who sews salawal… Haha

      • virgoyap

        Sorry, but I’m from Mindanao and “mananawal” is very much understood in our place. “Tawal” is the root word of “mananawal” a form of healing which uses the spit of their saliva which sometime they mixed it with buyo, lime and bitter nuts.

      • Bantayanon

        Ok bitaw. probably in Mindanao Cebuano but not in current Cebu’s Cebuano because its mananambal/tambalan/meriku. But according to the dictionary of Dr. Wolff, there indeed is such a word – tawal although quite archaic. Thanks. Great info.

      • Maglalawis

        The beauty of the different Cebuano dialects. Cheers mga bai! :)

  • mad_as_Hamlet

    * * * * * * * * *
    This made me recall the story about the man who—-right after sitting on the barber’s chair to have a haircut—-gave the barber a few bucks. The barber, surprised, being used to getting tipped only after a job, asked the man, “What’s this?” The man answered, “Hush money.”
    – – -

  • Maglalawis

    All in a day’s work for the master of masters, the mighty barbers!

  • a_pelkmans

    I really enjoyed this. It’s like eavesdropping myself, but with your commentaries on the side, it is much more interesting. How many stories like these pass us by because we are so wrapped up with our own stories!

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