I woke up this morning in panic, realizing that this weekend was going to be packed and that I still hadn’t prepared my speech for one college recognition rite, and opening remarks for our general commencement ceremony.
Fortunately, I recalled a promise I made to readers some time back to write about the most adventurous graduation ceremony I ever attended.
Back in April, I went to Compostela Valley’s Community Technical College of Southern Mindanao for its combined graduation ceremonies—for the elementary school as well as senior high school, the latter being particularly significant because this was the school’s first batch to finish 12th grade.
The college is one of several schools that serve the lumad or indigenous peoples of Mindanao, offering an alternative education that respects the lumad’s traditions. This is totally different from mainstream schools, where many teachers would put down lumad culture, as well as the lumad students themselves.
I was excited about the graduation, but will admit I was also somewhat anxious. The lumad areas have been heavily militarized, the schools and communities accused of harboring the New People’s Army. Schools have been closed down and, in several areas, entire communities uprooted and herded into refugee centers.
I flew down to Davao City the night before the graduation and stayed overnight in Tagum, because a friend wouldn’t let me travel at night.
Early the next morning, I woke up hearing planes flying overhead. When I first heard the droning, I wondered if there was going to be a military operation. The planes kept going, half an hour, an hour, and I began to imagine a major military operation.
Cell phone signals are weak in the area, so I waited for word, sitting in the early morning darkness wondering what was happening. Finally, the school principal texted me to say their service van would not be available to pick me up because it had been hit… by a carabao. That news offered me comic relief, until I got another text saying I was going to be picked up by a habal-habal. I was imagining a “skylab” here, which is a motorcycle with a plywood plank across the seat to take more passengers.
After a two-hour delay from the original pick-up time, the habal-habal arrived. I was relieved to see it wasn’t a skylab, but wondered how I was going to be transported on the tiny motorcycle. I found out quickly, as I was unceremoniously wedged in between a rather emaciated motorcycle driver and Kiko, a transgender lumad with French mani-pedi. I imagined him being a descendant of the precolonial transvestite babaylan described in the accounts of Spanish friars.
I had actually met Kiko the previous year and knew he was one of the brightest students in college, taking education. Despite a rather noisy and bumpy ride, we managed a conversation, and I learned his graduation was delayed because his mother, already in her 40s, just had a 12th child and he had to help with child-minding.
I could still hear the planes and asked Kiko if there was a military operation going on.
No, he said, the planes were spraying pesticides on the banana plantations.
I held my breath, thinking about the pesticides, and felt ashamed for thinking ill of the military. Whenever we’d pass a checkpoint, and there were many, I would wave cheerfully to the soldiers.
We finally got to the school, and the principal was apologetic for the delays and the ride. I looked at her sternly, and made her promise that the next time I had to visit, they would send a
habal-habal again, and with my babaylan escort.
There was a real babaylan at the school, brought down from the mountains to bless some new buildings. Despite being an anthropologist, I’ve shunned traditional rituals where they butcher animals, but I was assured that this babaylan was more “modern” and would spare the chicken.
Although stooped with age, the babaylan chanted with full force, moving briskly across the hilly terrain from one building to another. In between the blessings, I was given an update on the plans of the school, interrupted several times as the babaylan would wave the restless chicken across my head, making me even more nervous than I was with the pesticide-spraying planes.
The ceremony ended, and the chicken was released as promised.
We went on to the graduation, and I’m not going to bore you about my speech. What’s important was getting to visit the lumad, another breed of iskolar ng bayan or people’s scholars.
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