When we hear the words “heritage” and “historical conservation,” we think immediately of old buildings, churches in particular, in the Philippines.
These old buildings are examples of what Unesco calls “tangible culture,” but there are also calls to give more attention to “intangible culture,” which is sometimes vaguely referred to as “beliefs.” In fact, culture is sometimes defined as “beliefs and practices,” but the term “beliefs” has connotations of the exotic and “primitive.” The term “beliefs” draws a line between us and other people we consider to be less sophisticated—i.e., “they have beliefs, we have knowledge.”
The result of this kind of thinking is that we become closed to the vast knowledge that is out there, especially if it is with people we consider to be less educated than we are. Yet the reality is that for all the education we get from the best schools in the country, if not the world, many of us would be hard pressed to survive without all the technologies of modern society, from microwave ovens to computers and cell phones.
Heritage then is more than restoring old buildings. It includes bringing back the knowledge that went into building those grand edifices. Many of our old churches, for example, were built using a mixture of limestone and… egg whites (the egg yolks were sent to bakers). That’s why towns with old churches also often have all kinds of pastry products made out of egg yolk.
Even the lowly bahay kubo has a body of knowledge behind it, from the types of materials to be used, to the design of the house itself, built on stilts for protection from floods and predators (animal and human) as well as to maximize ventilation. Of course, the bahay kubo is problematic with supertyphoons, but the architectural principles and knowledge—intangible culture—are still worth tapping.
Curing and healing
I do worry that research into indigenous knowledge can become faddish, riding on whatever the flavor of the month is for researchers. I’ve seen endless lists of medicinal plants collected from different parts of the country, but lists are lists, not very useful unless we have the context of the plants’ uses. Back in the 1980s in Thailand, medical people decided to isolate the active ingredient of a plant called “maklua” to use against intestinal parasites in human patients. When they used the active ingredient, they began to get serious side effects which were not reported when the plant was used fresh. The reason for the adverse reactions was that the active ingredient was too potent. In folk use, the fresh whole plant meant lower concentrations of the chemical.
There are many other aspects of folk medicine that go beyond medicinal plants or particular techniques. Underlying much of folk medicine is a folk psychology, the hilot or albularyo able to “read” the patient, to say things that comfort them, and contribute to healing. Physicians and health professionals are trained mainly to cure, and there are now more conscious efforts in some of the medical and nursing schools to get them to become healers, too.
Heritage, as knowledge, includes many aspects of daily life. I am worried that even as we see more and more emerging chefs and experts in the culinary arts, we see a loss of heritage cooking and heritage cuisine. Many recipes involving local ingredients, and slow cooking, are disappearing as the cooks age. Think of our kasambahay, domestic workers, many of whom start work only knowing how to boil instant noodles and eggs. Of course, it’s silly to expect gourmet cooking from very poor households, but when I was a student volunteer in the 1970s visiting the most remote of villages, people still knew local flora and fauna that could be used for food. I had my share of these foods, including allergic reactions, because I had never been exposed to them. Visiting these places in more recent years, I get served instant noodles with canned sardines.
Nontangible culture extends into weaving patterns for clothing, or baskets. That’s disappearing, too, rapidly. Why weave when ukay-ukay clothing can be had for a pittance, and no one wants to buy traditional fabrics, which have become too expensive to produce.
Nontangible culture includes music. The performance is visible and tangible, but behind each of those performances is folk knowledge of rhythms, of cadences, of lyrics that speak of many emotions and feelings, and people and lives. We complain about karaoke invading our lives and private spaces, but what alternatives do we have to offer? How many households have guitars, and, more importantly, people who can play the guitars and teach the next generation?
I’m not saying everything “indigenous” or “traditional” is good. The bahay kubo can’t remain a bahay kubo. Folk medicine is still tinged with too much of the irrational… although we have to be careful about labels. Chanting may seem irrational, but can be comforting for the patient, so who are we to discourage such practices?
Neither am I saying that heritage is static. I love watching on YouTube uploaded performances of young people in Mindanao playing the kulintang. Some of them have revved up their performances, speeding up the pace like rock stars, and why not?
We’ve never had it so good in terms of opportunities to document our heritage. Whip out that cell phone and video your lolo or lola preparing an heirloom dish (that’s a fancy term for a family recipe). Record their songs, their poetry, their memories, because that’s what heritage is all about.
We need to patronize heritage products if we want people to continue producing them. That might mean having to go to the few towns left that produce a particular craft. Last Christmas I thought of going to San Miguel, Bulacan, to get pabalat or native paper cut wrappers, but just couldn’t find the time, and I worry the craft will disappear. On the other hand, I was elated to find out that in the University of Santo Tomas, fine arts and interior design students are being taught to do these paper cuts. Not only that, their physical therapists have found, too, that cutting out the paper designs is good for their elderly patients, promoting hand-eye (and brain) coordination, without making the patients feel they’re being treated like children.
Heritage is not just preserving the past, but also making the past serve the present, moving us into bolder futures.
Part of the international rehabilitation aid that will be going to Bohol will be directed toward the restoration of its old churches damaged by the earthquake last October.
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