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Magdalena Suhat: Beading a spirited life

Long after the clumps of cassava stalks along abandoned paddies that used to have nourished the fat and fragrant grains of dinorado in the Manobo village of Tinanuman deep in the Arakan valley in North Cotabato, had been shorn of leaves and roots they looked like forlorn wands in the wind, Magdalena Suhat remembers foremost, remembers so often even now, long after these leaves and roots which became then the very staple of their daily one-meal diet, had all ran out so women and children had to scrounge for wild yams or go hungrier than the previous day, long after the days when these had happened and yet her family had kept on running away from ramshackle shelters, fleeing from the fighting and fleeing from getting caught in the crossfire, fleeing for their lives.
“Hala bakwit, bakwit, bakwit diri, bakwit na pud, bakwit, bakwit…. ” “We go fleeing, fleeing, fleeing here, fleeing again, fleeing, fleeing,” she remembered all these, her voice trailing, as the greatest challenge of her life that found expression in a litany of almost just a solitary word, bakwit, that she recited till she was out of breath.

The theme of fleeing was central to Suhat’s life, beginning from 1969 through most of the 70s till the late 80s.
This was beginning in the middle of a life-story, of course, unconsciously cutting off memories of girlhood.
For it must have seemed to her that her life as frontierswoman truly began from there, as she began re-telling from a few months after she lost her first husband and she had gained from him the inheritance of leadership in her barangay when she was still 23 years old, a young woman who was among the few in the village who finished grade five, learned the fine penmanship of her own signature and knew marriage and motherhood at 14.

Aside from taking on the leadership, she had two kids, one just four months old and a small piece of land to nurse and farm.
Now at 54, she is the emblem of strong-willed survivorship of the internally displaced indigenous peoples in Mindanao, hers is an enduring leadership thriving amidst a long time full of adversities.
The first half of her life encompassed the years when indigenous peoples in the resource-rich frontiers of Mindanao were caught in no-(wo)man’s-lands, like mice in a maze, where the government soldiers battled against communist rebels bent on establishing a nationalist democratic government and the Moro secessionist movement battled against the government troops.
First, it was said to have been waged because of ideology and about land for the landless, about territory but as the years of attrition gathered speed, it also became ultimately the war in which the forces battled for the ultimate territory that was the hinterlands of the people’s consciousness.
“Hardly had we built our hut when we have to move again, and sometimes we go back to our old huts and rebuilt them and then we have to abandon them and flee again. And we began to ask why, why, why? Why are we invisible to the rest of the world? Does the world outside ever care about us?”
She gets moist-eyed as she recalls her people’s many losses. She had lost land, time and priceless possessions. She said those treasured heirlooms included well-worn ceremonial clothes lovingly beaded, embroidered, appliqued and stitched by her great-grandmothers, made sacred in countless rituals and handed-down to the next generations of daughters and granddaughters. These clothes had to be traded for food and farm implements, cooking utensils. She shed tears when she recalled those attires which represented lost cultures, lost stories, lost lives.
And yet, even without seeing her, you would know Suhat was somewhere near or had entered the room as long as she’d crack her distinct laughter.
Not a few had noticed that Suhat has this uncommon laughter that exudes uninhibited mirth, resonant, if not defiant, as if it originated from someone who is always full of blessings, open to the surprises of a kinder world and who lives each day ever thankful for these.
So even if you do not see her bronzed face with the wide smile showing the gap where her front teeth used to be, you will easily sense the power of her spirit. Only when she strings together her stories like radiant beads and lay them out before you like an undeserved offering that you’d realize how hard-earned this spirited worthy life is.

In the last part of the 1990s Suhat dipped her mind back deep into the ways of her Manobo-Matigsalog tribe.
By this time, a measure of peace had been established in her village via militarization but yet brutal as it was that it took its toll on the villagers existence, the presence of soldiers and rebels in a protracted truce gave her family and clan time to resettle.
This is also a time when the world’s indigenous peoples everywhere stirred into action and took matters in their own hands, creating their own destiny, so to speak.
Suhat had immersed herself into serving her people in several campaigns aimed at restoring the legal claim on the ancestral domain. As the government passed and implemented a law to provide the mechanisms to seek for recognition of ancestral domain claims for the country’s indigenous peoples, she took the lead in following the paper trail for the documentation.
“We already have the CADT and we have it registered with the register of deeds. We are now waiting for the finalization of the grant,” she said. The ancestral domain claim covers about 102,000 hectares of communal land within the borders of Arakan town and the mountain barangay of Matigsalog in Davao City.
She was becoming a sage. She had been named as bae, a respected elder and inducted into the inner circle of elders among Arakan’s tribespeoples. She is among the advisers and decision makers.
“The elders told me it is my time to lead not only the barangay but the tribe. This is about trust,” she said. She had come from a lineage of leaders. “I came from a family which had always led. The elders remind me that my grandfather, datu Duyan, my mother’s father was the first leader of those who settled first in this area a long time ago,” she explained.
As her own domestic affairs receded in the background and she focused on her work as chairperson of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, a network of lumad (indigenous peoples) for peacebuilding and conflict transformation formed in 2001, on the homefront, her own family had to contend with grave problems.
“No one told me about anything but I have this capacity to sense things. To just know even if others would not let me know…I don’t know how but I just know.” She said that she sensed something was amiss. The string was loosening somewhere, the beads unstrung and some of the pieces were broken into shards.
She sensed that her husband, the fifth of a string of many through the years, had wronged her in ways so serious she could only speak about these in figurative language. She had to act swiftly. She not only told him to leave, she sought to find justice against him in the court of law. He is now a fugitive.
She acknowledges that her public duties impinge on the quality of care she gives her family. But she remains certain of her priorities. “Of course, it hurts to lose someone. But between family and community, still I chose the community, the people, who are many, a family (member) is just one (person)”. The needs of many surpass those of her own family and clan. Always the community weighs heavier in her scale of justice and priorities.
She had earlier lost a third, and a fourth husband. Even a fifth, if you count the single day she got married to a Baptist pastor and almost got hitch to a new career as Baptist pastor herself but soon the next day somehow she got back her senses, she said, followed by her signature laughter.
Bakwit. Even after the period of fleeing because of the war, Bae Magda also told us of herself as a woman internalizing the art of fleeing in her own domestic sphere. She had spent some years, wasted them, she said, on a husband who was a drunkard but who she loved and feared and later she would only fear. And when the fear was threadbare and she gained courage, she left him and never went back to him.
Instead she got back to herself . Did this happen in the 90s or in the 80s, she as not so sure herself now, as she told snatches of her stories of violence and betrayals, shuttling back between yesterday with near past and long-past and back again.

- Is it enough? Do you have all the information you need to write about me?

- Most of it, I think.

- Have I given you everything you need to know? Have you everything now?

She had just presided over an early morning meeting among some leaders and was sitting alone in the yard, in hand a cup of coffee; chewing the last piece of biscuit from the packet. We both knew there is still a story left untold that must be told.

- What is it that you think is essential to your story? What do you want to tell that I have not asked for but you want to share?

- Hala dali. Paminaw. Come here, sit. Listen.

On the thick patch of carabao grass in the frontyard of her hut in Tinanuman, now renamed Valencia, I sat down and looked up to her, now looking more crone and sage in pants and t-shirt than yesterday when she wore the bright red plumage of ceremonial starched-stiff loose blouse and shirred skirt. Sitting on the wooden bench as she would tell some more stories the morning after she re-told about the distant past and the immediate present.
This time it is about Bae Magda beading herself tight within.
“I met an accident recently, you know. I got hospitalized. I was bedridden. I fractured a legbone. It took a long time for me to walk again. It was a difficult time. Because I am not used to staying put, not moving around, to be served by others. I have always been moving around, always doing something. I can’t live without working, you know that,” she said.
“I was riding on a habal-habal back home when a vehicle bumped us from behind. I woke up dazed in the hospital. I was aching and numbed all over,” she recalled.
“I was okay the doctor told me. He was surprised, he told me, that I suffered less than he would have expected from such an accident. I was thrown far from the motorcycle. Later, the owner of the vehicle which hit us came and told us she had to spend a fortune to repair her vehicle."
Bae Magda was wonderstruck when she learned the vehicle was wrecked and she was spared from serious injury. How could that have happened that the vehicle that bumped us suffered so much damage and we are alive? Some bones broke but aside from that she felt okay. She thought this isn’t about happenstance. There was no such thing as chance. There was a message somewhere embedded in this event.
“ I have forgotten. Forgetten my ancestors and they wanted me to remember,” she said. She said she saw them in a dream. They came to her and when she woke up she as in the hospital.
She had been increasingly spending time as a representative of her people in conferences and workshops all over Mindanao and elsewhere in the Philippines. But she had forgotten the gestures of remembrance from where a tribeswoman’s power emanates, the loop that keeps the bead-strand together.
Others outside her tribe, like me, might think it was her own version of a near-death experience, But for her and her tribespeople, it only meant that the spirits were calling her back. She had strayed away. She must return.
Her spine ached. Her bones ached. Her limbs were numb and she could hardly move, and yet she struggled and right there after her dream, she asked for a handful of cooked rice and placed these on a window ledge above her hospital bed. It was the gesture of acknowledging the spirits, willing their return to her side. That night she slept well.
As she waited for the her foot to heal, she had time to examine her own life, to get used to being served instead of serving, to heal herself.
She literally turned to making beadwork. In her wheelchair and later on crutches, she made her fingers busy making traditional Manobo jewelry. ”I was able to make six matching pairs of necklaces and earrings and there were some visitors who were here to see the missionaries in the village and they all bought everything. I was pleased to earn even as I was house-bound.”
She made her own spirit place. A squat ritual hut, palm-roofed and walls made of woven split bamboo by her house. Inside, a shrine for the spirits with a plate of betel nut and lime and old coins. And she learned the ropes about becoming baylan, ritual and prayer leader and healer. She learned from an elder sister and a cousin about the healing herbs and the words to whisper and chant to ease pain and make things right in the body, to link with the ancestors and other good elements we cannot see.

The night we came to visit, she could not even stay for the supper of chicken soup and steamed river fish her sons had cooked for a gathering of women and men for the pamuhat (ritual) to welcome some guests at twilight. She had to leave despite a drizzle in order to attend a meeting with some local politicians. .She came back late that night, on tiptoe, crouching to sleep on a bench somewhere in her own home as she had offered her own bamboo bed to her guests.
She had learned to talk among leaders in high places, bishops, army generals and the police, rebel leaders. She speaks with authority, her voice calm and stern at the same time; she would like to be better, to be as persuasive like that of the woman-lawyer who helped her like the embodiment of a guardian-spirit these past years.
She had several tasks to undertake before she can rest; a long list, in fact.
She learned that her daughter had been missing for days in another barangay and her daughter was in the care of neighbors. She has taken back her teenage granddaughter; she will look for her child, find out why she is lost and where.
Meanwhile, she needs to instruct her sons how to make sure their niece will be safe in their hut. Later, she will tell them them in the dawn light, in hushed whispers, not to hurt a kinswoman, to guard her with their lives.
She needs to talk to the young men and women in the village who might want to follow her footsteps, aside from her own sons. She needs apprentices, the youth who can learn from her. She will bring them when she goes to mediate between two feuding neighbors or two feuding tribes.
She has to plan for a training on human rights in armed conflict as coordinator for Sulong Cahrhill, another network of organizations. She will convene other tribesleaders soon to discuss the growing number of them lending their land to banana planters. She is anxious about the toxic effects of the periodic spraying of chemicals on the health of the children and the old.
She has to ask for a scholarship for her son who needs to finish an engineering course or else, he’d fall prey to the enticements of paramilitary life. She would not want that.
She prays for a reconciliation of the tensions between domestic and public affairs in her own life, between the wife/mother and the community leader. It’s got to be like working out the quiet design in her daily beadwork of chevrons and diamonds, a constant striving for the right colors of bead ordered here and there so as to make an exquisite jewelry of a life.
“I see no other calling than this till my last breath, I think,” she says. “This is going to be the only thing I do well for my people. To serve. Until my last breath.”

A version of this piece has appeared in The Philippine Daily Inquirer and

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