South Cotabato: The Land of the Dreamweavers

My fascination for South Cotabato deepened when I saw the award-winning independent film “K’na The Dreamweaver” at the Cinemalaya Film Festival in 2014. Every word in the story brought me into their world. A rare world where peace radiates apart from the negative connotations imparted with the province, where locals take full responsibility of their environment, and where the age-old practice of dreamweaving thrives in the T’boli tribe.

Years went by and I finally had the chance to visit South Cotabato and personally experience what the film conveyed. But a week before I leave, people were telling me to cancel my trip just because it is in Mindanao. The province is no exception to what most Filipinos think of as a chaotic place, but to tell you frankly, Mindanao has always been tagged as a warzone in the Philippines with all the bombings, beheadings, hostages, and massacres from terrorists because these are what the Internet and media show us. But have you ever considered knowing what it is really like in the eyes of the locals? Let me tell you what: Mindanao is their safe haven, Mindanao is beyond blessed with most of the natural resources and breath-taking destinations in the Philippines that are fortunately unobstructed because of less tourist influx, and here’s a secret: the people of Mindanao are humans, just like you and anyone else. There’s no reason to alienate. Sure, our country has been experiencing bombings in parts of Mindanao, which recently happened in Davao, but that doesn’t make them less safe than in Manila or in other parts of the Philippines.

The home of the T’boli tribe, land of the dreamweavers

Touchdown. I finally set foot in South Cotabato, otherwise known as “The Land of the Dreamweavers,” where the T’boli tribe holds full expertise of.

Three of the most primed sites in South Cotabato are Lake Sebu, Trankini Spring, and Seven Falls. Lake Sebu is a 356-hectare body of water with an immeasurable depth.  It is composed of two more lakes called Lake Seloton and Lake Lahit and 12 other islands. The lake is rich in Tilapia, serves as one of the most important watersheds in the country, and supplies water irrigation to South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The most captivating thing you’ll ever see here is the jade and opal lotus foliage that blooms best in the morning.

Meanwhile, the equally captivating Trankini Spring, which has spine-chilling cold waters, and the Seven Falls named Hikong Alo or Passage Falls, Hikong Bente or Immeasurable Falls, Hikong B’Lebel or Zigzag Falls, Hikong Lowig or Booth Falls, Hikong Ukol or Short Falls, Hikong K’Fo-I or Wildflower Falls, and Hikong Tonok or Soil Falls will make you realize how little we are in the world we live in. You can opt to trek your way up to some of these falls, but the best way to see all of these is via zipline. After all, it’s the highest of its kind in Southeast Asia that’s suspended 600 feet above the ground with 700 and 400 meter distance.

Though such are majestic sites, the great Lang Dulay is one of the ‘sites’ I was longing to see. She was once hailed as a “National Living treasure” and “The Last Dreamweaver” of the T’boli tribe, and received the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan Award (GAMABA, or National Folk Artist Award) from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 1998 with the hundreds of T’nalak cloth she designed and weaved. Sadly, she was laid to eternal rest on April 30, 2015.

 “Malungkot kami. Di na namin makakasama yung ugat ng aming culture. Siya ang nag-umpisa ng ginagawa namin [weaving]. Masakit man sa amin, wala kaming magawa,” Josephine Malanao recalled with a shaky voice. “Palagi kaming masaya [noong buhay pa siya]. Mabait talaga si lola,” she added. Josephine is one of Lang Dulay’s 16 students, who I chanced upon together with her daughter-in-law Sibulan Dulay and her granddaughter Noemi Dulay when I visited her home and weaving school.

What dreams are made of

“To become a dreamweaver, you need a strong back, a sharp eye for detail, nimble fingers to tie the knot, and most of all, dreams. Always dream,” narrated in the film.

In the T’boli culture, the spirit of abaca named Fu Dalu comes into the dreams of the chosen ones like Lang Dulay. She started weaving patterns at the early age of 12, and is said to start dreaming after bearing her first child. “Nagsimula siyang managinip after nung first born niya,” Sibulan Dulay recalled. Fu Dalu visited Lang Dulay in her dreams and taught the patterns and designs to be weaved, which subjects are usually environmental-based such as butterflies, eagles, clouds, flowers, bubbles, waves, rivers, and leaves of palm trees. Now, the designs were passed on to her students and grandchildren, who eagerly weave and preserve her legacy in Lake Sebu and in the country.

“Parang tao siya [Fu Dalu]. White yung buhok niya, lahat ng suot niya white. Lutang siya sa hangin. Nakiki-usap siya kay Lang Dulay kung ano ang design na gagawin niya. Parang friends talaga sila,” Josephine shared.

Weaving a T’nalak cloth is a tedious 5-man job. Sibulan Dulay said that the dreamweavers use abaca as thread and involves the following steps:  1) stripping of the abaca. This process is only done by a man; 2) squeezing of the abaca; 3) hang and air-dry the abaca strands. Finger-comb the strands to keep it untangled; 4) squeeze it again to keep it soft and smooth; 5) separate the big strands from the small ones into bundles. This process may take up to two days; 6) align it into the loom to keep the weaving clean and fine; 7) measure the height to either five or six meters; 8) designing of the cloth. This is where Lang Dulay comes in; 9) cooking of the abaca; 10) weaving of the sacred T’nalak cloth; and lastly 10) manual polishing of the final product.

The whole process and weaving may take up to three to four months. According to Josephine, T’nalak cloths shouldn’t be washed, instead, hand and wipe it with a wet cloth to keep it clean. Cloths are reasonably priced from PHP 700 to PHP 4,000, depending on the size.

Thread of life

The T’nalak cloth is a sacred entity to the T’boli tribe because it serves as their noble cultural attire, their dory, their drive of economic growth, and it introduced them and their culture locally and globally.

Each color, stands of thread, back pains, and intricacy poured into the process speaks of the stories of the T’boli tribe’s culture, which explains why Lang Dulay strived hard to let weaving live on, even after her life. Like the dye of the T’nalak cloth, dreams of the T’boli tribe doesn’t fade; they forever live on in the form of their craftsmanship, their culture, their fruits of the loom, and their thread of life.


Words and photography by Mikee Pascual

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