Aug 29, 2018

Nolisoli.ph headed to Mindanao to explore the diverse cultures of the region through food, arts, crafts via narratives often overshadowed by news of conflict. This series strives for nuanced storytelling, with dispatches highlighting the rich culture and landscape the region has to offer.

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I was born in Iligan, a small city off the Northeastern coast of Mindanao. Over twenty waterfalls can be found there, earning it the moniker “the city of waterfalls.” Growing up, I would watch from my window hordes of people milling on the street crying, “Viva Señor San Miguel! Viva!” during the Diyandi procession, or sit on my Papang’s shoulders so I can watch the comedya at the city amphitheater. One time, at the circus, I saw an old man stage a show which ended with a dog and monkey performing the tinikling (the monkey held the sticks).

nolisoli culture mindanao
A vintage photo of the author’s grandfather, who she calls Papang

Mindanao was never a magical place to me. It was neither a wonderland nor a war zone. It was just my home. I never thought there was anything particularly interesting about it before I moved away for college, and that’s when I learned to be careful about speaking about my home.

nolisoli culture mindanao
A photo of the Paseo de Santiago in Iligan, Lanao del Norte, where the author is from

Before writing this, I told my friend I was working on an essay about being from Mindanao. He’s like me, also from somewhere in the Northern end of the island. He was wary. “Why don’t people understand that Mindanao is just another place?” If said to someone else, it sounds like a straightforward question. But to a Mindanaon, it’s more pointed: Are you going to exoticize your home, too?

“But what’s the difference between a bombing in Iligan and a bombing in Quezon City? What’s the difference between a kidnapping in Kapatagan and a kidnapping in Manila? Why is one always pointed out as an example of terrorism and political unrest, while the other is always an unfortunate, unheard-of incident?”

Pre-empting the inevitable question: I’ve experienced many bomb scares in my life, yes. Twice happened while I was in school, and each time the teachers and school guards would rush us out of our classrooms and into the grassy fields, where under the hot sun students would complain about the possibility of someone hitting us with a bomb since we were all clustered together. The first happened in my freshman year in Ateneo de Manila University, the second during my last.

I’m not going to lie. Some of the bomb scares that I’ve experienced took place in my hometown. But what’s the difference between a bombing in Iligan and a bombing in Quezon City? What’s the difference between a kidnapping in Kapatagan and a kidnapping in Manila? Why is one always pointed out as an example of terrorism and political unrest, while the other is always an unfortunate, unheard-of incident? I understand the former is helpful when the incident is an act of terrorism, but even in times when a shooter is just a drunk guy with a gun, the immediate assumption is still, “he’s probably a terrorist,” and the first question is still, “was he Muslim?”

If I’m allowed to be a little selfish, too: other people are able to talk about horrible events in their life freely. I have to hold back, lest other people use my experience as an excuse for xenophobia.

nolisoli culture mindanao
A photo of the C3 road which connects Iligan with the rest of Mindanao

“You’re from Mindanao? So are you Muslim?” I never know what to say when people ask this. No, I am not Muslim. I am Mindanaoan. My best friend in elementary was Muslim, and together we would sneak in iced coffee at lunch during Ramadan, and I saw when she got her first hijab. My baby brother’s first girlfriend, in the small, nursery-school playground sense of the word, was a tiny Muslim girl who wore her long hair in a tight ponytail that, even when tied, grew past the small of her back. My hometown was a culturally diverse place, and it wasn’t all that weird to see a young mother in a short skirt and high heels talk to another woman in a black burqa about how well their children, classmates, were doing in school.

nolisoli culture mindanao
A photo of the author as a young girl with her little brother

I can’t speak for every Mindanaoan. There is no one Mindanaoan culture, no one Mindanaoan people. Something as simple as living on different sides of Lake Lanao will give you different experiences. Some people will only remember Mindanao as a collection of painful, gritty memories of smoke rising above coconut trees as nipa huts are burnt down to a crisp and people die deaths caused by a history of oppression. I’m privileged. My girlhood experiences of badly singing karaoke in my best friend’s living room were more instrumental to my development than a news story about political unrest. My story of Mindanao is a story of my home, just like any other, and everything that goes along with that.

 

All photos courtesy of the author. Featured photo is of the shoreline in Dakak, a beach in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Sur. 

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