Shopping for souvenirs isn't my favorite activity in my travels except when crafts were really out of ordinary worth hanging on my wall. For me, the priceless experience in a certain community is enough to suffice my longing to see different cultures and traditions. But everything changed when I set foot in the farthest Philippine province in the south, Tawi Tawi, where I had literally chased for a souvenir that is being crafted by women of a certain indigenous group, the Badjao.
I know that the 'ancient' Western Mindanao is full of different tribes and each tribe has their own unique identity differentiated by their dialects, arts and craftsmanship.
Landed in Bongao, Tawi Tawi, I have learned from a local about the one of a kind of art being made by the underrated community of Badjao.
I have only heard of the ethnic group Badjao through textbooks and have mostly often seen them in the streets of the metro during the month of December during Christmas holidays begging for coins from the busy motorists.
Badjaos are landless indigenous community as they live literally on stilt houses and on wooden boats, fishing out in the open sea. Through time, some groups have settled in stilt houses in coastal areas where fish are abundant.
Seek and you will find...
Accompanied by a local friend, we rode to Badjao Village, five minutes away from the town proper of Bongao. The first scenario that have stricken my eyes was the numerous and populated stilt houses on the coastal water and lots and lots of children playing along the shore. Badjaos are known for poor sanitation with their garbage just being thrown at the nearby coast or maybe cumulative waste of the nearby communities as well.
wooden bridge, but that was the first time I have felt I was being stalked –by dozen curious Badjao children! To give in on their wondering eyes on what I had on my hands, I asked them to pose for pictures and they happily obliged.
Most of the children wear no clothes on and were soaked in the sea water all the time and exposed directly under the rays of sunlight, giving them a caramel like skin tone and colored hair. The children's laughter were so authentic capturing their images on the screen of my camera and obviously they have not been exposed much to such kind of apparatus, making them more curious on what I was doing in their territory.
Witnessing their lifestyle in their assembled wooden planks of houses standing over the coastal water, I have confirmed that this indigenous people are one of the best swimmers and divers in the country if not in the world, only unofficially recognized.
At their very young age, the sea had been their playground and for the many, it has been their life. I have felt a little awkward and out of place due to my modern "get up". I sensed a little pity for them, seeing the life condition of the community which is a complete opposite compared to the life we have in the modern city .But I guess that is their way of life, their culture and tradition and I have no right to comment or suggest to change it.
Badjao's Tepo: the Under Rated Craft
Unfamiliar with the working dialect known as Sinama , I allowed my companion to do the talking and translation. We asked the locals where we can find a ‘tepo’, an authentic Badjao weaved mat. They directed us towards the inner part of seemed like maze of stilt houses.
The Badjao mat is very much popular in the region yet scarce in terms of distribution. This mat requires at least a month of painstaking work to finish a three yard piece. The mat is made out from a particular dwarf Pandanus species that grow abundantly in the limestone coast of Tawi Tawi.
We have ‘raided’ houses that were known to have been making the mat and it took us a while before we spotted one. The one we saw was still unfinished and from the way it looked, the weaving was really intricate and I was amused that the woman was working on a piece with no guided pattern.
The Secret is on the Myth
According to the myth, the pattern appears in their dreams that serve as guide for them to create a master piece of crafted tepo, thus every move of their hands is spontaneous, making the process unpredictable to the curious eyes of observing visitors.
In addition to this, the weaving women abstain from having sex, not to tarnish the tattooed pattern in their mind. The output was a masterpiece with a unique and colorful pattern that you won’t find anywhere in the Philippines other than in Tawi Tawi.
And the search is over!
Based on what I have witnessed in Badjao Village, it is indisputable to say that the people of Badjao are naturally born artist ! Each mat costs 1500-2500 pesos depending on size and design. If I will consider the artistry and amount of effort put on the craft, the master pieces are very much undervalued.
If you are looking for the finest mat ever made and willing to throw in some little extra cash, you have to find yourself to Ungos Matata, Tandubas, Tawi Tawi and locate the household of Haja Amina Appi- a Manlilikha ng Bayan Awardee by the National Commission on Arts and Culture in 2005 for her mastery in making colorful mats.