On the Philippine island of Mindanao, marriage and the wedding feast have a completely new flavour, reports Leonard Davis
IT MAY SOUND a little unusual but recently at a Mass lasting about two hours there were in one parish six baptisms followed by 15 marriages and six further baptisms. The event happened a long way away: at Mantoganoy in the municipality of St Luis in the diocese of Butuan in Mindanao in the Philippines.
Mantoganoy is in a remote and beautiful area, an uphill climb nearly three kilometres from the Agusan River. The heat was intense: more than 100°F. To reach the rough pathway — a dried-up creek bounded on both sides by dense undergrowth — the journey downstream from St Luis took about 45 minutes, passing massive logs waiting to be towed to Butuan City.
The crocodiles have long since gone, but other wildlife is still abundant. A man was killing a pig beside the river, people were washing their clothes and their bodies, children swam naked and water buffaloes soaked themselves at the water's edge.
The river is both a friend and an enemy: each year there is death by drowning. Flooding is to be expected.
The village of Mantoganoy, the name orginaily given to the creek by the tribal Filipinos, appeared quite suddenly at the end of the climb, nestling in a hollow in a ridge of hills with about 35 wooden houses forming the basic Christian community that is being developed.
Because of the uncertain political situation in the Philippines, and especially in Mindanao, there is undoubtedly tension and fear, but the eommunity spirit is something to be experienced. There is a committee for everything: for water, for visitors and for the half-finished church. The affairs of the community are indeed managed collectively.
The President of the Christian community is Hubert "Itjong" Pelegro, a farmer and a widower with three children, who works hard on behalf of the people as well as caring for his children single-handed. His 12year-old son is recognised as brave and loyal. Many church workers are suspected and accused of being subversive, and in the face of the interrogation of his father by the military the boy was working out how best to use his catapult should his father have been manhandled.
I heard that some people hoped that ltjong would marry the schoolteacher. She was on the point of leaving the area there are only two grades in the small school — and it was thought a good idea to encourage her to stay and to help Itjong with his family at the same time. The Filipinos are great "matchmakers". On this occasion they were unsuccessful. The teacher did not want to marry a widower.
We were first welcomed by our hosts — Alfredo "Bido" Lontoco and Dioscora "Doling", his wife — with very sweet locally-grown coffee and bananas. On the night before the Mass the five visitors to Mantoganoy joined Sidi), his wife and two children, the children's grandmother and Doling's brother in their threeroomed house, all sleeping on mats on the floor.
The priest, Fr Alfons Meyers MSC, was supported by Sister Mary Teresa RGS and Sister Annie RGS, and Dorrie, a student on exposure in the parish. Others in the community invited the group to drink from instantly cut coconuts, to scrape the cream from inside and to drink tuba, obtained by tapping the top of the coconut palm. Tuba is sweet when fresh, becoming bitter if left standing.
Most of the settlers in Mantoganoy, and this is what they are called, came originally from the smaller island of Bohol, some ten years ago, others more recently. 'I'hey are pioneers. first building their houses and subsequently earning a usually meagre livelihood as farmers, growing coffee and corn. Coconuts and bananas are plentiful. Pigs, chickens, dogs and cats are everywhere. Monkeys are kept as pets.
A number of tribal Filipinos, Manobos, have been integrated into the community. In the even more remote mountain areas the Manobos are among the most disadvantaged group, often existing only on camote (a root crop) and bananas. and with whole communities affected by malaria and schistosomiasis, the latter a water-borne disease attacking the intestines and the brain of both children and adults, • most frequently resulting in a painful death.
But real marriages did take place on May 10: one young couple who had walked four kilometres before the early morning Mass were married in the traditional way — the bride in white — because they had not been living together; and 14 couples because they had never got around to a Catholic wedditig, having previously only been married "on the mat". Most had never before been able to afford a wedding; others had in the past been unsatisfactorily united in ceremonies within small sects under whose influence they had temporarily fallen.
The idea of marriage — for one couple after 23 years, for others after five years — came from the people themselves. As preparation all had joined seminars: first for men and women separately, and later in a mixed group. Ricardo was 63 years of age and living with his second wife. He could not remember the number of grandchildren he had, nor the number who had died, but was keen to participate in the ceremony.
First there was baptism for six adults from among the couples: in the open air under a tree. Then all moved into the church. Young children of the couples grouped themselves around the altar table beside the priest. The young couple received special attention on their own, the bridegroom being a tribal Filipino, and then followed the ceremony involving the other 28 people. Three other couples were also natives.
The traditions of the people were evident in the informal approach to the Mass. A cord was draped around the young couple as a symbol of binding together, and a very long cord covered with white tape encircled all the other men and women, the idea of those being married. Token gifts were presented to the wives by their husbands: money, corn and coffee beans.
The men promised to provide for their wives and not to spend money on drinking or on friends. In return, the women promised to spend the money wisely. In rural Filipino culture men and women have defined roles: the man works and the woman keeps the money. In fact, she also works extremely hard. The couples exchanged rings. Most had had to borrow them from friends.
The ceremony over it was time for lunch. Everybody in the community had contributed to the meal, fish, chicken and corn in large cooking pots appearing swiftly on tables set up outside the church. Children and adults ate contentedly, and with obvious appetite. The marriage ceremonies and the visit of the priest were rare occasions for celebration.
There was, however, a sad note. A young man, suffering from severe anaemia, sat silently in the shade. Determined to attend the Mass he remained weak and very sick. There was no medical attention at hand, and without money he had little hope of treatment.