ifugao house.jpeg He wore a loud flower-printed shirt with a button missing at the tuck, and bluejeans that were no longer blue. His carefully waxed hair was parted to one side and combed upwards, towards the back. Carrying a black briefcase, he looked self-important. But in the briefcase were gifts of plastic bead on a string, cheap cosmetics and picture cards of movie idols. Because the lock was broken, he held it at the handle with a finger holding onto one side. On his feet were those incongruous rock-and-roll fake patent boots whose soles appeared to be made of cardboard. Sweat covered his darkly tanned face. But in spite of his amusing appearance, there was sympathy in his eyes, and much more matter than one could see between his ears.

An Ifugao who had migrated to Manila several years before, he had arrived from that city and was now on his way to one of the secluded hamlets. The mountain people regarded him with awe and admiration because he would tell them stories about city life, news he had heard or books he had read—tales that were outside of their realm of being.

He reached a clearing, a little out of breath, and sat on a bench made of three rows of stout tree branches. From his pocket, he took out a handkerchief that had seen better days, and wiped the sweat off his face. His arrival frightened some strutting chickens.

Meanwhile, inside one of the huts, Nina was resting on a wooden board. She and her mother had spent the day pulling out weeds among the rice seedlings. They were now resting at home, the mother sitting on the ground under the house on stilts, weaving at her loom. Like the barking of dogs warning of an intruder, Nina looked out of the doorway to see what the chickens were about.

“Berto!” she cried out in delight.

She stood up and hurried down the ladder steps to meet him. One by one, the other girls scurried out of their huts. They gathered around him, pushing, shoving and giggling, like they’d never seen a man in trousers before. Muscular, handsome and in g-strings, the menfolk came out to join them.

“My dear ladies!” Berto exclaimed, as he waved his arms in the air. The girls had surrounded him. Berto sat back on the bench. There was a hum of small talk as the natives sat or squatted, making themselves comfortable around Berto. It was a breezy late afternoon. The birds and the crickets provided a background symphony to which the flowers and the boughs swayed in tune. It was a good time for storytelling.

Berto looked affectionately at his audience. Born in an age and time not of their making, these people were descendants of those that had inhabited the mountains for thousands of years. They called themselves Ifugao–people of the earth.

They believed in gods, deities and ancestral spirits. In fact, they had 1,240 gods, each specialised in a certain task–from one god in charge of ridding the rice crops of worms, to another responsible for bringing discomfort to an enemy. So for every request, they consulted a mombaki to intercede with the appropriate god. The appeals were conducted in ceremonies with an animal offering and drinking of tap-uy, wine made from tinawon rice, the indigenous variety grown on the terraces. Harvested only once a year, it was therefore a precious commodity for the Ifugaos.

They held great reverence for the spirits of their dead. They believed in an afterlife, and that it was similar to their present lives. Their neighbours, the Kalinga-Apayaos, believed that the spirits of the dead lived in a separate temporal and spatial dimension within the same territory as the living. In other words, there was a segment in time and space wherein they existed. The Ifugaos did not believe that their actions in the present life had consequences in the next. Life after death was a new life.

Their society was composed of three social classes: the well to do, called the kadangyan; the middle class, called the tagu; and the poor, called the nawotwot. The nawotwot wore no ornaments at all and the colours in their attire were black and white. The tagu needed only to perform a ceremony to graduate to the upper class and take on its responsibilities. Like the kadangyans, they gave dinner parties to share their wealth with the community. The kadangyans, who wore body ornaments and tattoos and used black and red in their attire, were highly respected because they were hardworking and generous. It was they who decided what was commonly good for the community.

The Ifugaos lived in scattered hamlets of twenty to thirty huts, usually along rivers and their tributaries. The huts were windowless one-room houses on stout posts, about three metres from the ground, made of wood and precisely cut to fit together at the ends because they used no nails. When the children turned six, they left their parents’ house to sleep in an agamang. The elderly, who were alone, also slept there and oversaw the discipline in these dormitories.

Some of the men in his audience wore belts of bones and shells, and some of the women wore snake-bone headbands and heirloom necklaces of jade and gold, others of carnelian agates. The Ifugaos maintained their traditions and customs and succeeded in keeping out foreign influences. They defended themselves against the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries because these natives regarded them first as intruders, and then as common thieves and carriers of diseases.

The Ifugaos wove their cloth material on looms, carved works of art from blocks of wood, raised poultry and grew rice. They evaluated their wealth not in terms of money, but in terms of rice fields, working animals and their family honour that only time and tradition bestows.

Berto felt a sense of timelessness among these people far removed from the cosmopolitan world he knew, which considered itself civilised. Berto deduced that western civilisation should not be imposed on an eastern culture where the definition of civilisation existed in a different dimension.

“It has been some time since you last came to visit us,” Nina said. “What stories do you have for us today?”

Berto took a moment to recall the stories he had already told them before. He remembered talking to them about the universe and that there were at least nine planets in the skies aside from the sun, the moon and the stars. The mombaki was perplexed about that. He also remembered telling them fables by that famous Greek, Aesop. They particularly enjoyed those. He decided to recite a short tale by a Russian named Leo Tolstoy that he had recently read.

“Today,” he began in the Ifugao dialect, “I shall tell you a story about a greedy man.”

Berto made himself comfortable on the bench, and those who were still standing hurried to squat on the clearing around him. Some of them started handing out betel nuts and lime.

“There was once a peasant named Pahóm who lived in a small village, making a living on a small parcel of land. He lived comfortably in a small house with his wife, their children and the farm animals.

“But Pahóm was not content. He complained that he did not have enough land. His cows and horses would often stray and graze in the meadows of a lady landowner who lived next to their village. Her steward would fine the owners of the wayward animals, and this annoyed Pahóm.

“One day, the old lady decided to sell her land. The peasants wanted the Commune to buy it so that they could use it in common. But there were disagreements and it was decided that they purchase parcels of it individually.

“Pahóm was not wealthy and could not easily afford to buy a parcel of earth. So he sold some of his farm animals, hired out one of his sons, borrowed from his brother-in-law, and thus was able to put together the purchase money.

“But he soon had the village cows in his meadows and the neighbours’ horses in his corn. And one morning, he found someone had chopped down some trees in his woods. So Pahóm exchanged words with his neighbours and soon started fining them, and they reproached him for that.

“Then there was word that some of the peasants were moving out of the village, so Pahóm thought of buying more land in the Commune from those leaving. He still felt confined on his estate.

“One day a stranger from Volga passed through the village and Pahóm learnt from him that people were moving there where plenty of land could be had. Pahóm went to have a look and decided to move there, too. Apart from the land granted to him by the Commune, he also could rent freehold land. Soon he became wealthy from the crops he planted and sold. But Pahóm was not satisfied with renting the land. He wanted it to be his own.

“A tradesman was passing by one fine afternoon and had tea with Pahóm. He told him about the country of the Bashkirs where one could get land for next to nothing. Of course, Pahóm was interested. And so he went there, taking a servant with him.

“Pahóm had brought gifts and soon the Bashkirs looked kindly on his interest in their land. The chief Bashkir told him to choose whatever he liked, and that he sold land by the day. Pahóm asked how land could be sold by the day, and he was told that whatever amount of land he could cover on foot in one day, that land was his. He was to start at daybreak at whatever spot he chose, but he had to return to the same spot where he started before the sun set, or else his money would be forfeited.

“That night, Pahóm thought of how much land he could cover and what he would do with it. He decided that the best part he would farm, that the poorer part he would rent to peasants and that the remaining he would leave to the cattle.

“Just before daybreak, Pahóm woke up his servant and the Bashkirs so that they could start measuring his land. The chief placed his fox-fur cap on the ground saying that it would serve as the marker for where Pahóm would begin and return. Pahóm put his money on the cap, and started walking towards the East.

“He walked and walked, neither too slowly nor too fast, for about five kilometres, then dug a hole to mark the corner. He then made a turn and decided to go straight for another five kilometres. It was getting very warm and he took off his coat and his boots.

“After the fifth kilometre, he found the area ahead too nice to lose, so he decided to walk further in order to cover it. But the further he went the land seemed better and better. And so he walked on so as to have that part, too.

“Pahóm was starting to get tired. He stopped to drink water from a flask he had brought. He then dug some soil to mark the second corner. Then he turned left and started walking again, going very far. It was terribly hot, and Pahóm felt very sleepy. But he walked on and on. He then regretted making the other two sides too long, and so he started walking faster and faster. By this time, the sun was halfway down from its zenith.

“Pahóm’s bare feet were hurting now and he was getting extremely tired. He dug some earth to mark the third corner, and then turned to start the final side. But the sun was nearing the point where its size begins to diminish rapidly. Pahóm started to run. He threw away his coat, his flask, his boots and anything hindering his race to the finish. His heart was beating fast, his lungs were ready to pop, his mouth was dry and the muscles of his legs were painful. But he ran on and on.

“He could see the Bashkirs waving their arms, and he could faintly hear their shouts, telling him to hurry. The bottom half of the sun had disappeared on the horizon. He ran on and on. Finally he saw the cap. He sprinted, fell forward and touched it with his hands. He won! The chief congratulated him on the huge piece of land he had gained. But Pahóm remained lying on the ground.

“Pahóm’s servant went and tried to raise him, but Pahóm was dead. His servant dug a grave and buried him in it. And all the land that Pahóm needed, measured less than 183 centimetres from his head to his heels.”

Berto’s audience remained silent for a while, reflecting on the story he had just related. One of the men stood up and approached Berto. “Why is it so important,” he asked, “for some people to own so much land?”

It was Berto’s turn to be perplexed. Why, indeed? he wondered. Berto thought of the handful of Filipinos who owned huge tracts of agricultural land, measuring about three million hectares. Seventy per cent of the Filipino population made a living as tenant farmers, tilling an average of 2.6 hectares. But they were poorer than poor. The landlord took from 60% to 80% of the crop yields as land rent, whereas by law, it should have been 25%. The annual salary of those working as hired hands on the farm was a mere $65. Because they could not survive on this tiny sum, they either borrowed from landowners at exorbitant interest rates of up to 50% or they went abroad and sent their earnings home to feed their families. Working in foreign lands in menial occupations that required little education, farming was the only task they knew well. Landowners not only exploited the peasants, but also ignored the land reform laws. They clung to their feudal powers and did everything they could to make elimination of inequality in rural society unattainable. The extent of the greed, Berto determined, was despicable.

“I am really unfamiliar in the ways of the callous,” he answered, “and concerning their breeding, I would rather remain ignorant.”

“But surely,” the mountain man continued in the native dialect, “there are those who question the absence of the basic tenet of governance, that the common good of the community is pre-eminent?”

“Yes, there are those who question the absence of the interest of the community in governance, but this band has been made to look like outlaws in the eyes of the urban elite.”

“Then that community must change its chief if he cannot prioritise the welfare of his people and if his own agenda precluded their common good.”

“It is precisely that community which put this chief where he is now.”

“Then a baki must be performed to summon the gods to bring this incompetent man to his knees.”

“I’m afraid it will take more than a sacrificial ceremony to rid the people of their oppressor.”

“You have been too long in the city, Berto. In whatever form it be, a sacrifice will be necessary.”

The gold beads around his neck glittered and the coiled leg bands around the man’s ankles tinkled as he sat down. There was a hushed murmuring and another exchange of betel nuts.

“Tell us another story!” someone said.

Berto thought a moment. The day was getting short and he had other hamlets to visit. “I will tell you a fable,” he said. “It is a story about a hawk and some pigeons.

“There was once a hungry hawk that chased after a flock of pigeons. But no matter how fast he went after them, they always managed to scurry to safety.
“One day, the hawk decided to use deception. From a nearby tree, he told them, ‘Because you live a life of constant fear, if you make me your king, I will keep you safe from any aggression.’

“The foolish pigeons believed the hawk. They made him their king, as they thought that he was interested in their welfare. Once on the throne, he issued a proclamation. From that day forward, he ordered that a pigeon be prepared every evening for his dinner.”

A frightened silence greeted the end of Berto’s story. The betel nut chewing had stopped. All eyes were on him, wide and unblinking. It was not the story’s implication that common men who vote a tyrant to power deserve their fate. Berto bit his tongue when he realised that for the Ifugaos a bird is an animal that portends misfortune.

“Look what I’ve brought for you today!” he exclaimed, as he quickly changed the subject. He grabbed his unlocked briefcase and all his gifts fell, cluttering the ground. He picked them up and arranged them on the bench he had been sitting on. The girls got to their feet as Berto displayed colourful baubles, cheap watches, sticks of lipsticks, compact mirrors and opalescent photographs of popular singers and film stars which they would tack along the outside wooden walls of their thatched huts. The girls chose a plastic necklace here, a horrible shade of red there, and one by one they selected a trinket and walked back to their huts.

Telling them that he would return, Berto left and took the familiar path back to the main road. He turned around as he heard light running footsteps behind him.

Nina’s wind-tossed hair draped her soft shoulders. Like a gazelle among the trees, her arms moved rhythmically with each stride of her exceptionally long brown legs. Her unshod feet were covered with flakes of dried soil from the path.

“Do you want something else, Nina?” he asked her, when she caught up with him.

“No, Berto,” she replied out of breath. “I am happy with my mirror. Thank you.” She took his arm and led him to sit on a fallen banana tree at the side. “Berto,” she said, “I am growing vegetables in some of the paddies just above the hill over there. I would like to sell them in Manila. Will you help me do that?”

“What kinds of vegetables, Nina? We have all kinds there.”

“I have sweet potatoes, strawberries, some cabbages…”

“But, why do you want to sell vegetables?”

“Berto, you know that by our tradition, almost all of the property will go to the eldest child, and that is to my brother, Abayaw. Oh, I’m sure he will take care of me, as the community takes cares of each other, but I do not to be a burden to him.”

“But why go to the city?”

“Everybody grows their own vegetables here. But in the city, do you grow vegetables in your garden?”

“It won’t be easy making a living selling vegetables in the city, but I’ll see what I can do to help you. First Nina, you must choose something that cannot be found elsewhere. There are plenty of potatoes and cabbages, but strawberries and citrus fruits are unusual. Specialise in them. Since transportation costs will wipe out your profit, get together with others in your community in a co-operative, and pool your agricultural products together so that each one of you does not go out onto the streets peddling your garden vegetables. Think of organising a Farmers’ Day in the city where, together as a co-operative, you can sell your vegetables directly to the people. This co-operative can also sell the farmers’ produce to large retailers. The mountain roads are very bad, so this might be your best option. Ask your brother to set it up for you. And finally, I must warn you about city people, my pretty Nina—do not talk to strangers.”

They walked together towards the main road where Berto hailed a passing tricycle. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said in parting, and she watched the vehicle turn a corner before slowly heading back.

Nina took a roundabout way home. She crossed the dikes along the rice paddies and went through the forest. She washed her feet in a cool brook on the way. She passed some boys riding on a water buffalo, that unwieldy beast of burden. She came across a trap with a wild and unhappy boar in it, and she tickled its nose with a branch she snapped off from a nearby bush. She passed a banana tree with yellow ripe fruit and climbed it to pick some, leaving the rest for others.

The chickens strutting about took a glance at her with a forward jerk of the beak to the left, to look with the right eye, and then to the right, to look with the left. Then they continued to peck at the ground with nary a squawk.


“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoi