ifugao dance.jpeg It was a fine afternoon for settling disputes. A young man dancing and banging on a gong preceded the procession. Abayaw and the rest of his clan followed just behind. As was the custom, they were shouting curses at the rival family who were doing the same on a parallel dike, with the invisible demarcation line somewhere in the rice paddy between them.

“May you catch a minnow for your supper!”

Bang! bang! bang!

“May you climb a barkless tree with an angry boar behind your back!”

Bang! bang! bang!

“May an imp hear your appeals instead of the gods!”

Bang! bang! bang!

Above the din of clangs and curses, the two mombakis were chanting prayers. Then everyone stopped shouting. They moved to the side, some squatting, others standing or leaning on dikes. The elders sat on their haunches, chewing betel nuts with calm resignation.

Abayaw positioned himself on the opposite side of his opponent. The representative of the other family, a robust man named Iwa, did the same. They stood about eight metres apart.

Then Iwa’s mombaki started shouting. He was asking favours of the sun, the moon, the stars, the spirits and the gods. Abayaw turned to expose his bare back to Iwa.

Iwa threw his first bilao, aiming for the middle of Abayaw’s back. All heads moved in unison as they followed the dart’s trajectory. It landed in the murky water with a quiet splash beside a rice sprout. Abayaw’s clan laughed in wild excitement. Iwa had missed.

Bang! bang! bang!

Iwa took his second cane reed dart from his hipbag. All eyes followed the thrown projectile moving in space. The dart struck Abayaw on the lower left rump. Some of the spectators started to chortle, but Iwa quickly stopped them with an angry glare. Dulmog motioned for silence.

Bang! bang! bang!

Iwa took the egg, and with it, the last possibility to win the haddan. With a warrior shout, he threw it with all his might. A soft crunch was heard as the splattered omelette dripped down Abayaw’s neck from among the hairs on his head. No one made a sound, except for a few titters here and there.

Bang! bang! bang!

Abayaw turned around to face Iwa, who had moved to expose his back to his opponent. Then Abayaw’s mombaki started to shout his appeals, looking up at the sky. There was an exchange of betel nuts and lime among the elders. They popped them into their mouths and chewed with the patience of a ruminating member of the ox family.

Abayaw took his first bilao from his hipbag and practised his aim. He raised his shoulders, then all eyes moved in unison, following the thrown dart’s path. It passed to the right of Iwa’s arm, just below the shoulder, landing in the muddy waters of the rice paddy. Iwa’s clan laughed uproariously. Abayaw had missed.

Bang! bang! bang!

Abayaw, suffering silently, patted his mildly sore left rump. He took the second dart from his hipbag. With one eye squinted, he aimed for the middle of Iwa’s back. He threw the bilao. It, too, landed with a quiet splash to the right of Iwa’s arm, just below the shoulder. The look of doom in the faces of Abayaw’s clan did nothing to dissipate the hysterical glee on the other side. If Abayaw missed the last attempt, then the area in contention would be divided equally between them.

Bang! bang! bang!

Abayaw delicately took the chicken egg from his hipbag. With a look of determination, instead of aiming for the middle of Iwa’s back, Abayaw aimed for the murky waters to the left of Iwa’s arm, just below the shoulder. He took a deep breath and threw his egg. It landed squarely on the middle of Iwa’s back!

Bang! bang! bang! bang! bang!

Abayaw’s family went into fits of pandemic delight. They danced hither and thither. They clanged and banged on their gongs. The elders continued chewing their betel nuts with calm resignation. One of the mombakis grinned from ear to ear. Abayaw limped over to his opponent to console him. Then and there, the dispute was settled.

“Shall we go fishing and get away from this crowd?” Abayaw asked Iwa. They both stood there, oblivious to the noise and the admiring maidens that surrounded them.

“Good idea. I’ll fetch my fish trap and meet you up the hill.”

Bang! bang! bang!

“Mog!” Abayaw called out to his friend, who was making as much noise as everybody else.

“Nice aim, Yaw!” Dulmog said, patting him on his back.

“The praise belongs to the mombaki, Mog. Will you fetch my fish trap for me? Let’s catch fish for the party tonight.”

“Meet you at the hilltop, then!” Dulmog said, leaving for their hamlet to pick up the rattan-woven traps.

Bang! bang! bang!

As Dulmog left for their hamlet and Iwa for his, Abayaw limped towards the hardened-mud stairway leading up to a clump of trees above the terraces. When Abayaw arrived at the top of the hill, he sat down and waited for Dulmog and Iwa. From this distance, he could still see both clans dancing and singing along the dikes.

It was a bit of a walk, in spite of shortcuts through the forest, but they made their way to that part of the river where it was best for catching fish. The three friends walked silently through the woods, minding their steps, as they meandered through the trees and bushes along a seemingly untrodden trail they knew well, although no landmarks showed the way. They passed someone going in the opposite direction.

“Moma!” they said in greeting. This was the shortened expression of Wahana chimomam? ‘Have you some betel nuts?’ and it was their way of saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ It wasn’t necessary to exchange betel nuts, and neither did one necessarily talk about one’s health condition. Sometimes they also greeted each other with ‘Apor!’ —‘Lime!’ or ‘Hapid!’—‘Tobacco leaves!’ Their greetings connoted a humorous camaraderie.

They paused in front of a waterfall and watched the lively cascade. Drops of water went this way and that as they struck protruding rocks or were deflected by blades of grass, or paused through drenched moss, then slowly dripped down. But their course, as the three friends observed, no matter how they made their way and no matter how long they took, inevitably ended below.

When they arrived at the river, Iwa and Abayaw jumped in, dropping their fish baskets on the bank. Abayaw washed the egg out of his hair, and Iwa swam on his back to remove the dried omelette. After their bath, they swam a bit and relaxed in the cool waters of the Ibulao River. A little further off, Dulmog, with basket trap in hand, walked carefully in the shallow water so as not to disturb the unwary mullet.

“How many from your hamlet will be coming this evening?” Abayaw asked Iwa who was swimming close by.

“Well, there’s Grandfather and Grandmother, Father and Mother, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins and the mombaki…we should be about thirty.”

“Then we had better set about catching enough fish.”

They both swam back to shore where they picked up their fish traps, and joined Dulmog who had caught quite a few. They fished quietly, dropping their bell-shaped fish trap on the fish with the skill taught them by their fathers and their forefathers before them. They then joined Dulmog who was lying on the grass, playing with a nest of ants.

Iwa dropped down and lay on his belly, resting his head on his crossed arms. He closed his eyes and sighed contentedly. An ant, carrying a grain of flower seed, crawled over Iwa’s fingers on its way to its nest.

Iwa opened one eye. He took a twig and carefully dislodged the seed from the ant’s grip. Another ant, sensing trouble, came running to his compatriot’s rescue. He turned around to face the twig with his behind, and calmly sprayed it with formic acid. Iwa chuckled.

“Look at these ants, Yaw!”

Abayaw, who was lying on the opposite side of Iwa, turned around. A trail of ants cut across them both. Abayaw observed their determined march towards a small mound of earth where they disappeared into an aperture.

“Do you know what’s under that mound, Iwa?”

“Ants, of course, Yaw.”

“Under it lies an organised world of a social community of ants.”

“A social community?” Dulmog queried.

Abayaw sat up to face his ignorant companion. “If you would stop a minute from running after girls, Mog, you would be less stupid; and if you went to school with me after rice planting season, you would know a little more than you do now,” Abayaw admonished.

“What do I need to know that I don’t already know, Yaw?”

“A lot more, Mog. These ants, for example.” Abayaw went to the mound and carefully removed a part of it. Dulmog and Iwa crawled over alongside. Ants were everywhere, in uniform procession through a series of tunnels.

“Ants live in organised communities, and their members include the queen, the workers and the males,” Abayaw began to explain. “The only role in life of the queen is to lay eggs. The only role of the male ants is to fertilise the young queen…”

“Oh, to be an ant!” Dulmog pined.

“After fulfilling their function, the male ants do not live long, Mog. The worker ants divide the work in their community among themselves. Some take care of the queen, some care for the young ants, others gather food, repair and enlarge the nest, and there are those that defend their community from harm. You see, each and every ant has a definite role to play in his or her society. The queen ant does not preside over the nest. Everybody does their job so that their community functions perfectly. These small insects seem to be smarter than humans.” Abayaw then carefully replaced the broken piece of earth onto the mound.

“Well, I would make a very good male ant,” Dulmog remarked.

“Mog! Except for the fact that you play the nose flute very well, that you’ve managed to make a living transporting passengers in your tricycle, and that you know the right words to say to the ladies, you’re as dumb as a water buffalo in a fallow field!” Abayaw berated.

“We had better be getting back,” Iwa said. They got up and tied their catch of fish on their belt-string. They started to walk when Iwa accidentally stepped on one of the ants.

“By all the gods,” he said. “I just stepped on an ant!”

Iwa picked up its lifeless body and examined it. “Yaw,” he asked, “do you think this particular ant deserved to die? Do you think he did not pray enough to his god for protection? What did this ant do to meet this fate today?”

“Iwa, that ant just happened to be under your foot.”

They entered the forest and started to make their way through the trees and shrubs. Iwa was still thinking about the dead ant. “…then the baki is a meaningless ceremony,” Iwa concluded, after a while of thought.

“What do you mean?” Abayaw asked.

“The ant must think to have a creator, perhaps fashioned in their image,” Iwa said.

“The ant evolved from the wasp, Iwa,” Abayaw said, “a hundred million years ago.”

“That explains his corporal existence, Yaw,” Iwa insisted. “But what explains his spiritual being? What gave the ants the idea of separate work assignments and an order in the nature of things?”

“Physical and metaphysical realms are governed by natural forces,” Abayaw answered. “The behaviour of the ants is guided by instincts, the major one of which is for survival. Science can explain to you what these natural forces are, Iwa. Read about them in books at the school library.”

“And if the behaviour of ants is governed by instincts, then how do you explain the behaviour of humans?” Iwa asked.

They had slowed down along the path where it dipped slightly at an angle. As they stepped down, they gripped the protruding rocks with their toes.

“The behaviour of man,” Abayaw answered, “is a product of both his genetic make-up and his physical and social environment. The first is a result of the conditions in which the species evolved, the resulting behaviour of that is called human nature. The second is the condition in which he lives, which is called culture. It would take a very long time to change the first, the mutation and variability of the genetic sequence of man that can cause diversity in his comportment and morphology. However, the second one, the environment, can be redesigned in such a way as to change his behaviour relatively instantly.”

“So the baki is meaningless, then,” Iwa repeated. “No amount of supplication will change the course of natural forces. A dart thrown in the air will naturally follow the direction in which it was thrown. Can it change course and veer to the left or to the right if you plead for it to do so? You won the haddan because you were better than I. The prayers of your mombaki and my mombaki had nothing to do with the outcome. The chickens could have no way of foretelling victory for either of us. There’s something wrong somewhere.”

“The baki ceremony is part of our tradition. You know that, Iwa. Our fathers did it before us, and their fathers before them Kapyana!—That is the custom!”

They continued to walk this way and that, their bare feet soundless on the soft earth. Dulmog, who was walking ahead, stopped beside the path to pick some yellow flowers.

“Here’s some medicine for your sore butt, Yaw.”

Abayaw broke off the mature flower blooms and snapped off the leaves full of tiny transparent points. He crushed them in the palm of his hand. With the oil from the crushed mixture, he then patted the soothing liquid on his bruised behind. It produced an immediate effect of pain relief.

“Bad aim, huh?” said Iwa, apologetically.

“It could have been worse.” Abayaw wiped his hand on the smooth trunk of a nearby sapling, and they resumed their walk. Iwa walked deep in thought, watching his moving feet and where they landed on the ground.

“Yaw,” Iwa asked pensively, “then what is the meaning of existence?”

Abayaw, who had been minding his step on the uneven trail, looked at his friend walking with sure strides beside him.

“I’ve been wondering about that myself for some time now, Iwa,” Abayaw replied. “I think,” he said reflectively, “that the primordial purpose of life is procreation. The species has to survive. But among all living things on earth, man is a cogitating being. We seek to give meaning to our lives. You can find meaning in life by devoting yourself to society. It is in this realm that our worthiness and our uncommonness are appraised. I think you and I exist to make the world a better place, in whatever field of endeavour we are good at. You and I exist to work towards a way of life that enables everyone to survive—a life that is comfortable for all. When we improve the lives of those around us, we also improve our own. Ultimately, everyone is happy. When you are happy, then you have found meaning in your existence.”

They arrived at the hamlet where preparations were being made for celebrating the haddan victory. A pig was being roasted and a chicken stew was on the boil. The families from both clans were already singing; the rice wine had been passed around some time before. They gave their catch of fish to the womenfolk and joined their families in chanting epic poems in singsong cadence.