"MAHIRAP kasi ipaliwanag sa Tagalog (It's difficult to explain in Tagalog)," said Saadera "Dida" Basmala Maguindanao, 57, a Maranao weaver and an evacuee from Marawi City, in trying to communicate what their ancestors have taught them about weaving.
"Pwede Bisaya (Maybe you can explain it in Bisaya)?" I asked.
"Hindi rin (I can't, too)," she replied.
Dead air. Communication lines are broken. Enter Salika Maguindanao-Samad, Dida's daughter and they spoke in Maranao.
"Sabi ng matatanda, kahit lahat alam mo sa pag-eskwela, kailangan alam mo pa rin mag-weave, kasi ito ang aming kultura, dito kami nanggaling (Our ancestors said that no matter how well-educated you become, you still have to know how to weave because this is our culture, this is our heritage)," Salika said.
Dida is the eighth of 11 sisters, of which two recently died as a result of the difficult life in the evacuation centers. She is the widow of Sultan Salik Maguindanao of Marantao. But Datu Salik died when Salika was still in sixth grade thus Dida had to tend to the family as a young widow. She found the means to provide through weaving.
Dida, Salika, and Salika's husband Jardin Naga Samad came to Davao City last August 1, 2017 to meet up with their friend, California-based fashion designer Anthony Legarda, who have heard of their dire situation in the evacuation center in Lanao del Sur and have called on them to bring whatever they may have so he can buy them all for a forthcoming exhibition of Mindanao textiles in September.
Traditions and taboo
They are all weavers, Jardin, being the last one to learn, just after the Marawi crisis broke out last May 23, 2017. Weaving like Dida and his wife Salika wasn't an easy decision to make.
In order to weave, Jardin had to humble himself to the extent of being ridiculed by relatives and friends from Marawi. The reason for that is their tradition regards weaving as taboo for men. Men should never weave because it is a woman's job. In the feudal and patriarchal psyche that prevails in the consciousness of the traditional Maranaos, it is unthinkable for a man to take on a woman's tasks.
"They even told me, why are you weaving, you are degrading yourself!" Jardin said in Tagalog. "I told them, it's more degrading if you cannot feed your family."
Traditions are strong in the Maguindanao family. Dida is the widow of Sultan Salik Maguindanao of Marantao, Lanaodel Sur, who died over two decades ago of lung cancer when Salika was still in sixth grade.
But Jardin was firm in his assertion that weaving is their way out of the desperate situation they have found themselves in. It can even be the way out for all Maranaos.
Jardin showed the make-shift loom they are using. The only "original part" is the "suyod" or reed, where threads are inserted into a long, fine comb. But the "suyod" Jardin uses is not even one whole, just around 12 inches long.
Dida explained that when the Maute Group took over Marawi, they were not able to bring much of their personal belongings with them.
"Kung ano lang ang nadala namin (We just grabbed whatever we can)," she said.
Life in the evacuation center, however, is very difficult and they were not about to allow themselves to succumb to despair.
Getting to know their soul
"Dito namin nakita sa weaving," Jardin said.
"Yun pala, kung mawala ang lahat sa iyo, mapapaisip ka nang malalim at doon mo makikita ang tunay na kung ano yung nasa iyo (When you lose everything you have, dig deep within you and you will find your very soul)," he added.
With no other means to earn a living and keep bodies and souls together, they remembered the interest on weaving that Legarda had shown them two years before. But they have nothing to weave with. So, Salika sought out friends who may have a loom somewhere. She was informed that one Hadji Normina in Maguindanao has a "suyod" available.
"Tinawagan namin, pinadalhan niya kami ng suyod. Nakabayad ako ng lampas P1,000 para diyan (We called her and she sent us a suyod. I paid more than a thousand pesos for that)," she said.
But because they know that other people need to earn as well, they decided to cut the "suyod" into two, such that from that one "suyod," two handlooms were made.
The batten, or the part that separates the upper and lower threads and used to tighten the weft, is made of a discarded carton tube, apparently from a tarpaulin sign maker.
Jardin said that after they evacuated to Iligan, he walked around looking for possible materials. He saw the long carton tube you find at the very core of tarpaulin, textile or paper rolls. He knew he could use that as part of a makeshift loom, but it took him time to gather courage to ask for it. He didn't have any money to offer to buy it, he said.
While gathering his courage, he said, he walked back and forth, eyeing the tube and praying that no one gets it before he does.
The person in the store noticed that it was his third time to pass by and so asked what he needed. When Jardin said that he would want to have the carton tube, the person gave it to him right away saying that they had no use for it.
Like the "suyod," the carton tube was again cut so that another loom can be completed.
The backstrap of the loom is the leg of a "relief" maong pants tied on both ends with a rope.
Meanwhile, Legarda is preparing for his exhibit of Southern textiles in California, USA, and he has committed to buy everything that the Maranao weavers can make for the exhibit.
"Even before this Marawi thing, I already believed in them. As a matter of fact I made uniforms for NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) using all their langkits. This is a project I did before," Legarda said. "Now more than ever they need help. We are making ways to make products and clothing."
To ensure higher value to the products, Legarda insists that they use only natural fibers as this is what is in demand in the international market.
"People in the traditional arts like natural, they don't like synthetic," he said. Thus, aside from the grant he got from NCCA to explore Mindanao textiles, he is also working closely with the Philippine Textile Research Institute for the natural fibers and dyes.
Having seen a glimmer of hope in rebuilding their life through the Maranao's weaving heritage, Jardin said that what they need most now is space.
"It is very difficult to weave in the evacuation center, the space is so cramp, it's impossible to do it there," he said.
Thus, he said, he is appealing to government to give them access to a lot so they can weave and earn. They are even willing to rent.
"Huwag na lang yang relief, makakakain kami kung meron kaming lugar para sa weaving (We can do without relief. We can provide for our own food for as long as we have space to weave)," he said, the pride of the Maranao people apparent in the firm set of his chin.