BY participating in the Sinulog grand parade today, the contingent from the Provincial Government of North Cotabato did more than cross nearly 600 kilometers to get to Cebu City.

They, too, are crossing religious and cultural differences, both literally and figuratively.

Ralph Ryan Rafael, the team’s coordinator, said that for their comeback stage, their government has chosen kids, ages 13 to 17, from their farthest barangay.

The last time Cotabato joined the event was two years ago, before attacks on the Lumad of Mindanao struck the island. Their return to the Sinulog ritual showdown this year also makes them the only contingent to come from Mindanao.

“For our comeback stage, we chose performers who are Muslims to change the misnomer against them. Cotabato is a peaceful place to live and we want to show it to everyone,” Rafael told SunStar Cebu.

The kids have no grasp of technology, and have never left the comforts of their homes in the remote village of Salama in Banisilan town.

Last Wednesday was the first time for around 200 dancers, props men and instrumentalists to board a ship.

Despite this being the first time for them to leave their homes, there were no telltale signs of fear on the faces of the kids.

The mirth in their eyes was as clear as the sea they crossed, their smiles as wide as the horizons separating the islands of Visayas and Mindanao.

“Masaya po kami. Idinasal lang po namin yung kabang nararamdaman namin. Excited po kami kasi isang karangalan ang piliing maging representante ng boong North Cotabato,” said Tahata Kaduya, one of the dancers.

Sixteen hours and 19 minutes later, the contingent from North Cotabato found themselves arranging their luggage, fixing their makeshift beds for the next three days inside the Abellana National School. Although strangers to Cebu City, the kids of Cotabato did not have any difficulty making friends with the Visayan-speaking contingents.

This spirit of amity is what their performance will be focusing on today, Rafael said.

Showcasing the Kalivungan Festival, Rafael said they want to tell spectators a story of thanksgiving and unity among Muslims, Lumads and Christians through faith regardless of religion.

“Kalivungan is actually a Manobo word for gathering. It celebrates harvest and feast. Our previous presentations were focused on legends and fantasies, but for this year, we want to be more grounded to our roots,” he added.

For the past two months, Rafael and the team of choreographers hired by their provincial government have been traveling for two hours from the town proper to the far-flung mountain barangay of Salama.

Despite this tedious journey, Rafael said, North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza was adamant about having the kids of Salama represent their hometown, and not their more experienced dance company.

“Our governor wanted to invest in the youth and change the negative impression of the Mindanao people through friendship. Muslims have been branded negatively just because of the infamous reputation our place had over the years. What people tend to forget is that they we are the most vulnerable people, but we are brave enough to stand for our beliefs and differences in the name of unity,” he said.

This call for unity is reflected in the different tribal costumes the performers will be sporting today.

The stage will be divided into the Manobo, Maguindanaon and Kapatagan tribes. Their distinctions, though, make for one diverse stage.

“Sana po sa pagsayaw namin ay makita ng mga manonood na tayong lahat po ay magkaugnay at iisa lamang. Magkakaiba man tayo ng paniniwala at pananampalataya, pero ang respeto sa isa’t-isa ang instrumento ng ating pagkakaisa,” said Johaira Buteg.