Weaving Hope in Maguindanao
|A young weaver at Al Jamelah Weaving Center, Datu Odin Sinsuat|
As I write this, another bomb blast rocks the politically volatile province of Maguindanao in central Mindanao less than two weeks after our visit. A name stained by corruption, violence and impunity magnified by the press, we forget that “Maguindanao” stands for a rich ethnic culture that forms a significant part of our Philippine heritage. The Maguindanao, which means “people of the flood plains”, are part of the larger Islamic Moro ethnic group, the sixth largest in the Philippines. Their populations are concentrated in the province of Maguindanao, where ethno-religious insurgents and warring political clans have unfortunately, for decades, impoverished a place that, otherwise, possesses a wealth of history and culture. Islamic faith and customs are traced back to the 15th century when Arab-Malay preacher Shariff Muhammad Kabungsuan arrived from Malacca and founded a sultanate centered in present-day Cotabato City.
At Datu Odin Sinsuat, a municipality bordering the city, we met a family of Maguindanaon cultural workers struggling to preserve the fading practices of inaul weaving and playing traditional music. Haji Bai Aleizzah Albaya B. Wampa – or “Ate Alby”, as she wanted us to call her – founded the Al Jamelah Weaving Center primarily to teach young disadvantaged mothers how to earn a living by learning the age-old craft of inaul weaving. Young weavers from the local community patiently master their skills on wooden hand looms, creating both indigenous and modern designs.
|Founder Bai Albaya Wampa (second from right) joins in playing traditional Maguindanaon music|
Inaul is a Maguindanaon handwoven fabric most often used as tubular skirt called malong traditionally worn by both men and women. Its colors symbolize different values and emotions: yellow and orange represent royalty while red means bravery. Green signified peace and tranquillity, while white, the color of purity, reflects sadness and mourning. And, lastly, black means dignity. As a malong, inaul becomes a versatile piece of clothing that can be fashioned into men’s trousers, a turban or a baby cradle, among other things.
|The weaving sells a variety of inaul products, like these scarves (PHP 650 each)|
Like most indigenous cultures and traditions, the art of inaul weaving is quickly fading away in the face of modernization and the indifference of younger generations. Hitting two birds with one stone, Albaya seeks to preserve a fast disappearing heritage by providing livelihood to the underprivileged. “We teach them how to weave so our traditions will live on,” she says. Besides weaving inaul, the center also sews traditional Maguindanaon decorations used during weddings, festivals and other special occasions. These include colorful flags, sail-like curtains and other trimmings made from brightly colored fabric and sequins.
To entertain us, Ate Alby invited us to watch an impromptu performance of Maguindanaon music, led by his brother Akmad Wampa, who despite feeling ill insisted on playing for us. “Music is my passion,” he asserted. Akmad, who leads a community dance troupe for underprivileged and out-of-school youth in the community, was joined by septuagenarian musicians Dayang and Amina Baraguir, who are expert inaul weavers as well. At one corner of the center are a set of traditional brass gongs set on intricately carved wooden frames. They played different rhythms on the kulintang (xylophone-like gongs), gandingan (hanging gongs), agong (large single gong) and dabakan (drum).
Akmad was generous in sharing how music played a role in traditional Maguindanao society. A most intriguing anecdote he shared was how young lovers in the past would bypass strict social norms and manage to secretly convey their mutual affection for each other through their gong playing. On that note, I hope that through the Wampa family’s love affair with Maguindanaon culture and arts, this colorful facet of Filipino identity will continue to thrive and inspire for generations to come.
|A mosque in Ampatuan town, en route to Cotabato City from General Santos|
HOW TO GET THERE: Al Jamelah Weaving Center is located across the municipal suboffice near Tamontaka Bridge in Datu Odin Sinsuat, along the border of Cotabato City. There are direct flights from Manila to Cotabato. The Cotabato City Airport (Awang Airport) is actually located in Brgy. Awang, Datu Odin Sinsuat, ten minutes away from the weaving center. Ride a tricycle to the highway (PHP 7), then a Cotabato-bound jeepney (PHP 8). Mobile: +63 9177851737.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Cotabato City and neighboring municipalities of Maguindanao (i.e. Datu Odin Sinsuat) can be safely explored during the day. However, due to the political volatility of neighboring provinces such as North Cotabato and Maguindanao, occasional bombings of public areas, and infrequent cases of kidnap for ransom, it is strongly advised to take a local guide, especially if you are a foreigner. For tourist assistance, contact the Department of Tourism – Regional Office XII, Tel no. +6364 4211110. Address: 2nd Flr., Hua Hing Bldg., #17 Sinsuat Ave
For other sights, see my DIY walking tour of Cotabato City and Datu Odin Sinsuat.