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Interview with a ‘mangkukulam’

Illustration by Rey Rivera  

I finally went to Siquijor two weeks ago. My wife has been raving about how beautiful it is. She was there about two years ago. 

My APO Hiking Society buddy Boboy, his wife Bong, my wife Lydia and I graced the Maria town fiesta. Boboy and I did an hour-long performance. It was a good show. We sang our hits while everyone sang along with us.

We stayed at the Coco Grove, a sprawling hotel near the beach which felt like it was seemingly situated in the middle of nowhere. That’s because there are very few structures beside it. Inside the property, it was a few hectares big with three swimming pools and restaurants spread out.

I only had an afternoon to go around taking photos. I visited the old Saint Isidore Church in Lazi and the oldest seminary in Asia across it. They were very rustic, historic structures and the mere fact that they were still there standing impressed me. I imagine that in a few years, all that will be left of them will be ruins if human intervention does not prevent this.

But more than the churches, I was curious to know more about what Siquijor is famous (or notorious) for. Everyone knows that Siquijor, for better or worse, has a reputation for mysterious, mystical (some say demonic) healers. They are called mangkukulam, sorcerers and witches who can supposedly cast spells that can affect people in really painful ways.

I asked our host if it was possible to meet and interview a real mangkukulam. The very next day, she invited a 23-year-old man who was very familiar with the subject. In fact, he admitted he was one, as he explained the purpose and the power of their brand of witchcraft, and why he thinks it is a force for good.

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He explained to me the purpose of their sorcery, which is to restore “balance” in the world. It was a power that victims of injustice can and do use to get even with people who oppress them. He gave the example of a battered wife, or one who has been abandoned by her husband for another woman; or an ordinary person who may been wronged by someone more powerful. It is a way of seeking redress for injustice, he emphasized. Anyone who is suffering because of the evil actions of others may seek their revenge through sorcery. It is an equalizer of sorts, as he described it. 

He made references to the Bible about casting out evil spirits. He says that the power to cast away or punish or direct evil spirits using unseen forces has been present and accessible to mankind since time immemorial. It was nothing new. He emphasized, though, that a true mangkukulam will not use this power to hurt good people.

On the way to Siquijor, I had a conversation with Vice Governor Dingdong Avanzado about this. He lamented the fact that people still looked at Siquijor as a place for witchcraft and sorcery. He noted that his grandfather was one of the first doctors to practice on the island. He said that historically speaking, Siquijor was known as a healing place. Many sick people including priests in the past centuries were sent to this province to heal. And heal they did.

He suspects that there is something about his province that made sick people heal faster and better even without going to a mangkukulam and availing of “magic” powers.

I asked my mangkukulam acquaintance about how they make potions, and about some of the practices they do. I wanted to know how they cast their spells. The potions — made from ingredients such as black candles, anemones caught on certain days of the year, herbs, plants, sap of trees, powdered stones, bones, corals and other things — become potent in the hands of one who has the “gift.” The sorcerer enhances their strength through prayers and incantations recited during “potent” days and nights.

He talked about how some spells are cast. There are many ways. One way they cast a spell on another person is by merely patting a person’s shoulder or back. Yes, it can be as simple as that. Another way is for the potion or the active ingredients to be placed along the path a targeted person travels every day. Every time he passes there, he activates the curse and he will soon be progressively affected until he feels the pain acutely and severely. And the way to end the spell is to simply remove the cursed object from the path.

Can they heal people? They most certainly can, he says. Even if a person is not present, a simple phone connection can do it. Through a cellphone, a sorcerer can cast away sickness, or if a person is a victim of kulam, it can be lifted. If the person is not available, a picture may be enough for the mangkukulam to make a connection.

Frankly, I did not know what to think about everything I was hearing. He was an eloquent young man who had lived all his life in this type of environment. He is familiar with both the destructive and the healing aspects of these mystical, spiritual rituals and practices. And he spoke with patience and seriousness.

I wanted to sit with him for another hour and ask him what the scientifically active ingredients were in the herbs, plants and elements they used. If they really worked, what was in them that made them potent? In short, I wanted a rational explanation.

At times during the talk, I wanted to question it all, to express doubt and incredulity at what he was saying, but I held back. Even when I doubted, I did not want to show it. The truth was, as much as I did doubt, there was something inside of me that considered the possibility that some of this could be true. After all, I have met many people who claim they have experienced kulam. 

And science has not totally explained or mapped out the reality we live in. Who knows what forces really rule the world?

After we talked, he gave Lydia a foot massage since she was beginning to come down with a head cold. 

That night, after the concert, Lydia felt chills and had high fever. I certainly do not attribute this to kulam from the young man I interviewed earlier. Days before in Manila, Lydia was already complaining about not feeling too well. The extreme heat outside and the cold air-conditioned room may have worsened it. 

Just the same, I asked myself whether someone might have taken a fancy for her when she attended the concert in a bright orange dress. Could someone have cast a spell on her?

Hmm. 

My scientific mind doubts it. But I bought tawas just in case.

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