Lake Sebu, South Cotabato: Flowing through the land of dreams
Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo (The Philippine Star) - May 4, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The great civilizations were built on the banks of bodies of water. It is easy to imagine early life emerging along the banks of the magnificent Lake Sebu in South Cotabato.

Running through Allah Valley, Lake Sebu is 891.38 km and is surrounded by lush greenery and mountains, which affords the area a cooler climate, leading it to be dubbed as the “summer capital” of Mindanao.

The lake provides the main economy of South Cotabato – tilapia farming. Unfortunately, fish pens have taken over many parts of the lake, somewhat obstructing the view. But, Governor Daisy Avance-Fuentes is adamant about cleaning up the lake and enforcing regulations on the fish pens. She declares, even if she has to appear as the “enemy” to the fishermen and businessmen alike, it is part of her job, and in the long run, the clean-up will serve the people of South Cotabato well.

The governor has had much success with cleaning up the fish pens of nearby smaller Lake Lahit, which is now beautifully clear and dotted with lotus flowers.

As one travels further down Lake Sebu, the fish pens grow sparse and give way to water lilies. At an area of the Lake called “three fingers”, the water separates into three distinct passages, three paths to explore. Boating through another part of the lake called “makipot”, a passageway created by two islands, with a canopy of greenery between them, creates the effect of entering a magical isle, straight out of a movie.

Lake Sebu is conveniently lined with resorts, some offering lake cruises complete with a guide, refreshments and a cultural program. One of these is Mountain Log Resort run by the jovial Jojo Sanchez. Right on the banks of Lake Sebu, the resort offers the simple joy of waking up to the calm waters of the lake, greeted by the pink lotuses every morning.

A little bit away from the lake, in Poblacion, is Bob Nowong, a quaint restaurant and bar. Bob Nowong also offers accommodations in the form of a traditional T’boli house. The owner, Ann, is the granddaughter of a T’boli datu. The place showcases several heirloom T’boli items, from headdresses to bronze belts and swords.

Of course Mountain Log and Bob Nowong – and practically every restaurant in South Cotabato – offer their specialty, tilapia. One can stay in Lake Sebu and have a different tilapia dish every day, for every meal. Mountain Log even has its own fish pens, so there is always fresh catch.

South Cotabato and its residents, however, are determined to make it known that there is more to the place than tilapia.

Sure enough, the T’boli culture – alongside that of the Ubos and Manobos also located in South Cotabato – is rich with tradition and rooted in a deep sense of cultural history. From the arts to their music of gongs, drums and hegalongs, to their dances for war, courtship and practically every ritual and occasion, the T’boli live their lives immersed in art.

The T’boli are known for their t’nalak weaving, which has found its way into various souvenir forms – table runners, pouches, coin purses, bags, and more. They are also known for their brass work, from gongs and swords to bells and heavy brass belts. The T’boli’s expertise in brass casting further proves how advanced their early civilization was because of the sophisticated techniques and technology employed by the T’boli artisans. 

The House of Gongs T’boli Museum highlights these brass works, its walls lined with gongs, brass sword hilts, and other pieces, while the Cooperative of Women in Health and Development (COWHED) with a well-stocked store located at Tuko Fol, Poblacion, has a wide assortment of souvenirs made by T’boli women.

There are weavings, headdresses with intricate beading, wood carvings, and brassware like rings, pendants, bracelets, and bells.

One of the most distinct and fascinating aspects of T’boli culture is their t’nalak fabric, woven from abaca, with designs based on the visions of their dreamweavers.

Dreamweaving is a gift from the goddess of abaca, Fu Dalu who, the T’bolis believe, chooses only those who are pure of heart to bestow dreams upon.

Perhaps the most well-known dreamweaver today is Lang Dulay, who received the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan in 1998. The legendary woman can often be found in her weaving center in Sitio Tukolefa, Lamdalag, just a habal-habal ride away from the visitor’s center in Poblacion.

Though she no longer weaves herself – the T’bolis use a backstrap loom that requires much strength from the weavers – Lang Dulay guides and mentors a new generation of weavers, many of them her daughters and granddaughters.

Though only a few are chosen to be dreamweavers, all members of the community are involved in the weaving process.

Abaca trunks are stripped into strands and hung to dry. The strands are then strung to a loom and tied into patterns under the supervision of the dreamweaver, or using traditional patterns handed down from generation to generation. The fibers are then dyed, first in black, then red. Once dry, the strands are finally woven together to form the t’nalak fabric. Then it is “ironed” using a huge cowrie shell to make it shine.

It is the men who do the abaca harvesting, stripping, and shining, while only women are allowed to do the actual weaving.

Like the waters of Lake Sebu, t’nalak weaving is an integral part of T’boli life. Many of their beliefs and expressions are linked to weaving. The respect that they have for Fu Dalu and the t’nalak tradition is evident.

T’boli dreamweaver, Barbara Ofong, is currently the youngest dreamweaver, though she already is a family matriarch and community leader. Like Lang Dulay, she strives to pass down the tradition of dreamweaving to the younger generations of T’boli girls who, though they are already clad in jeans and t-shirts, are still well-versed in T’boli arts and culture, thanks to the local School of Living Tradition. Who Fu Dalu next bestows with dreams is yet to be known.

Surely this is one of the things that makes Lake Sebu beautiful – the fact that its people have not forgotten their ancestors’ traditions, the fact that they still follow these traditions today. Their culture is not stagnant, not something relegated to the past, but traditions that are alive and flowing, like the lake.

Lake Sebu flows through Allah Valley, weaving its way, as water does, through this land of tilapia, this land of dreamweavers, a silent and strong testament to the history and future of its people.

ALLAH VALLEY BARBARA OFONG BOB NOWONG BOLI FU DALU LAKE LAKE SEBU LANG DULAY SEBU SOUTH COTABATO
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