The bolo merchants of Kibalabag

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/18 June) – Merlita and her daughter Joylet Luis have children to rear back home. But in most days of the week, they have to walk the streets of Malaybalay to sell farm wares.

In a pre-dominantly agricultural province like Bukidnon, peddlers of bolos, scythes, and other garden or farm tools used to be a common sight.

Around town, they vend from streets to alleys, from one village to another, and from sunup to sundown.

But with the rise of plantations that have turned many farmers into farm laborers amid the growing dependence on modern machines, the usefulness of these farm tools may have diminished.

The mother and daughter tandem of bolo merchants, however, shows that these craft tools are here to stay.

Their coming back and forth to the city is proof, Merlita said, that there is still a market for the farm tools oftentimes described as crude and backward.

She said they get buyers from residents of small villages to people in government offices.

They showed their line of products to onlookers at the lobby of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan building on June 16.

The most sellable is the P100 kitchen knife. The cheapest is a small sickle at P50. The most expensive, at P350 each, is a machete commonly used to cut bamboo poles or open coconuts.

Merlita said they could sell an average of P1,500 worth of products on the days they vend.

“It’s enough to feed us,” she said.

For her, they are only among the many bolo merchants.

But she said they put a face to the city’s cottage blacksmiths, an ailing industry trying to survive.

A mother of six, Merlita said one of their advantages is selling products that their husbands make from scrap iron sold at a local junk shop.

In one incident, a buyer asked if they did not feel awkward selling tools that are commonly carried by men and sometimes used as weapons.

Merlita said they are selling traditional farm tools, which are useful for all good intentions.

“I would rather sell with sweat and tears than be idle and useless back in the village,” said the 55-year old vendor.

Kibalabag is a village in the northeastern part of Malaybalay inhabited by Higaonons and Bukidnons. It is four hours away by foot and is the main source of the city’s potable water.

Back there, before she went into vending the farm tools, she used to be a farm worker. But she lamented it was a hard life.

“I love this job better, far better than burning my skin in the farm,” she said.

She said that sometimes they were mistaken to be combative women, who no longer have husbands.

“But we fought off the idea. We never got discouraged. Hunger is a fiercer foe,” she said.

Merlita’s husband Delfin is only one of six blacksmiths in the neighborhood in Kibalabag. All of the others learned the craft from him.

Everyday, Delfin Luis finishes five machetes or 10 bolos in his makeshift shop. Now that he has turned 62, he still works and has trained Joylet’s husband.

Blacksmithing is of course not alien to the Bukidnons. Delfin learned the trade from a relative when he was still 15.

In older times, indigenous peoples of the province ran their own salsalan, or the traditional blacksmith shop

According to Talamdan, the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs’s official publication, salsalan enables the tribe to make tools for their farm work.

Bolos are used for weeding, planting and other activities. The blacksmith shop is sacred, Talamdan added, since it has guardian spirits who ask assistance but who may punish erring humans through illness.

The couple’s division of labor, Delfin in the blacksmith shop and Merlita selling the tools he produces, has proved effective for many years now.

But Merlita said they are hoping to find a loan facility that can help save their cottage industry from better equipped competitors.

They need at least P4,000 to buy an equipment for sharpening the tools’ blades and to keep their small enterprise afloat. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)