FIELDWORK REFLECTION: Where anthropological inquiry ends, priestly duty begins

LINGIG, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews / 11 July) — It took me some time to adjust settling in the field despite my initial acquaintance with these people. My hand itched to immediately interview key informants that had long been identified but I was holding myself for the thought that I might ruin the whole project if  I will act eagerly too soon. So my first goal of fieldwork was to befriend the people: community leaders, teachers, children and students.

I visited their farms and bathed in their river. I ate the same food with them and washed my own utensils. When I felt the time was ripe, I started making interviews. I didn’t know that even with initial interviews, I would be discovering the beautiful history of these people. I considered it a privilege for me to listen and be entrusted their stories.

Every time I’d come back, I would see to it that I bring with me two lechon manok as it was a matter of luxury there. It was the least that I could do. Leaders behind the organization are simple farmers with no allowances. They work hard, motivated by a sheer belief of serving their own people and the next generation.

The volunteer teachers are simply amazing. Young and selfless, they are convinced still that the noble goal of education is social transformation. And they are seeing the result of this among the young Lumads who are studying not for monetary rewards but for the enrichment of their identity and the defense of their lifestyle.

My work is only to record the charming panorama that these Lumads are painting with their lives.

The last week of my fieldwork changed everything. I could not write anymore nor could I ask anybody for an interview. Everyone was bewildered. The most dreaded and perhaps the most unthinkable thing was happening.

It’s been less than a year since they returned to Lianga, Surigao del Sur  from a one-year evacuation in Tandag due to the massacre of their leaders last September 1, 2015. They saw how the ski mask-wearing Magahat militia barbarically did it. The militia is believed to have been supported by state forces. Now there were sightings of the soldiers and their ski mask-wearing friends entering the area.

The thought itself sent shivers to their spines. One parent after another would come to the school to get their child for safety. Finally, the teachers and community leaders decided to stay together in one place in preparation for an immediate evacuation after it was confirmed that the military sightings were getting nearer.

It did not take long before people started to leave their residences after more than an hour disturbance of probably a drone hovering the area at midnight till dawn. A similar experience happened in 2005 according to them, and it was followed by heavy bombardments by military forces. They took no more chances.

At the sight of first light, they left the community for a seven-kilometer journey by foot. It crushed my heart to see lactating mothers walking with their toddlers in tow. Even the elders were forced to bring with them their livestock; the students their notebooks, and the teachers their lesson plans on top of the school’s remaining provisions. The sight was simply deplorable if not inhuman.

The moment we left, I started to feel the shift in my soul, from being a student of Anthropology to my priestly identity. My basic Christian conscience bothered me. I could have left the area on my borrowed motorbike and probably refered the whole situation to the authorities. But knowing the history of these people, I know that they have only themselves to depend on. So, with my FB postings I received help from kind friends. I started to buy their needs, basically food and some stuffs. I am frequenting the area despite the humiliating treatment I received every time I passed by the military checkpoints.

My last (fieldwork) day, July 8,  came and I cringed at the thought of bidding them goodbye. My work is unfinished but I ‘can only do as much’ (Gaspar, 2017).

As I left the place, I was directed at the checkpoint to proceed to the nearby military camp. To assure this, two soldiers hopped in at the back of my car. Since there were two teachers accompanying me, I asked one to go down to report the incident to the parish priest while I asked the other to come with me to witness the event.

Martial law stories of the past helped me to be cautious. The Benedictine nun cried when she was held at the checkpoint for less than an hour after she accompanied me in bringing the food the night before.

The ‘invitation’ at the camp turned to be a lecture more than a dialogue. There was no point to argue, there was no use for reason. It even reached a point that they implied these displaced Lumads were at fault.

The most painful thing after the ‘dialogue,’ however, was the refusal at the checkpoints to let in the additional stuff that I bought, including the medicines and some medical supplies. I personally know that there were children and elderly who got sick already due to congestion.

Eventually, I drove to another parish for the next Sunday’s mass. The last episode came through when some volunteer teachers who came from the evacuation  area hurriedly flagged down my car upon recognizing it was me.

Their faces were white as wool as they narrated how they were being followed by military intelligence officers in plainclothes.

I now know that this is a time of living dangerously. After all, it’s martial law.

Even a mere Christian duty to help the least is in question. I can only find consolation in the gospel today: ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11:28).

(Raymond Montero Ambray is an MA Anthropology student at the Ateneo de Davao University, working on his thesis on Lumad Social Movement. He is  assistant parish priest in Lingig, Surigao del Sur. This piece was first posted on his Facebook account on 9 July 2017. M