A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Mindanao Studies in London

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/03 July) – For a few years now, there has been a growing interest in dealing with Mindanao Studies in the academic circles. Consider the following: the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Department of Education have encouraged the inclusion of courses related to Mindanao realities in the schools’ curriculum; CHED’s encouragement of those writing their theses or dissertations to deal with Mindanawon topics; and the interest on the part of various universities to come up with Readers on Mindanao and the boom in publications tackling various aspects of Mindanao philosophy, history, ethnography, culture and arts. Apart from Asian or Philippine Studies, some universities are contemplating on offering a Mindanao Studies program as one option for college students.

What accounts for this growing interest that seems to be getting more popular in the field of scholarship? Could it have been the global rise of post-colonial and post-structural theories that have now privileged scholars’ focus on the local versus the global, the oriental versus the occidental, the indigenous versus the western, and the view from the peripheries rather than the center?

Or could it have been the fact that Mindanao has registered itself in the radar of mass and social media with major political, cultural and environmental issues with grave consequences, e.g. the separatist Moro rebellion, the man-made and natural catastrophes, the voices of indigenous peoples growing louder in the face of corporate incursions into the uplands accompanied with harsh militarization? Or has the election of a President from Mindanao and his controversial thrusts been a factor? Most probably, it is because of a combination of these and other factors.

Now comes an initiative of the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. A few months ago, their staff wrote various universities across the world announcing that for 2019, the theme of their annual conference would be on: MINDANAO: Cartographies of History – Identity and Representation. One could imagine that they would have received hundreds of abstracts from applicants, hoping that theirs would be chosen to be presented at the conference. There would also be hundreds expressing interest to attend such a conference and listen to the various talks.

Eventually the organizers announce whose abstracts were approved and thus given a slot in the conference schedule. When the final list was made public, the result showed the following:

Apart from the two keynote speeches by Dr. Patricio Abinales and Dr. Oona Paredes, 34 papers are included in the schedule. These deal with the following areas of interest: reading the archives, oral literature and everyday life narratives, cartographies of place, decolonial narratives, localized identities, belonging and exclusion, armed conflicts and survival, cycles of resistance, Mindanao in the time of President Duterte (but of course!), constructing peace, mapping identities from within, cloth as text, constructing Mindanao, ethnography from within, material culture, and interpellating the subject. There are also art exhibits, book launching and film showing.

Of the keynote speakers and resource persons, 12 represent universities in Europe (with 4 coming from London), four from the U.S.A, and three from Asia (no one from Latin America or Africa). From the Philippines, from are from Manila, one from Cebu and 10 from Mindanao. Thus a conference on Mindanao is constituted by only 30 percent of the total voices to be heard in the conference. But this is only according to the tentative list. As of the days prior to July 5-6 there are prospective participants from Mindanao who might not be able to join. Something can be said about this conference which aims at representing voices speaking about Mindanao: the reality is that those who are actually based in Mindanao (either as teachers, researchers and cultural workers) constitute only a minority.

Part of the problem is of course the high costs of travelling to London as the organizers have no funds to subsidize their travels and it is not easy accessing other sources of travel funds. Another reason is the process of securing the visa to enter the United Kingdom. It is perhaps the embassy that has the longest list of requirements, as it requires a mountain of documents.  As one looks at this list when one applies for a visa, one gets the message – “We are making it extra difficult for you because we do not trust you at all and we are making it absolutely sure that you have to go through a difficult process for you to realize what a privilege it is for you to enter our Kingdom! If you would rather not subject yourself to this, then it is your loss, not ours!”

One almost has to be a masochist to go through the process. But in the end, this kind of a conference happens only once in a rare blue moon. And as the heavens conspire so that funds and visa come raining down, one packs and takes a PAL flight that flies non-stop from Manila to “foggy Londontown” as the song goes.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]