INTERRUPTED LIVES IN MARAWI (7): Healing Healers On The Mountain

Nabunturan, Compostella Valley.

A huge truck that looks like a sleeping giant under a saris-a tree waits for the thirty of us. How can we all possibly fit? The owners of the jeans and leggings, baseball caps and hijabs who are gathered in a circle beside the truck don’t seem to be bothered at all. We exchange names. Load our backpacks on the truck. Clamber on. “It’s going to be a rough ride,” the driver smiles mischievously and revs up the engine.

I sit in front between the driver and Louise, the official videographer. Our view is interrupted by a long gash across the window. Our seat is so tattered it is spitting out foam. The truck heaves and I use my hands to brace against the dashboard. I resist being slammed around too much. It is exhausting to do so. Louise shrieks at every swerve and turn. I worry that our companions at the back of the truck may fall because of its jerky movement. They are probably ducking to avoid flying out of the truck. The rollercoaster ride exhausts me. My abdomen begins to feel constricted.

Suddenly, the truck halts to a stop. I turn my gaze away from the treetops and focus on the road. A man with a walking stick is waiting by the roadside. I wonder how long he’s been there. He is like Abraham beckoning his tribe of yuppies and college graduates. But this Abraham has short white hair instead of a long flowing mane, and wears knee-length shorts instead of a flowing tunic.

He is Dr. Winifred P. Maglana, 70 years old, our host. He welcomes us with a big smile. I follow the rest as they, wobbling unsteadily to regain their composure, jump off the truck right in front of the regal doctor. He speaks softly about where we are and gestures towards the trees.

Dr. Winifred Maglana with his walking stick leads the way. Photo by LOUISE FAR

“As a little boy I used to come here to cut bamboo with my friends,” he reminisces, then ruefully, “But logging intensified and turned this mountain into a cogon wasteland!” Yet here we are walking in a forest with no other human being in sight except our motley group, how is that possible?

Dr. Maglana explains, “We bought the mountain — all 400 hectares of it — and planted trees all over.” He adds that the young people became “willing victims” in helping him and his family and friends plant the trees. “As long as tree planting is fun, they will do it gladly.” We stop to check if the citronella growing along the road is really citronella. There are several interesting trees that Dr. Maglana says he didn’t plant. He opens his arms, “They just appeared! Nature is so resilient that you can help heal it a bit by planting some trees, and then it takes over and starts healing itself.”

We trail behind Dr. Maglana and finally reach the end where a most unusual hexagonal building sits. It’s Dr. Maglana’s home away from home frequented by his family and friends – like us volunteers of Creating Sinag Within. Our mission: to strengthen our own inner healing capacities, among other things, and go to the Lanao evacuation centers to help Marawi siege survivors heal themselves.

Establishing a healthy rhythm is easy because we are far away from home, surrounded by nature, on a mountain, with no electronic distractions because there is no telco signal in the area. The green roof of the hexagonal building offers a spectacular view of Nabunturan, Compostella Valley and so the next day, I wake up to meditate there. I arrive at the top and find I’m surrounded by what looks like snow that reaches as far as the horizon. I realize that it’s actually mist. It is so thick that it covers the entire landscape around me except for the distant mountain tops which peek out like toddlers playing hide and seek beneath a white blanket.

Nature beckons again the next morning, so I hop out of bed at the break of dawn, drink two tall glasses of water, and begin brisk walking into the woods with Louise. We pick the same trail every time, admiring the changing light. Sometimes the light is golden and cheerful. Sometimes, subdued pink and purplish. Or expansive blue. But every day a magnificent personality arises.

On our return, Louise and I find the others sweeping the floor, cooking breakfast on wood, and in various stages of bathing. We gradually insert ourselves into the rhythm of household chores, organic meals, long afternoon naps, art work, playing instruments, backward reviews, and sleeping early – always coming and going like bees to our hive that is the bamboo room.

Its swing door opens into a space where some thirty people can comfortably stand or sit in a circle. All around the walls are windows and built-in benches that transform into beds at night. Behind the circle of chairs stands the blackboard. On the left of the room is a low table with paint brushes, bottles, crayons, paint, painting paper, drawing paper, manila paper, and an assortment of string, wind and percussion instruments. This is our sanctuary where we have been learning to sing, move, paint, draw, and speak with growing confidence.

At exactly 8 am each day, we trickle into the room and stand in a circle holding hands: “Magunitay ug mag-alirong ta. Magsayaw ug kanta. La la la la la…” (Let’s hold hands and form a circle. Let’s dance and sing. La la la la la…) James, our game master, throws one ball into the circle. After a minute he throws another ball. Then another. And another. Momentary confusion as everyone tries to throw the right balls at the right angle and the right time. Catching is difficult and there’s a flurry of dropped balls and scurrying after them until this subsides and everyone falls into synch once more. We’re wide awake now.

The rooftop with the beautiful view of Compostella. Photo by LOUISE FAR

The next morning, something different happens. We lie down on mats pretending to be newborns. Chests flat on the floor, we move our limbs and inch forward. We’re self conscious about crawling like a baby because we don’t know how. When we have to pretend to be animals, the same physical difficulty appears. Our discomfort doesn’t ease even when we can stand, blindfolded. We want to trust our partners as they have to guide us across the room. But it’s really hard.

I enjoy singing in English, Bisaya, Meranao, and gibberish in upbeat rhythms and with lively gestures. These and other healing movement activities, also known as Emergency Pedagogy or EP, eventually do succeed in loosening us up significantly. Conversations flow easier at the dining table and jamming sessions become more creative and exuberant at night. I can imagine that EP when done with traumatized children can help them “unfreeze” from their trauma.

We take a break from playing games and do something solitary this time. We go outside to the garden to search for a stone and study it for 15 minutes. We discuss our observations and list them on the blackboard. We study water next. Then, fire. And finally, air. The board is now filled with our observations and we realize: we are all like earth (stone), water, fire, and air.

On the third day we’re officially introduced to the silent guy with beautiful eyes. He’s Bobong. I sit with him at lunch and find out that as his knowledge and practice of organic farming increased through the years, so has his care for his family improved. “I used to like drinking with friends every day,” he says. “I was very carefree, not really worried about my family.” This stopped when Bobong almost died in a motorbike accident. Instead of going home though, he recuperated on Dr. Maglana’s farm and learned about organic farming.

He tells us all about it – mixing soil, composting, making foliar fertilizers, etc – and we get our hands dirty doing what Bobong does. The power of this exemplary man’s intentions as an organic farmer – and the sun, the rain, the birds, and the wind – must be what ultimately cured and revived this denuded mountain.

How would a traumatized human being respond to the kind of TLC (tender loving care) that Bobong lavished the mountain? The best TLC, apparently, is one that’s directly taken from powerful intentions and nature – in the form of footbaths, acupuncture, acupressure, kidney and lung compresses, and other holistic integrative remedies. They fight illness by balancing a person’s warmth to develop a strong will and body, clear and coherent mind, firm decision making, and so on.

“Succumbing to an illness is actually a sign your body is healing itself and you need to listen before it worsens,” says Doc. Moon. In front of the blackboard she sits, a grey-haired and petite soft spoken woman in her 60s who has trained thousands of farmers, husbands, wives, teachers to become healers in their own communities. “But first,” Doc Moon turns emphatic, “we really need to stop treating persons as merely their illnesses!”

As a medical student in her twenties, Doc Moon saw her patients did not significantly get better after treatment. She began to raise questions: “Why does healing have to be so expensive? How can we help patients heal themselves?” She did research on alternative healing methods and learned about anthroposophic medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Traditional Filipino Medicine (TFM) which she now integrates into her practice. “It’s a different perspective. Instead of just applying medicine on the wound or illness,” Dr Moon says, “We have to look at the whole person and see what factors are affecting his well-being.”

From her we learn that a holistic and integrative way of looking at a person may, for instance, reveal how many other factors are contributing to a person’s illness. Certain childhood experiences or bad habits may be causing emotional pain that turns into physical pain. A lasting cure for the physical pain could therefore mean not just putting a soothing oil on the affected area, but improving sleeping habits, lifestyle, and diet as well. “If we want to know how best to take care of a human being, we should understand the nature of a human being,” Dr. Moon says.

It’s a challenge she repeats several times and we piece together the answers by looking at our own lives and relationships. It becomes the highlight of our day, this art therapy. We alternately use paint, pastel, and charcoal to recreate memories from our past as 0-7 year olds, as 8-14 year olds, and as 15-21 year olds. “The goal is not to paint or draw the most beautiful picture, but to feel and express,” Doc Moon instructs us. “Instead of drawing an outline and coloring it in, try to make your forms come out of the colors.”

I look around the room and sense that for many, it’s not been easy growing up. Most childhoods weren’t happy. Some parents and relatives were not loving at all. We hunch over anyway and soon fill our pads with human forms, trees, sunsets… Some have bright colors, others dark. They are our unforgettable moments captured on paper.

When the time is up, we go to our small groups to share about what we have made. A hush envelopes the room; hesitant murmurs can be heard as we grapple with words to express our pains and joys. Dr Moon reminds us to be conscious: we need not pour all our hearts out because others need to share their stories, too. So we compose ourselves as best as we can and share about how our art work relates to our past. Dr Moon reminds us that when someone speaks, the rest in the group should listen; no affirmations are necessary. Someone else then has to repeat what has been heard while someone else keeps time. This is how we put into perspective our childhood, adolescence, and adulthood so that we can begin to end our own inter-generational traumas. The experience yields interesting thoughts from some of the participants.

Hannah: “I thought we volunteers would suffer.”

Nora: “I expected we would be strategizing our relief. I didn’t expect to be asked ‘how are you’? Usually relief organizations are more interested in reports and ask, ‘What have you accomplished?’”

Princess: “I never expected to learn so much about myself. I am quiet, but inside me, I have so many realizations.”

Perot: “I wasn’t sure if I would learn anything when I arrived.  I’m glad I came because I’ve learned so much. Every lecture is filled with information! I can be a nurse after all even if I’m not working in a hospital.”

The week-long crash course on the mountain has been life-changing because of the many new insights acquired about how our past and present are so intertwined. What we do as children affect us as adults. This means that what is done early in our lives will have an impact on us later on in life. For instance, a child who does not have enough opportunities to move around and explore will struggle with language learning. The ability to express oneself is linked to movement.

Many more interconnections like this make it crucial for one to savor and fully experience all of life’s progressive stages of development without skipping any of it, if possible. This is human nature in a nutshell – and the basis of all rehabilitation and relief work. For relief workers like us who are striving to be loving authorities when facilitating games, setting boundaries, mediating conflicts, and so on, this is an important reminder.

We are almost ready to go to the evacuation centers in Lanao now and apply everything we learned during the training.

Author’s note: Creating Sinag Within’s Mission 1 in August 2017 and Mission 2 in October 2017 began with a call for volunteers. The subsequent volunteers’ training focused on how to use various holistic and integrative healing modalities to revive traumatized patients’ inherent abilities to heal themselves. Health workers from various community managed primary health programs in Digos, Kidapawan, and Arakan facilitated these trainings. For the next two weeks before going to the evacuation centers, volunteers lived together and learned about human development, nutrition, rhythm, and movement. They practiced on each other the varied holistic and integrative healing modalities like Emergency Pedagogy, Traditional Filipino Medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The volunteers’ drive to consciously awaken and strengthen evacuees’ individual and group forces of warmth out of the spirit was what ultimately made CSW successful. The name, “Creating Sinag Within” aptly captures the mission’s belief that everyone – no matter how broken and traumatized one may be – has an inherent power to heal with some initial outside help. For more information about how to support the next activities of Creating Sinag Within, visit or contact the Founder and Director, Rosan Aliya Agbon at