Story & photos by Marky Ramone Go
As I stood on the deck of BRP Capones, a spanking new Japanese-made Parola-class patrol vessel of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) where we hitched a ride going to Tawi-Tawi, I quickly surveyed my surroundings.
I saw the sacred mountain of Bud Bongao lording it over a picturesque landscape and covered by the morning mist, yet I was still able to spot the silhouette of the town’s Mosque and the outlines of a modest village with fishing boats and passenger ferries that are starting to stir with the day’s activities. And then it dawned on me, I finally reached the southernmost province of the country. Tawi-Tawi, I have arrived!
Festive revelry in Languyan
The Philippines, as an archipelagic nation, possesses a diverse set of culture that differs from one region to another, thus it came as no surprise to discover a fascinating one even in the Philippines’s southernmost province of Tawi-Tawi.
Agal-Agal is a local term in the Sulu archipelago, which means seaweed. It represents the importance of the seaweed cultivation in the flourishing seafood industry reigning in the province of Tawi-Tawi. To most people, it became a way of life and embodied much to their culture.
Tawi-Tawi’s culture, adorned with intrigue and allure, was showcased through a vibrant celebration that culminated this year’s Kamarhardikaan sin Tawi-Tawi, a celebration of the province’s 44th founding anniversary, which coincides with the Agal-Agal Festival.
It is already amazing to have gone here on a regular day, but to travel all this way to witness a festival makes the experience more outstanding.
This year’s festival took place in the town of Languyan. For tourists, the town appeared like it was just founded recently because of newly constructed structures along unfinished dusty roads. We later learned that Languyan was once an impoverished fishing town until a mining company tapped into its natural deposits of nickel ore. The mining activities brought residents employment opportunities and that subsequently raised Languyan’s annual income, skyrocketing its classification to a first-class municipality.
Mining activities come with a price and at the expense of the environment. The first thing we saw when the PCG’s BRP Capones approached the coast of Languyan is the massive denudation of a hill fronting the sea, due to the quarrying operations. One could only hope that the local government is addressing the situation to mitigate the effects of mining in the eco-balance of the region.
A celebration of the Sama people
Just when I was starting to conclude that most of the Philippine festivals are starting to look and feel the same, the Agal-Agal Festival left me a different vibe.
Showcasing the rich Muslim culture of the Sama people, as well as traditional influences from the Tausugs, Badjao and Jama Mapun, a stunning display showed flamboyant native costumes, skillful playing of upbeat native music and graceful dance performances. I was particularly impressed by the ensemble of unique dance choreographies. The Sama style of dancing involves expressive fingers and pointed long fingernails with sinewy arm movements, the highlight of the performances from the nine municipal contingents of the province.
On the eve of the festival’s street parade, a show was held at the town’s gymnasium, where performers from the other municipalities of Tawi-Tawi showcased various cultural performances after which both local residents and visitors feasted on a sumptuous set of local cuisines.
Aside from the flamboyant costumes patterned from traditional designs and made from local materials, such as rattan, dried seaweeds, seashells and even starfishes used as earrings, the performers also showed local dances, such as the igal ma lan and pangalay to the beat of the kulintang musical instruments. The gist of the street-dance competition depicted the Sama people’s way of living and beliefs by dramatizing the seaweed farming and courtships, as well as staving off pagsuran, a term for demonic or spiritual possession believed to be caused by a sting of a tawti (catfish), by performing the traditional tawti dance.
This year nine out of eleven municipalities of Tawi-Tawi participated in the street-dancing competition which paraded around the town and concluded at the gym of Languyan. The municipalities of Simunul, Sapa-Sapa and Bongao bagged the top 3 spot and went home with a cool P1-million cash prize.
A cure for my unfounded notion
While admittedly, prior to my trip to Tawi-Tawi, I have preconceived notion of a province marred in conflict and of a volatile situation. Experiencing the Agal-Agal Festival not only gave me with a new perspective about the rich culture reigning in this province, I also witnessed the warmth of the people of Tawi-Tawi, saw many stunning islands and beaches, and felt an overall sense of well-being that is anything but troubled. After an almost weeklong trip, I went home with a fresh and factual concept of Tawi-Tawi, where fear will only deny you another off-the-beaten-track worthy of discovery.
Image credits: Marky Ramone Go