January 2007
Good (Local) Governance

ARMM town thrives on traditional arts

Carving an okir design on an unfinished debakan, a wooden drum which Maranaos fashion out of jackfruit or mango trees. [photo by Bobby Timonera]

VIEW an image gallery of Tugaya.

HOME OF the Sultanates, sarimanok, and Islam: Visiting Lanao del Sur province of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is like going back to centuries ago, when women walked around gracefully in their malongs (traditional wrap-around clothing) and men who had betel-stained golden teeth played chess all day. But although being transported to a place that seems stuck in time could be soothing to a frazzled urbanite, the truth is Lanao del Sur is that way largely because it is one of the poorest provinces in the country, while ARMM is the poorest region in the Philippines in all indicators of human development.

In a little town called Tugaya, however, keeping alive the traditional arts and crafts of Lanao del Sur’s predominant tribe has meant not only the preservation of a unique culture, but also having reliable sources of income for many of its residents. And in the last few years, business has become even better for Tugaya artisans and entrepreneurs, who have also increased in number.

To do this, the Tugaya municipal government headed by Mayor Alimatar Guroalim used as guide the suggestions of the townspeople themselves on how to improve the local economy. The young mayor also put in place a system that has helped reduce political conflicts in Tugaya, which has at least nine major clans that used to find it difficult to see eye to eye.

It has been said that poverty in ARMM is a product of the sporadic wars caused mainly by local resistance to outside forces. Tugaya also used to erupt in conflicts between clans that often turned deadly, but now the sounds one hears in the town are usually the whiz, hiss, buzz, and bangs created by artisans hard at work, and not heart-stopping gunshots or bloodcurdling screams. Turn a corner or enter a home, and one is bound to find someone bent over a loom, pouring molten metal into moulds, or putting the finishing touches on an intricately carved chest, wall décor, or giant drum (which is said to have been used in the past by the sultan to call his people to meetings).

Brassware trader and woodcraftsman Alamin says proudly that he has foreign customers always in wait for his carved wooden boxes. He says he even has a catalogue of his designs, but he is careful not to show it to just anyone since he has no desire to have copycats.

Many of Tugaya’s married women, meanwhile, are glad they now have a better chance of becoming financially independent — unlike those in other towns in ARMM who have little access to employment. The municipal government had apparently listened when Tugaya’s women said they needed help to get started in business; now there is a capital-assistance program just for them. Says Ameena, a weaver: “I am able to be a productive and independent mother…Earning is a means to empower ourselves.”

Tugaya, of course, has long been known as the home of the arts and crafts of the Maranao tribe, to which many people in Lanao del Sur belong. But it was not until last June, when the town marked yet another founding anniversary, that Tugaya dared call itself the “Industrial Capital of Lanao del Sur.”

Location map of Lanao del Sur courtesy of Wikipedia

WITH A population of about 22,000, Tugaya has 23 barangays occupying some 4,028 hectares. It is 22 kilometers away from the city of Marawi and is situated along the western shore of Lake Lanao. The townfolk also fish and do marginal farming, but the main source of livelihood in Tugaya remains arts and crafts that showcase the Maranao okir or decorating style. Indeed, one can actually tell where he or she is in Tugaya just by looking at what is being made in the area. The barangays of Lumbac, Bubong, and Pandiaranao, for instance, are into brassware-making. Sugod-I, Ingud Poblacion, Dilimbayan, and Tangcal specialize in woodcarving and making inlaid chests. Barangay Lumbac, meanwhile, is known for its malong and langkit (trimmings with ethnic designs).

Last year, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts even nominated Tugaya as a World Heritage Site because of the arts and crafts it produces. According to the Commission, the Maranao arts and crafts coming out of Tugaya “are intimately enmeshed with the cultural structure and organization of the people such that it is highly distinguishable from all other forms, although these would still belong to a pan-Southeast Asian culture.” (It is still on the tentative list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which is responsible for the World Heritage Sites.)

Said to be one of the last bastions of Islamic civilization in Lanao del Sur, Tugaya also has special place in Philippine history. After all, it was there that the flag of resistance, the Pandi-a-ranao, was planted by local hero Sheikh Saruang, who fought against the Spanish invaders.

By the time Alimatar Guroalim was elected mayor in 2004, however, much of the fighting in Tugaya was being done by the town’s clans among themselves. Unfortunately, their bickering — usually regarding politics or over who had the right to head the Sultanate — was also affecting everyone else. A law graduate from the University of the East in Manila, Guroalim had spent much of the previous decade away from Tugaya, since he was based in Baguio, where he worked at the Office on Muslim Affairs. His visits to his hometown, however, were enough to make him realize the debilitating impact the local feuds were having on Tugaya’s growth.

INTRICATE DESIGN. Each and every piece of those small bits of mother-of-pearl shell inlays for the bauls (treasure chest) and other Tugaya wood producst is placed by hand. [photo by Bobby Timonera]

VIEW an image gallery of Tugaya.

Yet while bringing the clans together was certainly on his checklist of to-dos as a budding politician, Guroalim says he entered politics with a platform of addressing development. “If we compare traditional leaders and the modern ones, we see that (there is a lack of emphasis on) improvement with the former,” he explains. “Traditional leaders were only concerned with pacifying conflicts, but the development of the inged (community) is forgotten.”

And so one of the first things Guroalim did after winning was to consult residents on how to improve the economy in Tugaya. Taking the cue from them, the young first-time mayor passed laws to support micro-enterprise at the barangay level, focusing on upgrading the cottage industry in Tugaya. He also passed a law to create a display center at the corner where one turns to go into Tugaya from the national highway — the better for the town’s products to be seen by more potential customers.

Women’s groups in particular were provided with start-up capital, with many of them choosing to go into embroidery work. According to the mayor, the women were very vocal at consultation meetings regarding what they needed. “We saw how the women were much more active in accessing support and coordinating with us,” he says. He adds that supporting them with training has proven to be the right move, since many women have applied what they learned and earning even as they continue to keep house.

THESE DAYS, mothers doubling as entrepreneurs are a common sight in Tugaya (very much unlike in other parts of ARMM). Many women toil away not only over hot stoves preparing hot meals for their families, but also over their sewing machines, making blankets and pillows. Many like Ameena have also taken up weaving, which in Tugaya means the traditional backloom. Some stitch sequin after sequin on meters of cloth to make wall hangings. In bright yellow, green, or red — the Maranao royal colors — these wall hangings are staple decorations in local feasts, such as weddings and other festive celebrations.

Obviously, though, the municipal government had to find funding and training sources — for the women, as well as any other Tugayan interested in working or going into business. The Department of Trade and Industry supported training workshops and capacity-building programs. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Muslim CARD and international funding groups like the Canadian International Development Agency (through the Local Government Support Program-ARMM or LGSPA) supported the logistical side of local cottage industry needs. The LGSPA helped organize the Local Economic Development, which provides the economic development framework used in fostering local government-donor partnerships and aids the municipal government prioritize economic activities. The Mindanao State University in nearby Marawi City extended technical assistance.

Preparing the pattern for the okir design of Tugaya’s famous brasswares. [photo by Bobby Timonera]

VIEW an image gallery of Tugaya.

At the same time, the Guroalim administration worked on upgrading the educational system, focusing on supporting both the English and Arabic schools. As the mayor sees it, education is crucial to self-reliance and success. Again, the municipal government tapped NGOs and funding agencies, mainly to help it build classrooms and school buildings, although some groups later opted to sponsor livelihood programs for the children’s parents. The argument behind that was a higher family income would mean more funds for the children’s school needs and would encourage parents to keep sending their kids to school. The local government also gave allowances to teachers in 20 Islamic schools in Tugaya.

As for the feuding clans, a program aimed at drawing their participation and encouraging consensus was set up. Soon representatives of the major clans — Maruhom Malimala, Maruhom Amai Banto, Maruhom Sarip, Maruhom Taop, Maruhom Radiamoda, Maruhom Sabir, Maruhom Naba, Maruhom Siddick, and Maruhom Jaman — were signing a covenant of power-sharing. Under the system they agreed on, each clan would take turns at having a member sit as the sultan, much like how today’s Malaysian sultans take turns at being king of that country.

Actually, Guroalim himself could be said to be a product of efforts to bring peace between two former feuding families: the Pacalnas and the Pukunums. (His paternal grandmother is from the Pacalna clan and his mother is a Pukunum.) Both families are prominent in local politics, as is the Guroalim clan itself. He has at least one grandparent and several uncles who were at one time or another the chief executive of Tugaya.

PROUDLY MADE IN TUGAYA. Newly made brasswares are displayed outisde a Tugaya household. [photo by Bobby Timonera]

VIEW an image gallery of Tugaya.

SUCH A political lineage, however, may have meant little to the townfolk of Tugaya when the 30-something Guroalim decided to run for mayor three years ago. Having lived far from Lanao for so long, Guroalim wasn’t that popular in his hometown. And unlike his relatives who had been mayor, he was neither charismatic nor a fiery speaker. At the 2004 elections, he was up against a set of relatives, too: former mayor Mangawan Balindong, Ayonan Pangcoga, and Sagosara Pukunum. Yet when the dust at the polls finally settled, it was Guroalim who emerged as winner — by a slim margin of some 50 votes over his closest opponent.

Whatever it was that made Tugayans choose him, many of them are thankful for it now. Many of the women, for instance, say this is the first time in Tugaya that there is livelihood support, and especially for them. Tugayans also say they like how their mayor constantly comes up with development programs.

Trade and industry department provincial representative Cabili Arobinto notes that Tugaya has become more reliable in meeting orders placed by customers. This is even as its customer base continues to widen. In the last few years, Maranao arts and crafts — most of them coming from Tugaya — have become more visible not only in Davao City, but also in Manila, where they can be seen in chic offices and upscale residences.

For sure that’s partly because Maranao traders have become more peripatetic. But it could also be because, as several Tugayans believe, Tugaya has stepped up efforts to market its products. At the very least, observers say, other municipalities in Lanao del Sur have yet to match the level attained by the town in terms of product reach.

Tugayans, however, wish Guroalim were as successful in eliminating factions in their town. While all seems quiet among the major clans, political factions persist. Vice Mayor Paisal Azis, for instance, has made it clear Guroalim has yet to get on his good side. Azis has even filed a case of dismissal against the mayor, who he says was involved in an alleged kidnapping of the mayor’s own relative.

CRAFTSMAN AT WORK. An old Maranao makes blades in his workshop under his house. [photo by Bobby Timonera]

VIEW an image gallery of Tugaya.

Having a hostile second in command could be a major distraction. Guroalim, however, seems determined to keep his eye on the prize — which is not necessarily another shot at being mayor, although he is certainly running again this May. The real prize is in keeping Maranao arts and crafts alive, not only because they provide income for the artisans, but also because they help maintain the memory and identity of the Maranao.

In Tugaya, Guroalim says, the older generation of craftsmen and artists is already passing on their skills to youthful successors. But it would be better, he says, if that would be replicated elsewhere in ARMM so that there would be a greater chance the Maranao culture that has withstood wars would live on.