Saturday, September 22, 2007


(Bringing Arts Education to Tawi-Tawi Teachers)
by John L. Silva

It seemed foolhardy to go to Tawi-Tawi. There was all-out war raging in the neighboring islands of Basilan and Jolo. The fighting was fierce and ten marines in one encounter were decapitated by Muslim rebels. Retribution was in the offing.

The request though from Synergeia was urgent. If I-LOVE-MUSEUM, our training program for public school teachers did not travel within the week, the window of opportunity to teach there would be lost. Synergeia’s teaching program in Tawi-Tawi was to end in a month and the holy fasting month Ramadan was coming up prohibiting these activities. We had to go now or not at all.

Synergeia has been training public school teachers for several years in the Sulu Archipelago where Tawi-Tawi and Jolo are located. They were yielding results; children’s reading scores had increased by over 10%. Now, Synergeia would add arts education, convinced that children learning aesthetics and loving their local arts and culture would also help their overall achievement scores.

There was never any good time to go to Sulu with some conflict or another arising. But recent events were nerve wracking. This war was serious.

I dug deep into the recesses of my devil-may-care past when life was intensely and precariously lived. Why should I, in mid-life become so safe and boring? To hell with the war. I’m teaching aesthetics!

So I hopped on an early morning flight to Zamboanga, transferred to a small plane for a bumpy two hour ride, through a scary monsoon rain and zero visibility to reach Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi.

A book I read years back called Song of Salanda by H. Arlo Nimmo drew me to Tawi-Tawi. Nimmo, an anthropologist, studied the people of Sulu in the sixties and wrote his encounters with them. They were memorable subjects: a Badjau woman known for her singing but unhappy with her marriage, a nun schooled abroad but returned to work as a doctor, a smuggler/pirate loved by his village, these were just some of them, living in exotic sounding islands like Siasi, Sitangkai, Simunul. I never forgot them and vowed one day to visit.

All anxiety faded as the plane touched the grassy airfield, the sun broke out from the clouds and a group of happy teachers awaited me with welcome banners. In less than an hour I was in a makeshift audio visual room with over 70 veiled teachers curious of my mission.

The teachers had an air of subtle indifference to me in the beginning. Here was a person from Catholic Manila, carrying National Museum credentials making me part of a government that has not cared for them. It’s a matter of course that public school teachers there get their salaries late, sometimes 4 – 6 months late. The part time and probationary teachers aren’t paid for up to two years. Compound this affront with a three-decade civil war, their villages destroyed, a stagnating economy, no local taxes earmarked for education, no school textbooks distributed in years, and rotting schools and you’d expect a demoralized bunch of teachers. Yet, here they are in front of me, having paid their own way to travel hours to learn about art. They are teachers first and foremost. You see it in their smiles and feel it in the soft handshakes ending with a tap to the breast. They never forgot nor forsaken their childhood ambition to be teachers.

It usually starts with a joke, an irreverent quip. If they laughed, I was in their confidence as a fellow teacher rather than some boring bureaucrat on a talking junket. Beside, I was part of Synergeia, and they’d seen the success in their students reading levels. Surely, an art program could only help their students as well.

Of all the ethnic groups in the country, Filipino Muslims were never totally subjugated by the Spanish and the Americans. Their culture, melded with Islam, remained intact while the rest of the country assimilated into colonial culture. The teachers may have warmed to my program but they let it be known they had enough mat weaving, kris making, brass ware, jewelry crafts, epics, songs and dances to rival whatever art forms I was showing. And they were right.

In my powerpoint, there were more than enough of the finest Muslim artwork and artifacts throughout the Islamic world for them to take pride in. One of my teaching modules, about the Elements of Aesthetics - Color, Line, Shapes and Texture - appealed to them since Islamic art is devoid of figurative works. The intricacy of calligraphy, the geometric patterns in their walls and carvings, and the brilliant colors and designs in their fabrics became more pronounced and esteemed. Aesthetics transcended the cultural distinctions of Muslim and western civilizations. By the end of the day, the teachers were enthralled and convinced about arts education.

Much as they had significant culture to bare, the teachers knew it was endangered. There is cable television and video games in far flung Tawi-Tawi with children spending an inordinate amount on them. The elders, fast disappearing, are the only ones weaving, carving, pounding brass, and melting gold. The teachers themselves no longer know these processes. In their survey forms, they realized arts education would be the hedge to the possible decimation of all their indigenous art forms.

At the end of the long day workshop, a space was cleared in the auditorium and a dance troupe replete in traditional clothing appeared. They performed ancient ceremonial dances about courtship, combat, and sea myths, evoking the motions of seagulls and the waves of the sea. Hands, arms, shoulders, torsos and legs possessing fluidity and grace writhed in sensual motion with the hands ending in an upward curl. It reminded one of the curled Okir design so prominent in their artistic environment. The dances’ indigenous purity recalled similar dance forms in neighboring Borneo and Indonesia, evidence of the artificial divide colonial powers imposed in these parts. One teacher confessed that she had seen these dances often, but, after Art Connection, saw deeper implications. For her, these dances were reminders of a regal past.

To maximize our trip, we obliged our hosts to do I-LOVE-MUSEUMS the following day in an outlying island, forty-five minutes away. At the crack of dawn we were on the fastest speedboat I had ever ridden (to elude pirate speedboats still plying the waters) headed for Panglima Sugala. With Malaysia just fifty miles away, one could see the phantom peaks of the mountains of Borneo.

At the pier, we were greeted by high school students performing more native dances, another subtle reminder that they manage, despite the odds, to keep their culture alive. The towns people including Mayor and Mrs. Nurbert Shahali welcomed us and encouraged the attending teachers to learn from the workshop.

Like in Bongao, the hall where I taught were makeshift rooms that had large windows covered in black cloth for my LCD presentation. However, there was no airconditioning and the room turned quickly into an oven with over 60 teachers in attendance. But it didn’t faze the teachers one bit as they gave me their full attention and took copious notes.

Panglima Sugala,with its sluggish swaying trees, is quite rural; the slow village tempo as the teachers trickled in from early afternoon prayers and their long expressive smiles created an intimacy among us not found in an urban setting. The humor I injected to ward sleepiness in an airless humid room was received with long-drawn-out laughter. And to my surprise, in this bucolic village where neither orthodox Islam or Christianity had much sway, I found the teachers less reserved, more forthcoming, analytical and open to new ideas. Pictures with nudity elicited quite earthy remarks and raucous laughter. Panglima Sugala prides itself as one of the rare communities where Christians and Muslims live and work peacefully with one another.

The teachers were divided into three groups at the end of the workshop and asked what they had learned and their plans from thereon. On large rolls of brown paper taped to walls they wrote how they learned to develop creativity in children and to appreciate the art works of their ancestors. Almost all of them wanted to bring their students to a museum and build their own school museum. As they excitedly promised to introduce arts to their students, outside, since we started that morning, were six heavily armed soldiers stationed for our protection. I wasn’t worried about my safety but this was Sulu; soldiers and guns were regular fixtures whenever visitors came to town.

The sun was setting and we had to be back in Bongao for the evening. There was one more dance performance by the students and we did not hesitate being treated to another rendition of delicate sinuous movements accompanied by hypnotic gongs and the gamelan.

A profundity came over me, watching a brilliant sunset, windswept on a speedboat skimming the Sulu Sea returning to Bongao. It had been two days of intense teaching, tiring, yet exhilarating. The epiphany in the faces of teachers learning Aesthetics 101 was so discordant with the fighting, killing and bombings going on in nearby islands. The irony invigorated me, prodding me further to teach the sanctity and beauty in life against a moribund culture of death and destruction.

Mayor Albert Que of Bongao invited me to dinner that evening at his beach side home. Amidst the delicious seafood and the calming breeze the Mayor looked particularly glum. Synergeia’s reading program, funded by USAID would end this September after just two years of teacher training. Student reading scores were up, but the program was to inexplicably end. It was tempting to wax cynicism: Tawi-Tawi was being penalized for being relatively peaceful and funders like to go where there’s conflict. In a Mindanao strewn with AUSAid, and CIDA and a host of other international funding acronyms, there is a serious temptation for geopolitical jockeying and overlook the original objective. The one on raising reading scores.

There was a lunar eclipse on our last night. We all waited in the open veranda of our beachside quarters. The dogs began to howl, piercing screams were heard in the distance, while gunfire punctuated the night. We rushed outside joining the townspeople all gathered looking at the moon. In these parts, with little artificial light, and a flat immense sea, the slow encroachment of the moon’s surface was very clear. The townspeople were talking animatedly in agreement, “Bakunawa, the giant lizard is eating the moon.”

More gunfire erupted and I noticed that the people around me were rubbing their nails together. They believed the friction of nail to nail caused a sound that frightens the Bakunawa. Everyone including myself rubbed our nails as the moon disappeared. After a long period, a crescent appeared and the moon slowly came to view again. The people around me felt victorious. The sound of our nails alarmed Bakunawa causing him to spit out the moon.

“See, there it is, the moon is back.”

Before retiring, I walked to the beach, my path and the shore illuminated by the moon. The distinctive crag of Bongao Beak rose like a frozen black tidal wave in the distance. The lunar drama earlier was fading and what remained in my mind was Nimmo’s book. Returning to Sulu twenty years later, he barely recognized it. There had been a war in the interim and the Bongao he knew was destroyed. The people he wrote about were either killed or left Tawi-Tawi. The population had increased several fold, straining the island, its forests denuded and fishing scarce. He ends his book by saying

“I shall never return to Sulu. I cannot. My lovely Sulu is gone.”

Despite his lament, and the depradations haunting Sulu today, Nimmo revealed in his earlier chapters a people immensely kind and generous, determined to make life better for their community. I thought of the teachers and their indomitable spirit to continue teaching their students even if unpaid for months on end and scantly respected. I thought of Mayor Que and Mayor Shahali, two rare officials who valued education for their students. I thought of the various people who were generous to a fault and were in the background doing logistics so all I did was click on my remote and the workshop came off perfectly. No compensation. Just a desire to see their students get smarter. These teachers, these people of Bongao and Panglima Sugala are composites of the people Nimmo once knew, documented and loved.

I will always return to Sulu. I will. My lovely Sulu still exists.

John L. Silva is the Senior Consultant for the National Museum. For further information about Synergeia’s reading programs or wishing to attend an I-LOVE-MUSEUM whole-day art appreciation workshop, call or text 0926 729 9029 or e-mail