“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” A lady, who emerged from the darkness, came walking into our funny conversation and suddenly the others became quiet. The Tribal Council Kagawad, “Imong”, Chieftain’s wife, Teresa, another lady named Nenita, I and my teammates Rudra and Jojo—had already been speaking for a while about the current situation in the tribe. It was dusk, and I could not clearly make out the faces of the handful of bystanders standing at the edges of the open hut, listening to our conversation.

“Good evening po!” I beamed. Despite our whirlwind trips to all Batak settlements in Puerto Princesa and Roxas, starting from Sitio Timbuan (Bgy. Abaroan), then Nanabo (Bgy. Caramay), then Tanabag (Bgy. Kalakwasan), then Tagnaya (Bgy. Concepcion), then Riandakan (Bgy. Maoyon), and now here in Manggapin (Bgy. Langogan)—I was still full of emotional energy. My body may have been weak and sickly but I was in great condition to explain the project to anyone and everyone who asked. “We’re from an NGO called Ananda Marga and we’re aiming to build a livelihood project for you guys. We’re here to ask if this is something you’d be interested in.”

Before I got the chance to explain what the project was, she said, “That’s what the others said too. That they were NGOs who were trying to help.” The Batak’s way of speaking has a musical quality to it, and their tone—the way the pitch rises and falls—is similar to a city-dwelling person talking in anger.

“…but they turned out to be concessionaires,” she continued. “And they kicked us out of our own land, got us into jail, and kept our vegetables and plants for themselves.”

So she was angry. Rudra’s blanket of humor—which had lifted all our weariness away and filled the bystanders’ curiosity with laughter, had suddenly turned heavy with uncertainty. There was tension in the air, I could feel it. Almost all of the bystanders had scattered.

I was silent. I didn’t know what to say.

“If you’re here to do that too, I suggest you turn back.” She warned.

“How did that happen to you?” I asked. Who was this lady—who was so regal in her posture and wary of NGOs—now openly doubting our motivations and testing our loyalty?

***

It’s been eight months since this surprising introduction between Batak Craft team and Baselisa, the Batak ex-lady-chieftain of Sitio Manggapin, Barangay Langogan. Today, Baselisa’s sentiments are no different from the ones back in November 2014, where we first met her on a drizzling evening.

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