In 2002, Elena Garcdoce Francisco, a 102-year-old Tumandok woman, journeyed to Iloilo City from her mountain home in Panay. She sang an ambahan, protesting the destruction wrought by militarization in her ancestral lands. These military incursions date back to at least 1962, under then President Diosdado Macapagal.
This practice of telling stories through poetry and chants remains an intrinsic part of the communal life of many indigenous villages. However, notes writer and poet Gelacio Guillermo, the traditional content of these poetic expressions have been giving way to expressing new ideas, feelings, and aspirations—ones related to militarization, logging, mining, land-grabbing, the destruction of forests. Indigenous women continue the practice of ulallems, agayams, and salidum-ay. These poetic expressions are intended as a collective experience, with no barrier between the performer and her audience.
Gardoce Francisco’s chant could have been a galvanizing moment, bringing a common understanding of how communities are being imperiled and immiserated by a confluence of multinational and local elite interests.
But we—urban and lowland dwellers, schooled in Western-style universities—are painfully unequipped to understand her words. We are unable to see ambahan, agayam, salidum-ay, ullalem, as knowledge production.
In fact, in our chauvinism, many of us refuse to see women like Elena Gardoce Francisco as producers of knowledge. Which partly explains the colonialist methods that many women’s groups, including international ones as well as those based in Manila, deploy in “helping” indigenous Third World women.
This ambahan example illustrates the difficulties and missed opportunities for collective knowledge and action. In her essay “Teaching for the Times,” Gayatri Spivak advocates for transnational literacy, a mode of thinking and teaching against colonialism, through harnessing local knowledge. Spivak asks educators, researchers, and activists to understand and critique forms of cultural production and instruction that could work to further colonialism. Transnational literacy also necessarily calls for orienting institutions away from nation-state formulations that generally favor the Western imaginary, towards recognition of the multiplicity of language and cultural forms.
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I’ve been thinking of women and knowledge production.
Of the seedbanks that women in the Cordilleras struggle to maintain and pass on to the next generation, in the face of massive displacement caused by corporate mining and militarization.
Of the prayer groups and Catholic masses that unionistas facilitated, in order to help women at the Cavite Export Processing Zones organize in the face of brutal labor repression.
Of Elena Gardoce Francisco’s invitation, through ambahan, to experience her people’s lives.
Their activities nourish and challenge us. They are devising new and old ways of referencing the small failures and interruptions of logic in what Spivak has called the “allegory of capitalism.” Like seeds and prayers and poetic chants, this is work that is both interruptive and nourishing.
And it only seems fitting that this is work that has traditionally been created and sustained by women.
Inspired by Teo’s post on the university and knowledge production at Kapirasong Kritika. Those of you who read Filipino are lucky enough to experience his wonderful and astute writing.