Ankle Walks and Village Games: Postcard #3 from the Philippines

Oct 11, 2012

1 October, Part II

Faustino, our Subanon translator.
Faustino, our Subanon translator.

The site of the training is a short tuk-tuk ride from the pension house. It becomes clear as we begin that there is a diversity of languages in the room. We spend some time trying to figure out which – Tagalog, Ilonggo, Cebuano or Subanon – is common to all. Even the young Subanon women can get by with Cebuano, so that’s what we go with. Faustino, a veteran of our 2009 training and a Subanon pastor, is pressed into translating.

Entire days are spent in economic literacy training, interrogating all of the proffered justifications for violence or conflict – tribe, religion, history, culture, politics; though all are factors and drive violence, it is economics we discover at the root of all the stories.  The Village Game – an extended role play that ends in corporate invasion and destruction – is followed by a tour through Paolo Freire’s wheel of oppression.  Pedagogy of the OppressedWe trace the Brasilian priest and educator’s schematic from oppression to normalisation of one level of oppression into what becomes the new normal of escalated oppression, internalisation of the oppressors’ world view that issues in the in-turned self-censorship, self-circumscription, self-repression of lateral violence.  Participants come up with examples of the first step out of oppression identified by Freire:  problematisation, whereby the ‘normal’ is suddenly or slowly seen as ‘problem’.  The contours, shape and mechanisms of oppression begin to surface for what they are, identified and analysed as such – no longer a given to be endured or accommodated but ready for challenge.

Here in Mindanao, my colleagues point to Christian proselytising as key in fostering passivity and compliant withdrawal in the face of land-grabbing, displacement and environmental destruction by settlers and resource extraction industry.  The colonial partnerships of earlier centuries – soldiers, settlers, priests and merchants – remain effective instruments of domination and destruction.  While the Village Game with the multi-national group in Iloilo resulted in resistance and organising against the actions and threats of invading corporate power, assisted by local collaborators – with no enticements, whether financial or coercive, effective in breaking down opposition to our offers of ‘development’ wealth – here in Mindanao, even the smallest gestures of resistance are absent.  Perhaps even more telling, the invitation to dream, to design the ‘ideal village’, is reduced to the OK village, the slightly-improved village, with a health clinic – but no staff, a schoolyard with no children, houses, markets and central square with no people, a field filled with produce – for export; a stand of trees reduced to a single tree – because the rest have been felled and removed by illegal loggers.

Group gathers around in Village exercise.The visitors erect oil wells in market squares, drill for gold where the health centre used to be, dumping the tailings in the rivers that wind through the villages; KFCs, McDonalds and the Walmart-like SM Cities replace indigenous shops, restaurants and markets.  Land is grabbed, trees are clear-cut, jarringly played out with the invaders tearing off large sections of the ‘village’, walking off with the extracted paper rolled up under their arms. The bits and pieces of villages are piled in the middle of the floor, the invaders’ trophy.

The experiential model is all about asking the right questions, setting up an experience, reflecting on what happened, what was done, the feelings evoked and then generalising that experience to their real lives.  The emotions – sadness, anger, frustration, joy – are potent tools of learning, facilitating the linkages with what they know and experience every day.  In the unpacking of this experience, where little has surfaced to build on and affirm, I am struggling to figure out how to move forward: in all the times I have used this tool, this has never happened before.

Then a woman named Leonilla says, ‘We should have resisted.  Now we know.’ And the debriefing then takes off.  What would that have looked like?  If we were to do the game again, what would you do differently? Here, for you, what does resistance look like?  How would you go about it?  What is required?

Participant takes notes in the training.Mid-way through the last day in a training where the inter-faith element has been a challenge due to the Christians vastly outnumbering the handful of Muslims, we attempt what I call the ABCs/aliph bah taa of Christianity and Islam.  In response to a question about how many of the former have ever been in a mosque – a couple or three – they recognise the courage and perseverance of the Muslims (all men) to accept the invitation and to keep coming back.  In the course of this show-and-tell on our respective faiths, each is invited to ask questions of the other.  The Muslims, who have tended to huddle together by the door, are invited to the front of the room to make their presentation and field questions. What starts out as an attempt to bring them in from the margins ends with them ‘on trial’ with the first question posed sounding less like clarification or information-seeking and more like an accusation; the interrogator sets the trap, the imam falls into it, agreeing with her that jihad against the kafir – unbeliever or infidel – is a requirement of Islam.  When it is the Muslims’ opportunity to pose questions of the Christians following their presentation, the imam answers for them:  he has none; he knows them all too well.  A good learning for the trainer and the organisers.  The imbalance makes an effective Muslim-Christian engagement unlikely:  mainstreamness and marginality are all too potently felt – and expressed accordingly.

We have just begun a new exercise when the building begins to shudder; the floor shakes beneath our feet and the lights hanging from the ceiling swing wildly and go out.  My colleagues grab me and shove me towards the door, down the steep steps and out into the yard towards the street.  The quake doesn’t last long but in my shortlist of seismic experiences, this is the strongest.  Though Deli expresses concern about after-shocks and a tsunami, for those for whom this is a frequent occurrence, we’re back to business within a few minutes.

Towards the end of the training, we do the ‘Ankle Walk’.  It’s a large group and it needs to be done inside since there is insufficient level ground outside and, besides, the rains are threatening. The wooden benches are shoved to the edges of the room to make room for the first contest.  Four groups of nine each, two at a time, will walk the length of the long, narrow room, vying to reach the finish line first.  The ‘walk’ is complicated, however, by the requirement that everyone must walk ankle-to-ankle with their neighbour – not so difficult with two or even three; a significant challenge with such a large number.  If any two ankles are seen to lose touch with one another, the whole group goes back to the starting line.

Eighteen people, shoulder-to-shoulder take up all of the available space from the east wall to the west.  The ‘finish line’ is about ten metres away.  The race begins with a clap of hands – and off they go!  The cheering and laughter – interrupted by groans as one team in each of the two heats has to start over – are deafening as the two teams make their arduous way, calculating each move, shouting advice, encouragement and instructions with every show and deliberate, sliding step.

In every training, there is a ‘first’, something that has never happened before.  In this one, a Village Game in which no resistance was offered; and an Ankle Walk of extraordinary elegance and success!   With everyone back on their benches and the circle more or less re-formed, we offer ‘noticings’ on what happened, how we felt, what we did – and what it all means for life and peacemaking.  The exhilaration is palpable.  And the last of the resistances falls.  In the unpacking, they ‘notice’ their planning, their analysis, their strategising, their co-operation and collaboration, the shifting leadership up and down the line as the need arose.

I ask if our learnings about Mainstreams and Margins had any impact in this exercise.  Not sure.  I ‘notice’ that, despite the numbering around the room that breaks up cliques, Abdullah switched groups.  The young man with the wispy beard and a colourful taqiyyah on his head grins – caught!  But, I said, I think I know why.  He ‘broke the rules’ – a topic on which we have spent a lot of time – choosing to place himself at the side of the elderly imam, Ismael.  That the latter agreed to participate in this and stuck with it to the end was a remarkable, amazing thing to watch and, surely, in some small or large part, due to Abdullah’s choice to accompany him.  At one point, the imam’s two feet were close to a metre apart; he looked as if he would collapse, but Abdullah gently, patiently, urged him on, taking his weight as Ismael shifted his other foot in tandem with that of Jefferson on his other side.  Ismael was not the only elderly person who did the walk; at every point, the younger ones were paying attention to and supporting the elders.

The shy and heretofore almost completely silent young Subanon women are now fully a part of this circle, as are the Muslims.  In the course of the unpacking, Abdullah and Ismael laugh out loud as they are good-naturedly teased for ‘breaking the rules’.  As they prepare to depart for asr prayers, they turn to salute the whole room; the sound of applause follows them down the steps and into the street.


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention