Hidden away in the mountains in the northern Philippines, the Aetas are a gentle people with a poorly known culture. Treated as second-class citizens, they try to somehow perpetuate their ancestral traditions.
In the little bamboo house of Sheryl, the television is constantly on. From the TV you can hear the sounds of a soppy soap opera that Sheryl admits she enjoys watching from time to time without really being passionate about it. It is about a young girl who marries too young and is unhappy. She conveniently develops amnesia and is adopted by a wealthy family. It is another “I love you, me neither” story against the standard background of large cars and fantastic villas with views of Manila Bay. In a way, it is also a kind of typical Filipino dream. Sheryl laughs at her addiction to this mind-numbing programme. “But everyone watches it, every evening all Filipinos are glued to their TVs,” she says in her defence.
In sum, there seems to be something to this explanation. Watching a silly soap opera means feeling that you are part of the world. It is also about feeling fully Filipino. It has everything: Rachel and her family are “IPs”, indigenous people of the Aeta ethnic group. The term “IP” suffices to encapsulate how the Aetas are perceived by the rest of the Filipino population. But the explanation does not go far enough. It is also a particular Filipino weakness to label people with colloquial names like this. “IP” is a fairly recent name, avoiding the less politically correct “negritos” which is still sometimes used and was inspired by the physical appearance of the Aetas.
A people of the coast and the mountains
A gentle people, warm and peaceful, the Aetas are considered to be the original inhabitants of the Philippines. They are said to have arrived to the islands some 4000 years ago from Taiwan, although sources and theories differ on this point. What we do know is that the Aetas were originally a coastal people and they gradually withdrew to remote mountains, driven there by not always gentle Filipinos and Spaniards. It is in the mountains we find them today, especially in the area of Balanga, about three hours northwest of Manila.
There the early morning is like the world’s very first morning. The surroundings – mountains and nothing but mountains – are simply breathtaking. The morning unfolds in little insignificant things and the children, Anthony (24), Sheryl (21), Adrian (18), Sharolyn (15) and Sharmia (12), still half asleep, huddle around their parents Agapito and Sonia and the kitchen table, under a small thatched roof supported by a wooden beam on which you inevitably bump your head.
Sonia smokes a cigarette and dishes out fairly meagre portions of rice with little bits of fish. After this, everyone scatters and goes about their business. We notice that cooking is done on the floor, on a small fireplace made of three stones arranged in a triangle, and the gas stove next to it at waist height is ignored.
Mestizo Aetas and “100%” Aetas
While the younger ones walk off to look for cashew nuts or mangoes, Adrian goes to move the post of the goat, which overnight has grazed a green circle in the vegetation. Sonia, the mother, washes the kitchen dirt floor with plenty of water. Sheryl prepares to go into town. When Adrian returns, he sits at the handlebars of the family three-wheeler auto-rickshaw and immediately starts the engine with a swift downkick. Sheryl re-reads her shopping list and mounts the rickshaw.
Throughout the village it is more or less the same picture. The predominant impression is that this Aeta world, from ancient times, is a place where you subsist with very little and yet live famously. Fourteen families live here and very few of them are now what is called “100%”. That means one hundred per cent Aeta. Most are mestizos, the fruit of relationships between Tagalog Filipinos and Aetas. Sheryl’s family is a prime example because while Sonia can claim to be a “100%”, Agapito, the father, is a Filipino from the Visayas, in the south of the archipelago. Accoy, Sonia’s brother, is also one of the last “100%” in the community and he is similarly married to a Tagalog.
Accoy has never worn shoes in his life and he walks only barefoot. For hunting, for harvesting – the Aetas sometimes plant seedlings as daily hired workers in a rich local landowner’s ricefields – or for various picking jobs, Accoy has feet with an arch that would astound the most experienced chiropodist. You should see him skipping lightly over branches and rocks after telling anyone who will listen that he has spotted a colony of bees several hours of walking into the forest. “Honey hunting” is the great passion of the Aetas. Everyone joins in, men, women and children. It is a catalyst – it is one of those activities which, practiced this way, are a form of affirmation of origin, a declaration of identity.
Accoy controls his own little world in the forest, which young and old know like the back of their hand. We make our way forward by leaping from brushwood to bush, with little regard to the liana vines ensnaring our bodies. Suddenly he disappears into the smothering jungle. Everyone stops immediately. We are
surprised by the poetry of sound coming from all the trees. A minute later Accoy re-appears, his face lit with a toothless smile. After another minute he stops and crouches down. We just follow his gaze to guess where the colony of bees is, perched atop a clump of bamboo. Completely silent, Accoy does not even bother to point to the objective of the hunt. Anthony, his helper, knows instinctively where to look. A moment later, Accoy, Anthony and a cluster of children following them from afar all work together to construct the “bannot“, a bundle of branches which they light before placing it just below the colony.
In a ripple of laughter, everyone makes themselves scarce and waits for a good quarter of an hour. The bees are disturbed by the smoke and dislodged from their colony. We return to simply collect the wax combs, dripping with honey that we lick off them to recover from all the excitement and because it is fabulously good. The Aetas will collect just under one litre of honey from this, which they sell at the market for 200 pesos (less than 4 euros). But in the evening they will feast on the bee larvae in the wax. And you cannot deny that the larvae complement a poor bland rice dish very well.
So this is a typical afternoon for the small settlement of Matangao. For the rest of the afternoon the children go to the river, enjoy water games with the completely carefree and bubbling joy of their age. The natural question is: how long will it stay like this? The more they appear to be increasingly Aeta, just like being Breton in Brittany or Corsican in Corsica, the less guaranteed the sustainability of the Aeta “nation” seems to be. Sheryl is different from her siblings and cousins. Having recently graduated, she has just been offered a job as a teacher in primary school. She turned it down because the position was too far from her family. It is primarily to them that Sheryl wants to pass on everything she has learned during her years of study. Aeta culture? Sheryl is an Aeta first, Filipino second. And if she marries? It will be to an Aeta! Preferably a 100%.
Article by Jean-Matthieu Gautier. Originally published in Enfants du Mekong magazine.