Bridging Literature and Peace

by Federico V. Magdalena, PhD

The year 2023 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Dialogue as a Guarantee of Peace, by virtue of UN Res. 77/32 upon the initiative of Turkmenistan. What does it mean for the Philippines?

The Philippines ranks low on the Global Peace Index of 2022 – 125th place out of 163 countries. However, the country registered the largest improvement in the Asia-Pacific Region (one of 5 countries with the largest improvement globally) according to OPAPRU. At least, it beats the United States! (Rank 129th).

More can be achieved if both government and civil society turn to peacebuilding rather than valorizing conflict and war. Along this line, literature is one avenue in raising the bar toward peace.

Popularizing and teaching folk literature, especially those of the indigenous peoples, may be undertaken through peace studies and peacebuilding actions in several arenas like the school system, peace advocacies, and structural programs related to trauma healing, reconciliation, poverty reduction, and greening of the environment.

Peace and peacebuilding refer to the academic and actionable parts of making peace. By literature, we mean oral and written narratives (including religious texts) about the people of a particular place. The bigger question lurks: how do we bridge literature and peace? Simply put, in what ways do we translate it to peaceful behaviors?

Peace studies, especially those that promote the “culture of peace,” has already begun in the Philippines at least 30 years ago. They are conducted by Miriam College in Manila, Notre Dame University in Cotabato City, Ateneo de Davao/Ateneo de Zamboanga Universities, and recently Mindanao State University.

The actionable part of it, peacebuilding, is also being done. However, more work is desired to achieve lasting and sustainable peace.

Probing into the folk literature of the indigenous peoples (Meranaw and Lumad), we found some pieces worth using to promote peace through the media, dialogues, school system and other institutionalized structures.

Among the Meranaw of the Lanao region, they have an epic known as Darangen, which is now recognized by UNESCO in 2005 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage together with the Ifugao’s Hudhud.

Incidentally, it has remained mostly in oral form though some practitioners called onor (singer) keep a written record of it in the form of kirim (Meranao language in Arabic script).

The Darangen consists of 8 volumes published by Mindanao State University over a period of 10 years from 1986 to 1995. It contains 26 episodes that are more or less related to each other, chanted by onors during important celebrations in the community. Of these, Book 3 (Ep. 8- Abduction of Arkat a Lawanen) and Book 5 (Ep. 10-Kambagombayan a Lena) are examined for their moral values relating to war and peace.

Lessons extracted from these stories showed that the men usually started the war, while their women mended fences to reconcile rival chiefdoms. They were aided by tonongs (friendly spirits) in these struggles.

On one occasion, women used simple techniques to prevent conflict by hiding the weapons of their husbands and prodded the warriors to engage in a nonviolent contest like wrestling.

Since the result was a draw, the influential women behind it advised the conflict parties to go home and forget their differences. Peace came to a land that turned red due to bloody encounters.

Colorful narratives portrayed by performing artists in the Philippines and abroad (e.g., Integrated Performing Arts Guild in Iligan City, and Parangal Dance Company in San Francisco) also provide vivid experiences of war and peace.  Young dancers enact the Darangen to portray the Meranaw society that existed hundreds of years ago.

Through their performances, the audience gets a glimpse of life and death, love and politics through symbols, metaphors, irony and satire, including moral values this society lived by.

In another instance, Arkat a Lawanen (kidnapped by a powerful ruler) attended the wake of the death of a woman from the rival community. Her act showed forgiveness and reconciliation rather than anger and vengeance.

Also, children would sometimes put themselves in between the two warring groups just to prevent the adult members from killing each other.

In addition, the Manobo tribe of Bukidnon and Cotabato has its own epic, Ulahingan. It depicts a war of resistance against a ruling Muslim group (Maguindanao). Through the use of magic and wisdom, the Manobo preferred to avoid conflict by fleeing to Nilandangan, a paradise.

In real-life situations, this is the typical response of other Lumad tribes in dealing with development programs in their communities. Others are assimilated into the dominant culture around them, notably the Christian settlers.

Sustained through larger or more powerful institutions, peace can be delivered more widely by changing the mindsets of young people and adults alike.

DR. FEDERICO V. MAGDALENA is Associate Specialist and the Deputy Director, UH Center for Philippine Studies. This article is partly based on his keynote Address to the Webinar: Mga Tinig ng Pagbabago: Pagsusuri sa mga Interseksyon ng Panitikan, Kapayapaan at Pag-aayos ng Hidwaan (shortened: Intersections between Literature and Peace), April 29, 2023, University of San Carlos, Cebu City.

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