By Zea Capistrano
Inside the house of Madrasah teacher Sohra Olowa, 53, meters long of threads cling tightly to a wood that serves as the foundation of the house’s second level by the stairway.
Olowa was sitting on the floor loom with a strap tied to her waist as she weaves a long strip of intricate designs.
A teacher for over two decades, Olowa learned weaving when she was in Grade 5. Since then, she weaves during her free time and even taught her children the skill. It was a skill passed on to them by their ancestors.
But when war broke out in this city on May 23, 2017, Olowa said they were left jobless and depended solely on the relief goods given to evacuees. The Madrasah schools and other government and private schools were closed. Hundreds of thousands were displaced.
“We left everything when we evacuated our home, even our materials used for weaving,” she told the Manila Bulletin on March 16.
They returned here in Barangay Poona Marantao in November last year and found their houses looted. Their appliances were missing, only a disarray of other non-valuable house items and doors marked “CLEAR” were left.
Several other weavers gathered inside Olowa’s house. All of them eager to tell their story on how they left the city, the loved ones they lost, and how they found their way back to weaving.
The family of 51-year-old Aida Abdullah had to transfer shelters thrice. They stayed for two months in General Santos City because there was not enough food for dozens of evacuees in a relative’s house in Iligan City.
Muslimah Moctar, 43, lost her 12-year-old daughter during the evacuation. Aslima Moctar, 37, had to buy and sell Malaysian noodles to make sure her family would have something to eat. The presence of soldiers in the village still worries her, she said.
Raisa Maki, 67, takes care of her 16-year-old grandchild. All of their belongings were looted. Bomina Abdullah’s sons had to stop schooling when they left for Butuan City during the siege. She said her boys were bullied. “They called my sons Maute! Maute!”
But a few months after the siege, the group of weavers from Poona Marantao is slowly reviving an industry that has always been part of the Maranao’s rich tradition and heritage. They are working with Salika Maguindanao-Samad and Jardin Naga-Samad who founded the Maranao Collectibles, a budding enterprise born out of the Marawi crisis.
The long strip of three inches-thick patterns that Olowa was working on will form part of the medal ribbons which will be used in the upcoming Ironman Philippines race. The ribbons were commissioned to the Maranao Collectibles.
In December last year, Maranao Collectibles was among the winners of the first social enterprise ideation camp for Bangsamoro communities under the Civil Society Participation in Social Enterprise Education and Development or CSO-SEED funded by the European Union and the British Council.
They received P100,000 seed fund and will be mentored for a year by consultants from Bayan Academy.
Angel Flores, head of Society of the British Council said the couple was among the 100 applicants for the grant. The applications were shortlisted to 27 ideas and eight received the funding.
Flores said the Maranao Collectibles’ promotion of langkit weaving stood out from other applicants because of “their story of resilience.”
Two years before the siege, the Samad family made friends with US-based Filipino fashion designer Anthony Legarda who ordered a woven tapestry from Salika’s mother, Saadera Maguindanao, for The Hinabi Project.
Saadera or Dida, 57, is a known weaver in their village. The order came in December, 2016, almost five months before the siege.
When war broke out, the family escaped Marawi and sought refuge in the house of Salika’s cousin in Linamon in Lanao Del Norte. They lived in a small room, around 20 of them, like a pack of sardines, for a few days.
The family had to transfer five times before they ended up in a vacant property that was once a 24-hour convenience store in Iligan City. More than 30 family members lived in the shelter, including Saadera’s elder sister who was scheduled to undergo a colostomy operation before the war.
“My aunt was scheduled for operation, but all her medical records were left in Marawi City,” Salika recounted.
Salika and her husband also left their printing business. Nothing was left for the family.
“Anthony contacted us and told us that he understands our situation. He said he knows we can do it and told us that whatever piece we finish he will pay for it. That’s the time when we thought of finishing the order for the Hinabi Project,” said Salika.
Jardin, who did not know how to weave, assembled weaving tools from scrap PVC pipes, carton boxes and barbecue sticks made of bamboo to make the “suyud” (weaving comb).
Dida taught him how to weave and they worked on the tapestry measuring four-by-eight-feet inside the abandoned grocery store.
Salika said the woven tapestry showed irregular patterns and stitches that reflected their situation in their temporary shelter.
The couple had a chance to fly to the US in September last year for the Hinabi Project. It was where, as the faces of the displaced Maranao people, they spoke about their struggles as weavers.
“Ika (Salika) was crying,” Jardin recalled, adding that they felt proud when their woven piece was showcased abroad.
Salika said their experiences as evacuees have led them to advocate for the revival of the weaving industry in Marawi.
“After our trip to the US, a lot of opportunities opened up for us, but we declined,” Salika said. The couple was offered a job in Manila to train other weavers. But they said leaving Mindanao is like turning their backs on the Maranao weavers who have very limited opportunities.
Salika recounted that, before the siege, her mother had two jobs to raise her five children after the death of their father. Dida would wake up early to cook Apang, a delicacy made of rice. She would weave in the afternoon until evening while fulfilling other duties.
The business of making Apang was found to be more lucrative than weaving. Selling Apang from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. would give Fher an income of P1,000 for only three hours. A woven tapestry that bears the word “Welcome” will only sell for P150 to P250 a piece.
Salika said after hours of back-breaking work, weavers usually find it difficult to look for buyers. Tapestries also take a long time to make. To finish a langkit, a weaver needs five days.
“This is one reason that discourages our weavers, that’s why they don’t weave if there are no orders,” she said.
“I know temptations are everywhere, but maybe this is Allah’s plan for us, to be the voice of weavers,” she added.
Today, new challenges emerged for the displaced weavers as the effects of the war continue to take its toll on the industry. For instance, they find it hard to meet the demand for the increasing orders as other weavers have to take a break from weaving to queue up for relief goods.
“We have to keep up with the orders. We need to produce 1,200 pieces of woven ribbons that will be used for the medals during the race,” said Salika. At the time of the interview, the group has only finished around 200 pieces of ribbons.
Olowa is playing a key role as the couple’s local manager in Marawi City. Her task is to encourage more weavers to return to weaving and to gather young ones who are interested to learn the skill.
“It’s difficult,” she said. “Young ones want to go abroad than to weave.”
The weavers believe that it’s a problem that should be addressed.
“Pwede naman gawan ng gubyerno na magkaroon sila ng incentives o benefits at security na in that way maraming babalik sa weaving,” she stressed. (The government can offer them incentives and security so they will go back to weaving.)
She said she hopes that as “bearers of the culture which is intangible,” weavers in the country can get the support they badly need.
The couple now stays in an apartment which they also use as a display center for their products.
Salika said they envision their new shelter as a “House of Weavers” where they train the young ones.
Indeed, the war may have ravaged the city, but it failed to take away the resilience of the Maranao weavers who are determined to breathe life anew to the weaving tradition.(Zea C. Capistrano)
Cebu Pacific flies daily to Davao City and other key cities in Mindanao. For flight information, you may visit cebupacificair.com