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Memories and Cultures of Disaster

There is a very interesting story narrated by John Dvorak, a geophysicist, when he was part of a team that was tasked with the setting up of instruments to monitor volcanic activities in Indonesia.

After clearing the surveying gear with the customs in Jakarta, he went back to his bare room with the said instruments in the box. He was told a guest wanted to see what were in the box. A little boy was ushered in and he was with an elderly who, it seemed, was blind. The woman approached the box and placed her hand over it.

When the scientist and his colleagues started unpacking the instruments, they saw a small green bundle in a box. Curious to know what it was, they opened the box to see a coin. Dvorak then asked the Indonesian geologist who informed him the woman was wishing them luck in their job.

Two months later and after a series of explosive eruptions, the geophysicist remembered the bundle with the coin and mentioned it to his Indonesian friend. This time, his friend told him he interpreted wrongly the meaning of the coin. The woman was not wishing him and his team all the luck. She had come to make sure the newly arrived equipment would not alter the course of eruptions because, as she and other local people knew, volcanoes do not spew things out without reason. They bring justice and vengeance to the world.

If volcanoes do not erupt without reason, how do we deal with Taal? Or with Mayon?

Greg Bankoff, in his book Cultures of Disaster. Society and Natural Hazards in the Philippines, examines the numerous calamities that came to the Philippines. Looking through the Spanish archives and other documents, Bankoff looks at the coping mechanisms arrived at by the Filipinos through the centuries and how we have developed the “culture of disaster.”

What Bankoff says is that the frequent occurrence of disasters and calamities, i.e., volcanic eruptions and typhoons, can embed in the consciousness of the people witnessing the almost regular arrival of these disturbances the feeling that they are natural.

The almost nonsensical comments of the Vice-Mayor of Talisay demanding that the people in his town and other towns be allowed to come back therefore holds water. It is a way of making sense of the senseless and the unpredictable. If one listens intently to the local leader one finds a logic in his words: if the eruption of Taal was never predicted, how come the volcanologists are saying there is a threat of a bigger, more cataclysmic eruption?

Indeed, the gap between science and local knowledge is not merely a chasm between intelligence but a separation between those who study Nature and those who live Nature.

Bankoff was with Dr. Chris Newhall when the latter was invited to Ateneo de Naga by the Institute of Bikol History and Culture in cooperation with the Ateneo de Naga University Press. Newhall, a famous volcanologist was friend to Bankoff, a historian who has written on environmental histories and histories of crimes in the Philippines.

The forum was postponed several times and when Newhall finally agreed to come on a Monday, Mayon Volcano had already erupted by the previous Saturday. In his opening words, Newhall mentioned how he was not responsible for the eruption of Mayon.

That statement was hilarious and put everyone at ease. Volcanologists are humans and they are not gods. Perhaps, the current crop of volcanologists are remiss not in their scientificity but in their humane attitude to those being driven away from their homes and livelihoods.

Bankoff talks of Mayon and Taal as the two most active volcanoes in the Philippines through the years. If people therefore start to think of the two volcanoes as being related, then experts of the environment should not laugh off the observation. Education about disaster should begin from that “miseducation” or “uneducation.”

The people living around Taal or Mayor have stake not only in their life but in the social and historical life of the volcanoes.

A few days after Taal erupted, a group of dancers (perhaps the word should be “ritualists’) put up the “Subli.” Many articles refer to “Subli” as a devotional dance performed particularly in Bauan and Alitagtag, Batangas. The dancers in pair perform movements using their hats – tipping them, waving them, making a circular movement with only the feet pushing the movement. At the core of the ritual or dance is the paying of reverence to the Cross of Alitagtag.

When dancers performed the Subli a few days after the eruption, the dance ceased to be a dance but a supplication, an expression of sorrow and an asking for forgiveness from God. The aim of the dance was to stop the eruption or, at least, diminish the destruction wrought upon the land.

In Bikol, there is a similar ritual but the years or cultures have already separated them from each other. There is then “Lagaylay,” which is also a singing and dancing before the Cross. The most popular of these rituals is done in Canaman, where a supposedly old and miraculous black Cross is at the center of the rites.

There is, however, also the “Perdon,” a ritual where men and women sing of their sins and how they are asking for forgiveness from the “Señor,” or the Lord.

A common strand in these rituals, which are tied to the harvest festivals, is how the Tagalog or Bikolano see the divine as punitive, merciful, and source of bounty. We ask for forgiveness when the harvest is bad; we ask for forgiveness when the harvest is good. When the calamities descend upon us, we pray to God; when we are saved from natural calamities, we pray to God again.

The Vice-Mayor of Talisay has received full media mileage as we write this. He says if he dies and the people returning to their homes die then the government has no one to file a case against or blame. The head policeman of the town has been quoted as saying that if the people of Talisay did go back to their town, then the Vice-Mayor will be thrown into the crater of Taal.

That is a primitive way of dealing with man and volcanoes. But we laugh because we recognize those words hiding almost unrecognized in the consciousness of communities having to deal with unpredictable volcanoes and earthquakes.

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