Dancers from various tribes in the city of Davao join the annual celebration of the Kadayawan Festival this week. (Photo by Keith Bacongco)
The city of Davao in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao has taken on an air of celebration as it stages its annual "Kadayawan Festival."
Held every third week of August, the weeklong festival highlights the culture and tradition of the indigenous mountain peoples and Muslims from coastal areas who first settled in the area.
It is a thanksgiving festival of fruits, flowers, food, and dances that culminates in an elaborate parade of colorful floats showing the colors of the various tribes in Mindanao.
In recent years, tourists have flocked to the city, dubbed as the "fourth safest city in the world," to witness the Philippines' "festival of festivals."
"We dedicate the festival to our indigenous and Muslim brothers and sisters," said Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.
"This is a celebration of our life together as one people living in mutual respect of our differences in faith, identity, and ethnicity," the mayor said.
But anthropologist Karl Gaspar warned that the festival can also be seen as a "token tribute to provide a festival with the colors intended for tourists."
"These questions have to be answered," said Gaspar, a Redemptorist missionary brother who has immersed himself with various tribal communities in the southern Philippines.
He said he does not dismiss the possibility that the festival helps ensure a continuing appreciation of tribal cultural traditions.
"[But] there is the nagging question that it masks the tragic realities of what has happened to the lives of the tribes in terms of their everyday realities," he told ucanews.com.
"The reality confronting the indigenous peoples" in the hinterlands of Mindanao "has a negative impact on the image and significance of the Kadayawan Festival,” Gaspar said.
Data from the indigenous peoples group Katribu show that tribal communities, especially in Mindanao, continue to suffer in the wake of military operations against communist rebels.
As of Aug. 11, Katribu monitored 61 cases of extrajudicial killings of tribal people, nine incidents of bombing of tribal communities and farmlands, 52 cases of forced evacuations that have displaced more than 20,000 indigenous peoples, and 82 cases of attacks on 57 community schools for tribal children.
"Part of what dampens one's desire to embrace the fun and colors of Kadayawan is the knowledge that while some of our tribal brothers and sisters are out there in the city's streets, dancing to the beat of their indigenous musical instruments, dressed in the finery of their traditional clothes and flashing their sweetest smiles to the ogling tourists, many Lumads [tribal people of Mindanao] are pushed out of their ancestral domain, harassed by the military, forced to flee their homes, and end up in the city streets as beggars," Gaspar said.
In May, some 700 displaced tribesmen sought refuge in Davao City after they left their villages in the provinces of Davao del Norte and Bukidnon due to alleged military harassment.
Cultural activist B.J. Absin noted that the celebration of the Kadayawan is "way too much."
He said people are spending for a celebration "in the face of a tapestry of wants, disenfranchisement and violations and abuses."
"We should reflect on this. This kind of celebration borders on being scandalous," he told ucanews.com.
Dancers join the annual celebration of the Kadayawan Festival. (Photo by Keith Bacongco)
Absin also highlighted what he called the "lack of factual representation" of the struggles of indigenous peoples during the celebration, especially on the part of artists who aren’t from indigenous communities.
"It is important to articulate the desires and the needs of the indigenous peoples, not only in Davao but also in the neighboring communities," he said.
"Instead of abstracting their 'awkward lives,' we need to show and represent their real struggle over their ancestral lands, their right to self-determination, abuses and killings, and their aspirations to be truly free," Absin said.
He said nontribal artists who join the celebrations have the "moral obligation" to understand the lives of indigenous people to be able to "responsibly narrate a culture and tradition and to be able to responsibly give back."
"Only then will these representations of culture become relevant, and out of relevance, comes respect," Absin said.
For other Davao residents, the celebration is a recognition of the journey of the city from killing fields to one of the most livable places in Asia.
The city of Davao ranked fourth safest in the world in the user-contributed survey site numbeo.com. Only Seoul, Singapore, and Osaka rank higher.
"Kadayawan, aside from a celebration of harvest, is also a celebration of life," said Andrea Isabelle Mejos a student at the Jeusuit-run Ateneo de Davao University.
"It is a chance for the city to redeem itself that despite the killings, crimes and corruption in the past, there is life in Davao," she said.
Gaspar said it is "understandable" that people in Davao will take pride in the festival.
"One can sense a pride in their local identity that is highlighted with Kadayawan's symbols," he said.
Kadayawan uses the images of the Philippine Eagle, the exotic Waling-Waling orchid, the 2,954-meter Mount Apo, and the durian fruit as symbols of the celebration.
"One longs for a more meaningful manner of celebrating this identity through symbols. But this may not happen as long as the organizers are only after the show of external extravagance that brings in the cash," said Gaspar.
The festival has already generated at least US$321,000 for the city government this year.
Click here for a photo gallery of the vibrant festival.