January 30, 2017

Meeting the Dreamweavers of Lake Sebu

By Trish L.

They say you never fully remember your dreams upon waking. But there are people who will tell you otherwise.

In the town of Lake Sebu, Cotabato, where the air is cool and the smiles are warm, there is a group of women who weave abaca strands into the crisp, vivid patterns of t’nalak cloth. The beauty of it is that the patterns are derived from dreams.

A while back, I went to Lake Sebu to meet Lang Dulay, the famous dreamweaver of South Cotabato. She was over ninety with thin, silver hair tied neatly and tucked under a bright red scarf. Her face and hands were wrinkled with age, and her body hunched over, but she climbed the bamboo ladder of her longhouse with ease.

She spoke neither Tagalog nor English, and wasn’t able to read or write, but that had never been an issue. On that gray and rainy afternoon, she sat by the window, clad in traditional T’boli wear – a riot of red, green, and yellow geometrical shapes. Her eyes, I noticed, were a curious gray-blue color and they gazed at us with placid confidence.

My companions and I had come a long way, switching from one mode of transportation to another – from a multi-cab to a bus to a cramped van to the perilous habal-habal. At first, it seemed like she didn’t want to speak, as if she had grown tired of telling passing strangers her story over and over again. But my fears quickly dissipated when she began:

“I started weaving when I was 12. It was my mom who taught me.” Her words came in soft, low murmurs, and they were all in the native dialect. Sarah, our guide, translated everything for us. “I dreamed of a house. I went in and up the stairs, and saw a woman weaving. I get my designs from her.”

This woman, she revealed, was Fu Dalu, the goddess of abaca. The age-old tradition had its roots in legend: it is said that Fu Dalu appeared in the dreams of tribe members and taught them to weave. The practice was passed on through the years, and the select few were accorded the status and title “dreamweavers.”

Did she appear every day? I had asked. Lang Dulay said that she did not; during those dreamless nights, she resorted to making her own designs. She told us that she wove to earn a living. Having been chosen at an early age, she pursued it full-time and never bothered to learn how to read or write. Weaving was her primary source of income.

With the slightest hint of a smile, she talked about how President Ramos had asked her to weave something for him. She told us that she had even been flown to Hawaii, and that she had travelled to so many foreign places because of her weaving. The walls of the longhouse supported her stories and filled in the missing gaps. They held photos and posters that spoke of her status and accomplishments, not just as a weaver, but as a national icon.

I left a day after our chat and vowed to come back. This was less than two years ago.

A few months after that visit, I found out that the great dreamweaver of Lake Sebu had passed on after a long bout of illness. I was sad to know this, all too aware that the country had lost a national treasure. Nonetheless, I kept my promise and went back.

I found out that there were many others who kept the tradition of dreamweaving alive. Ate Barbara, for example, and a few other women. Lang Dulay had been teaching young ones to weave before her death and they were now taking on the task of doing so.

They say you never fully remember your dreams upon waking. But there are people who will tell you otherwise. In Lake Sebu, the dreams take shape in the red, black, and white patterns of T’nalak and live on through the deft hands of its weavers.

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