By Roy Dimayuga
When I got an invitation from Dr. Sukarnu Asri, provincial health officer of Tawi-Tawi, to travel with him to Mapun, I immediately said yes. He was organizing an annual medical mission and he wanted me to join as a development worker of the United Nations.
Mapun is the farthest municipality of Tawi-Tawi province in the southern Philippines and is nearer to Sandakan of Malaysia than to Bongao, the capital town of Tawi-Tawi. No UN staff has ever reached the island then. We have relied heavily on reports of local partners.
As I was preparing for the trip, I got tips from friends and acquaintances on what to expect in Mapun. And that include creepy stories surrounding Mapun. One of my friends warned that witchcraft is widely practiced in the area. Another tagged Mapun as the witchcraft capital of Mindanao where “aswang” or the Philippine version of ghosts abound. To avoid being victimized by witchcraft, they prodded me to bring garlic and alum. The garlic, they said, can ward off witches. I forgot to ask what the alum could do for me.
Another colleague reminded me to bring along a good number of bottled water and to avoid drinking water from the island or any other beverages being offered by the locals. A mere touch of the bottom of a drink, even if sealed, could poison me, he added.
Stories of aswang became more elaborate when we arrived in Mapun, especially at nighttime when we had nothing to do before going to bed. A local resident revealed she had seen one. Slightly taller than an average human, all black, and with flaming red eyes were her description of the aswang. Confirming its existence was another local who said that a week before we came, a man riding on board a motorcycle figured in a road mishap on seeing an aswang.
The next day, I visited Barangay Tanduan where we have equipped a Barangay Health Station with birthing equipment. Over lunch, our conversation with BHWs and midwives drifted again to aswang. They told us that the aswang’s main target are pregnant women and those giving birth. A person suspected of being victimized by aswang is usually brought to the Jama Pangunguli (quack doctor) for the tawal-tawal (curing ritual). When left untreated, a person could die.
Reflecting on these stories of aswang with a reproductive health perspective in mind, I thought that the folk belief on aswang can somehow explain why many pregnant women and women giving birth die. Mapun is one of the municipalities in Tawi-Tawi with very high incidence of maternal mortality.
Maternal deaths are unpredictable and usually do not have symptoms before they occur, especially if a pregnant woman has not been attending pre-natal check ups. Convulsions that accompany the ecclampsia cases could be mistaken for a person being attacked by an aswang. Severe bleeding and obstructed placenta could also be seen as the workings of an aswang. With no access to emergency obstetric and newborn care (EmONC) facility, death is inevitable.
On a deeper analysis, the aswang stories also give us an idea that common people do recognize how vulnerable women are; be it during pregnancy or birthing. The fact that women are the preferred preys of the aswang speaks of their especial vulnerability.
Ordinary people, therefore, have inherent consciousness that pregnancy and delivery are extremely dangerous. And they do not take that sitting down. Sans health facilities that can handle emergency obstetric care complications, they have devised indigenous prevention and treatment to cheat deaths, which includes among others, arming themselves with garlic and other amulets, avoiding sacred areas at sacred times where the aswang is believed to be present, or consulting their Jama Pangunguli for indigenous remedies.
To my view, there is no need to dispel the aswang stories as a hoax. Instead, this belief system can be used as an entry point to explaining reproductive health, much in the same way that Senator Juan Flavier used papaya and other vegetables in educating couples on family planning during his early days as a doctor to the barrios.
Common people are aware that the power of amulets or Jama Pangunguli is not always enough to prevent pregnant women and those giving birth from dying. Reproductive health, like indigenous beliefs and practices, does affirm the inherent danger of pregnancy and delivery, necessitating adequate attention and care.
Reproductive health information and services offer to expand the options available for women. Regular pre-natal visits and vitamin supplementation during pregnancy work like a talisman but in a more intense manner. Skilled birth attendants are armed with modern knowledge and capability to prevent untimely deaths and can complement the works of Jama Pangunguli on pre- and post-natal rituals. In many ways, RH complements the works towards thwarting the ill motive of aswang to slaughter pregnant women and their babies.
Wild ideas these may be, but there is a real need to integrate reproductive health with the traditional view and belief systems of the people, like those in Mapun. Bringing reproductive health discourse to the common folks’ level of understanding is the key towards real RH and culture integration. To achieve that, we need to spend quality time and efforts to fully grasp the belief systems and indigenous practices of Filipinos. This is the area where ethnographic researches can play a pivotal role in furthering reproductive health. Unless we have real understanding of people’s culture in our reproductive health programs, we cannot pursue real integration.
On our last night in Mapun, we heard dogs howling in chorus. The Mapun folks say dogs can sense and see the aswang. Others say canines can hear the wailing of the dead in hell, and when this happens it’s better to stay indoor.
At about 9:30 p.m., Dr. Sukarno Asri and Dr. Sangkula Laja were awakened by loud and successive tappings on the floor. The women physicians staying in an adjacent room also heard the noise but simply ignored it. They just thought: How could someone be so insensitive to do carpentry works in the middle of the night!
They noticed though that the noise seemed to be coming underneath. Note: the district hospital we were staying was a single storey building. After the successive patters, they saw that the tiled floor suddenly cracked and water oozed through the fractures leaving the mattresses they laid on the floor drenched.
The following morning while we were having breakfast, they shared the bizarre story to us. Curious, some of us went to see their room. The floor tiles were noticeably pushed upward by some strong force from the ground. The cracks had even climbed the wall.
One local medical personnel concluded, “That’s undeniably a handiwork of aswang!”