A cacophony of drums and shouts of merriment came out of nowhere, breaking the lazy morning vibe. I just finished my breakfast of banban, a smorgasbord of traditional Tausug delicacies often served in the coffeeshops of Tawitawi. The sounds grew louder as three boats locally called timpel and used around the shallow waterways of Sitangkai emerged from just behind a stilt house, passed under one of the many wooden footbridges between houses and disappeared into a bend. It was loaded with people with a few women standing and dancing the traditional pangalay. “It’s probably a wedding, come, quick,” my host exclaimed as I hurriedly got my camera bag and followed him to a small boat tied at the front of the house.
We followed the sound of drums and came to a large house where several Sama were gathered. The Sama are the original people of Sitangkai and much of Tawitawi together with the Badjaos. Starting in the 1920s the Tausugs from Siasi came. Many more arrived in the 80s when seaweed farming for carrageenan flourished. The Tausugs are now the dominant ethnic group in Sitangkai. The island is the southwesternmost municipality in the country and closer to Malaysia than Tawitawi’s capital, Bongao.
But it was no wedding. Instead, it was mag Islam, as Jamila Arasid later told me. It is the circumcision of teenagers, a Sitangkai ritual, as a sign of passage, belonging to the wider Islamic community. At first, two imams bathed the teenaged boy with only a malong covering his waist down and sitting on a chair. He was then brought into a crowded room with a line of elders at the front. He sat on a round and low platform covered with a blue cloth. A bigger malong then covered him from the surrounding crowd as an imam did the circumcision.
Sitangkai Island is a four hour boat ride from Tawitawi’s provincial capital, Bongao. There are no established inns but it would be better to seek the assistance of the Tawitawi Provinicial Tourism office at the capitol before making the trip. The boat to the island is located at the old Chinese pier but always ask for the sailing schedule.