The invitation from Councilor Ruvy Alay was tempting. Visit the village of Sebucal, the last barangay of Oroquieta City, during their patron’s feast day with clergymen, lay ministers and city officers. There will be a mass, distribution of food and supplies and activities done by locals. Although I was a bit concerned about the initial brief: 8 hours walk to the village, being more concerned about my knee, Councilor Alay’s assurance that there are seniors who will also be doing the trip assuaged me a little. But more than that, I have always wanted to visit this part of Mindanao and discover more about the inhabitants, indigenous people who are from my tribal roots.
Barangay Sebucal is situated within a beautiful valley in the Malindang Range. It’s where the headwater of the Layawan River emanates, the clear and wide body of water that meanders from these mountains, down to Oroquieta City and empties into the sea. It’s also a village where majority of the inhabitants are the Suban-on, people of the river who now populate the hinterlands of the Zamboanga Peninsula by choice, as the Christian migrants from Luzon and the Visayas displaced them in the lowlands decades ago. My paternal grandmother is from this tribe too, but from south of the province.
The trek is no walk in the park. Although it ‘only’ took us six hours to the village, against the eight hours I was initially told, the descent from Barangay Lake Duminagat, a very steep and slippery downhill hike took us about two hours down and three hours up. It was the hardest point of the journey that tests your patience and mettle. There were four – five felled trees that you have to go above or under, holding on to roots and branches. But what made this trek difficult was that I was ill prepared for the trip with a knee pain flaring up again. I had to go slow, calculate my steps and relied on a sturdy staff for balance. Along the way, I was envious of Suban-on locals as they pass who were just running down or up. What took us hours to negotiate, they managed to do in just 20 minutes and hardly breaking into a sweat.
The village feast day was a simple one. A mass was said. Several children and some adults were baptized too. Because of its location, a priest only makes one visit per year, if at all. There were dance presentations too given by the school children. Although I was hoping there would be some sort of Suban-on traditional demonstrations, there were none. When the lay ministers first visited this barangay in 1994, there were around 148 families, now, only around 50 remained. Some have moved to Oroquieta City to work, some have transferred to other places due to marriage. Being a hotbed for communist rebels before also contributed to the decline in the population. And sadly, the tradition and culture of the Suban-ons were affected. Most children hardly speak their native tongue. The last timuay, the traditional village elder, died and has not been replaced.
Despite the hardship and sad outlook, there’s hope in the horizon. There are plans to connect the village with several bridges via the municipality of Concepcion. A military detachment is now present that frequently patrols the surrounding area. With the promise of the parish to nurture more the village, the cultural decline might be stopped and addressed. The city government is also looking at how to secure the future of the area by preserving the traditions of the Suban-ons as well as make it a showcase for environmental protection and responsible tourism.
Sebucal is a lovely place. The mountains are lush with forests. There’s teeming wildlife in terms of birds with hornbills heard in the afternoon. I was told that there’s even a Philippine eagle flying sometimes overhead. With its high elevation at around 4,000 feet, it has a cool climate.But what really struck me most was the sight of the forested mountains surrounding the village. During afternoons or early morning, fog sets in or rises as the morning sun starts to peer down the clouds. The landscape is just so dramatic that I can just stop, gaze into the scenery and be in awe of the beauty spreading before me. But at the same time, I’m hopeful that a beautiful future for Sebucal is starting to unfold.