Why Siquijor loves its 'witches'

by Rowena Carranza Paraan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 23 2014 06:53 PM | Updated as of Apr 24 2014 09:25 PM

Pearly Alom, 35, comes from a long line of mananambal, the local term for healers in the island of Siquijor. From Holy Wednesday to Holy Saturday last week, she and other relatives manned the family stall selling various types of herbal mixtures at the annual festival organized by the provincial government.

She offered necklace amulets that counter curses and lana (oil) mixed with diced tree barks and leaves for simple illnesses such as muscle pain and fever.

For serious cases of barang (witchcraft), she had a mixture consisting of ingredients that came from the mountain and sea, brewed in oil and melted wax from candles collected in cemeteries.

One is packed into recycled sardine cans. Even if just a small amount is lighted, the concoction emits a thick white smoke that Pearly guarantees will render the barang ineffective.

The best seller though, is always the gayuma or love potion. Pearly herself has borne 5 children from 5 different lovers and talks about the men in her life, as well as the formula of some of her potions, quite freely.

The island

Siquijor, located in central Philippines, has a land area of 343.5 square kilometers, the third smallest province in the country, with only 6 municipalities (Enrique Villanueva, Larena, Lazi, Maria, San Juan and the capital Siquijor) and just about 90,000 residents – less than the population of Payatas (119,053 as of 2010 census).

Long hours of power outages disrupt the province every day but it seems to hardly bother the residents, causing only minor irritations if at all. Structures are mainly two storeys high at the most and there is no need for traffic lights since there are few vehicles.

Its century-old trees and churches and white-sand beaches are yet undisturbed by crass tourism projects. Perhaps it is because one still needs to take a ferry upon reaching Cebu or Dumaguete to get to Siquijor.

Or perhaps because of the island’s reputation for witchcraft, something that has fascinated – and frightened –people. Proof of this is a YouTube video titled “Siquijor Magic” that went viral a few years ago.

It shows an alleged “sorcerer” from Siquijor making paper dolls dance to guitar music. 

Jonel Tomaro, an artist and healer from Siquijor, recounted how his former landlord in Bulacan at first refused to give back his house deposit when he decided to move out. He joked to a fellow lodger, "Isang dahon ng tabako lang ang katapat nito pagbalik ko ng Siquijor." He had his money in his wallet in less than 10 minutes.

Healing Festival

The local government unit, however, seeks to change Siquijor’s image of black magic to that of a “Healing Island.” It seeks to capitalize on the traditional healing methods and cures indigenous to the island.

To this end, it has been holding since 2009 the annual Healing Festival at the highest peak of the island, the Bandilaan Mountain View Park. It provides stalls for healers and herbalists where patients or plain tourists can consult them.

One of them was PSupt. Teofilo Siclot, Jr., Siquijor’s own deputy provincial director, who suffers from high blood pressure. He was on duty but since he was at the festival, he decided to consult well-known Siquijor healer Eto Gonzaga. A middle-aged woman on the other hand brought her niece, a special child who cannot walk and with a defective right eye. They travelled all the way from Davao City.

Meanwhile, the wife of another police official was all smiles after her consultation which consisted of massage and special oil treatment. She had her varicose veins treated and expected them to disappear in a few days.

Other visitors come to simply watch the gathering and preparation of medicinal potions or observe the healing session. Some are traditional medicine practitioners and wish to replenish their supplies of oils and herbs.

It is during the 7 Fridays after Ash Wednesday that the mananambal gather the herbs and other ingredients for their potions. This is called pangalap. It culminates on Good Friday and Saturday when the mixtures are brewed, usually in a cave or mountain clearing, far from prying eyes. Lots of orasyon (prayers) accompany the preparation.

Those who participate in the brewing are made to chew leaves of an unknown plant which have to be kept in the mouth, allegedly so as not to be affected by the smoke and strong smell.

The festival itself lasts from Holy Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Pearly made around P8,500 in sales on the first two days. She expected to earn more on Good Friday, usually the peak day of the festival. Jossette Almirola, Siquijor provincial tourism officer, said thousands of domestic and foreign tourists attend the festival every year. It does not only showcase the healing practices in Siquijor but also business for the resorts and hotels that have mushroomed, boosting local economy.

Ironically, the LGU is earning from the healers, most of who believe that they themselves should not personally profit from their healing so as not to lose their “power.”

The healers

Eighty-two-year-old Regino Malinao has been a mananambal since he was 15 years old. He said he was taught by his ninuno (elders), the same way that he is teaching Pearly and Pearly’s father now. He claims he is not a mangkukulam or sorcerer and only makes potions to help those who have been cursed.

Tomaro, on the other hand, says those who can heal can also perform kulam (witchcraft). A business management graduate, he has worked in various places in the country before returning to Siquijor and resuming his healing practice. He told ABS-CBN that the spirits gave his great grandfather the gift of healing which was passed on to the succeeding generations.

He discovered that he too had the “gift” when, in college, he revived a girl who collapsed. The girl’s mother later approached and asked him if he could also look at her husband who had a throat ailment that hospitals could not cure. Tomaro said he used a special oil given to him and in three days, the bedridden patient was out in the field working. He said it is not the individual who declares if he is a healer or not, but the people he has helped to get better.

For Tomaro, witchcraft is just a term used to discredit what people do not understand. He said it is a “discipline” that can actually be a weapon for the weak and poor. If one is small and weak, he said, it is difficult to fight physically or through the courts. “Ang kulungan ngayon ng mayayaman ay St. Luke’s,” he commented. “Kung napakahirap mo, ni-rape ang anak mo ng napakayaman, anong laban mo?”

Tomaro also is also strongly against the suggestion of the LGU that the healers set a minimum rate. He said some of them feel weak and even get sick when they accept payment. Some would not even touch the money and would just let the patient leave it in the altar or table.

He said that LGU advisers observed that when healers tell foreigners “It is up to you,” the foreigners feel like they are being tricked or swindled. “Bat daw hindi mag set ng rate... Sabi ko hindi talaga. Bawal talaga sa kultura, hindi yun ang practice namin.”

“Sabi nila gusto lang nilang makatulong sa Siquijor. Kung gusto ninyo makatulong sa Siquijor, tulungan nyong mapanatili ang culture and practices namin. Huwag niyo sirain.”