“Kakak (kuya), when are you coming back?” Rubertu asked.
“I don’t know, ‘Po,” I told him.
Popo is a term for a younger brother in the Sangirese, a language spoken by the Sangir tribe of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. The language is also spoken in Mindanao’s southernmost islands, Balut and Sarangani, where communities of the Sangir people live.
“It won’t be fun here anymore when you’re gone,” the 11-year-old Sangir kid sighed. I glanced at him studying how I flatten and roll my clothes so they all fit inside my bag.
For kids in Pakeluasu like Rubertu, a stranger arriving in their shores is a new friend. For the elders, the guest becomes the talk of the village of around thirty houses sitting close to each other. After all, sailing to this side of Balut is a deliberate endeavour, as it is reachable by first boarding on an 8-hour ferry ride from General Santos City to Mabias, the municipal capitol of Sarangani, Davao del Sur, and finally, a 30-minute pump-boat ride to Pakeluasu.
From Sangihe, a archipelagic regency in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, Pakeluasu is three to six hours away through a pump-boat ride, depending on the weather and current, says 31-year-old Alfrede Lahabir, a Sangir fisherman who sails across the Celebes Sea to trade kitchenware in Matutuang, Sangihe, at least once a month.
So paradoxically, the outsiders who visit Pakeluasu come all the way from North Sulawesi who intend to visit relatives living in the southern coasts of Balut Island. And this is why in Pakeluasu, a village of some thirty Sangir families can sustain their material and cultural ties with Indonesia. Many of the villagers here are fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, unlike other Indonesian households distributed across the other parts of Balut and Sarangani Islands.
The history of how the Sangir people arrived in the Philippines is not a popular narrative among Filipinos. And it was one of the reasons why my journalistic curiosity brought me here. Today, the Sangir people in Pakeluasu are third-generation sons and daughters of ancestors who braved the waters between Balut Island and Sangihe in what was then called the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia); while the Philippines – a Spanish colony. More than 6,000 people in Mindanao belong to this ethnic minority.
The Sangir people here are quite reserved but each household is a warm abode. “Minum kopi, pak (drink a coffee, sir),” is their accustomed way of inviting you inside their house.
It was my last day in Pakeluasu, south-western part of Balut Island after spending a week of interviews with the Sangir people in May this year. One week in this off-grid community meant disconnection from everything that needs wireless network service, not even radio frequencies. That’s how this island is detached from mainland Mindanao. When guests say their goodbyes, the ultimate question these Sangir people ask is “when are we going to see you again?”
(Published in M Magazine, November 2013. Editor’s Note: Mick Basa researched about the Indonesian Sangir people in the Philippines, beginning December 2012, as part of his fellowship programme at the Asian Center for Journalism.)