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 THE PHILIPPINES : T'Bolis, Lotus People 



Text and photography by Eric Pasquier

On the shores of Lake Sebu in the island of Mindanao in the south of the Philippines, a population still resists the invading pressures of modern technology, observing it from afar yet close enough to be repulsed.

The T’Bolis face their ultimate fight: to continue to weave their marvelous fabrics, fish for tilapia and remain faithful to the laws of nature; laws which dictate every aspect of life here, down to the fragile Lotus flower. She opens at dawn, covers in pink the dark lake where thousands of fuchsia corals float, only to close once more at the first rays of the sun...


The T’Bolis are hunters, farmers, craftsmen and fishermen. They believe themselves sheltered from the modern world, isolated as they are behind the rocks and peaks of the Tiruay Mountains, the province of South Cotabo. In this region thick with dense forest, filled with numerous valleys, lakes and rivers flow in peace and tranquility. Far from the madding twenty-first century. 

Well, nearly. For a few decades now, the modern world has been getting closer to the T’Bolis. And the T’Bolis must now face the same challenge as that by other tribal peoples worldwide: to find the balance between the riches of the ancient world and the promises of the new one. Which they refuse. 


Because they know the outside world without having to live in it; its values are strange to them. The little they see of the modern world is consumption, waste and disposal. That which has little value or use to our modern eyes, they retrieve and recycle as works of art. Leather taps, door handles, old padlocks or empty cans are transformed in the village forge. These items decorate the arms of the women as splendid jewelry, the interiors of houses on stilts, in fine sculptures or find their purpose once they are transformed into work utensils.


The T’Bolis refuse the culture of the West, which they see as all-encompassing and destructive of their way of life. Of course like many others they encourage beauty, but they do not define it as we do. Thus, personal beauty is like that of their ancestors, with the decorated and coloured costumes of old and traditionally made-up faces. It is rare for a T’Bolis woman to go out without her finery. And the T’Bolis are fine jewellers: their earrings, bracelets, finger and toe rings and magnificent necklaces are without equal in intricacy and inventiveness. 


The habitat of the T’Bolis and the culture they built in it hark back to an age gone by. The humble, stilted houses made of bamboo and covered with straw roofs, seem to be from another time.

The interior, often just one large room, houses a dozen people. They are simple and austere houses, true to the nature of these mountain people who still search for a solution in their past, threatened as they are by the arrival of unfamiliar – and threatening – Western ways.

The T’Bolis have always adopted open-minded policies, building over the centuries a culture modeled both on their beliefs, based on ancestral traditions, and outside contributions. For a long time they observed the laws of commerce, trading goods with the outside world.

Their Muslim neighbours were often their intermediaries, thus introducing new cultural elements: musical instruments and parts of their traditional dress. Long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th Century, the Muslims and Chinese were already doing business in this wild and inaccessible region.  In the homes of the T’Bolis, one can still find objects from the Ming Dynasty and traditional Chinese cuisine. The Philippines are a cross-breed of various traditions, and Mindanao is no different.


This history of open-door commerce has not prevented the T’Bolis from resisting unwelcome outside influences in order to survive. While accepting novelties, their thirst for independence assures them the recognition of their differences and, above all, their freedom. And so it went for centuries, but today the outside world is not the same. Numerous immigrants ventured to the T’Bolis’ high plains, searching for riches and opportunity. If escape was difficult when the invaders threatened the ethnic equilibrium, today there is nowhere to go – man has set foot on every shore and imposed his way of life on every last corner of the world.


The T’Bolis have never liked confrontation, their tactics always having been evasion and retreat. But today, for the sake of their culture, they have to fight. Their unlikely ally in this struggle a Catholic Mission. For the last 32 years, the priests have adapted the mass to ethnic tastes and the T’Bolis have succeeded in uniting behind the cross. Catholic celebrations have been integrated into the local rituals and music – you won’t find any blonde, pink cherubs here. Above all, the missionaries helped to translate ‘Todbolul’, a long epic poem which the women sing for six to 16 hours. To them, Jesus was a T’Bolis.

But the struggle must result in victory. So the priests set up a school, hoping to give the young a new weapon adapted to a time foreign to the T’Bolis: education. The hope is to see the younger generation involved in politics and so defend the interests of their people, especially when it comes to territorial distribution and the control of natural resources. 

But, according to Brother Estraza, the head of the mission, the most difficult task is to prepare the T’Bolis for change. “There are so many values that must be preserved in the T’Bolis culture, and so many others that must be slightly adapted to changing times, it’s hard to know when adapt and when to preserve. The dowries, for example. Before a young girl is married, the father must offer six or seven horses, land and other things. It’s difficult to plan for the future.”


Today, planning is the most difficult challenge for the T’Bolis. The tribal, political and religious chiefs know that change is inevitable. The real question is knowing how to handle it. Because for a few years now, life has not been easy for the T’Bolis. Roads and electricity have led to easy access to the region, which led to an increase in the invasion of lowlanders and with them came hi-fi’s, videos and televisions, alcohol and weapons.  The land that the T’Bolis and their families had cultivated for generations has been shrinking steadily ever since. The road to modernity has, for the T’Bolis, always been long and fraught with hidden dangers. But this time, they don’t have a choice in the matter. 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier
All rights reserved

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