WANDERLUST| ‘Tepo’ mat weavers of Luuk Banca

FOR THE third time, I was able to visit Luuk Banca, one of the Badjao communities in mainland Bongao in province of Tawi-Tawi.  However, it was only during my visit last week when I was able to talk with Luuk Banca’s “tepo” mat weavers.

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“Tepo” is a handwoven mat, made from pandan leaves, usually created for sleeping and sitting during prayers.

Sixty-three year old Helen Salbayani is part of the pioneering group of mat weavers that the Department of Trade and Industries organized in 1991.

 “Back in the day, we were only seven women doing the ‘tepo’. Not much has changed since then,” referring to the Badjao women in the community who are apathetic to the traditional way weaving.

Only women practice such art of weaving in their tribe.

“Aside from the lures of other easier ways in earning a living, weaving is a painstaking task,” she said.

To prepare the materials, the women have to gather pandan leaves. They usually utilize a particular dwarf pandan species that grow abundantly in the limestone mountains of Tawi Tawi.

“We let the leaves driy, then meticulously dye and cut them into strips before we weave them into mats,” Salbayani shared.

Like the dreamweavers of the Tboli tribe, the women Badjao weavers then design their mats from the images they see in their dreams. Often, the intricate geometric designs of their mats mimic the colors and outlines of their environment, the seas and the skies – the elements that their forebears would see as they brave the waters of the Sulu archipelago. Back then, the women then would abstain from having sex so as not to tarnish the instilled patterns in their mind.

Unfortunately, today, Salbayani said that they often just follow the patterns done by their ancestors.

 “Normally, a small table mate size ‘tepo’ would take us 4 days to finish. A bigger one would require us 3-4 months to complete,” she said.

They sometimes produce simpler, less colorful mats that they call “sutla”, using only green, yellow and pink colros. Lately, having been introduced to wider color palletes, they have employed more colors in dying the pandan leaves, producing eye-popping geometric patterns.

While some tourists find the rates of their mats quite hefty, but if you consider the artistry and efforts poured in doing such traditional masterpieces, I personally think that they must charge and put more value into their product.

 “It’s not easy to make a tepo mat. You have to be inspired in order to finish one,” Salbayani added.

She only hoped that their endeavors would finally get the attention of the younger Badjaos, so that they may be able continue their dying tradition.

Whenever you find the time to visit Bongao, make sure to include in your itinerary a visit to “tepo” mat weavers of Luuk Banca, an interesting maze-like village of stilt houses. In spite of the changes of time and persuations of modern living, these women continue to bring to life a culture that many from their tribes have long forsaken.

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