Davao, the islands’ ethnic charmer

Davao City is only a 90 minutes flight away from Manila but definitely a world away! On one extreme lies the lush beauty of Samal Island in the Davao Gulf, with fine beaches and excellent dive spots of WWII shipwrecks. On the other extreme, at the heart of Davao is the country’s tallest peak, Mt. Apo, jutting out from a virgin national forest, which is home to a variety of wildlife, most notably the magnificent Philippine eagle. The region is also dotted with beautiful waterfalls such as Aliwagwag Falls, the country’s highest, easily a 338 m. plunge through a series of 84 step-like mini falls. For the unquenchable traveler, caves like the mostly submerged Tibanban Cave and the largely uncharted T’boli Cave call out.

If one is to believe all that is written about Mindanao in the newspapers recently, one cannot help but imagine the place to be a veritable war zone where “guns, goons, and sudden deaths” are the order of the day. Or that being snatched into the lair of bandits is as common as having your car impounded for illegal parking. Like its neighboring cities Zamboanga and Cagayan de Oro, Davao has had its share of bad publicity spawned from notorious crime incidents which were deemed political or otherwise.

Travelers half-expecting the place to be swarming with swaggering Terminators and Robocops, will be pleasantly surprised to discover a bustling city of friendly people, full of helpful bystanders who would show you the way back to your hotel, and honest taxi cab drivers who would fork out the exact change of your fare.

Local historians claim that the word davao came from the phonetic blending of the word of three Bagobo subgroups when referring to Davao River, an essential waterway which empties itself into Davao Gulf near the city.

The aboriginal Obos who inhabit the hinterlands of the region called the river, Davoh; the Clatta or Guiangans called it Duhwow, or Davau, and the Tagabawa Bagobos, Dabu. To the Obos, the word davoh also means a place “beyond the high grounds”, alluding to the settlements located at the mouth of Davao River which were surrounded by high rolling hills. When asked where they were going, the usual reply is davoh, while pointing towards the direction of the town. Duhwow also refers to a trading settlement where they barter their forest goods in exchange for salt or other commodities.

Spanish influence was hardly felt in the Davao until 1847, when an expedition led by Don Jose Oyanguren came to establish a Christian settlement in an area of mangrove swamps that is now Bolton Riverside. Davao was then ruled by a Moro chieftain, Datu Bago, who held his settlement at the banks of Davao River (once called Tagloc River by the Bagobos). After Oyanguren defeated Datu Bago, he renamed the region Nueva Guipozcoa, in honor of his home in Spain, and became its first governor. Oyanguren’s efforts to develop the area, however, did not prosper.

A few years after the American forces landed in 1900, private farm ownership grew and transportation and communication facilities were improved, thus paving the way for the region’s economic growth.

A Japanese entrepreneur named Kichisaburo Ohta was granted permission to exploit vast territories which he transformed into abaca and coconut plantations. The first wave of Japanese plantation workers came onto its shores in 1903, creating a Japan kuo, or Little Japan. They had their own school, newspapers, an embassy, and even a Shinto Shrine. On the whole, they established extensive abaca plantations around the shores of Davao Gulf and developed large-scale commercial interests such as copra, timber, fishing and import-export trading. Filipinos learned the techniques of improved cultivation from the Japanese so that ultimately, agriculture became the lifeblood of the province’s economic prosperity.

Davao was formally inaugurated as a charter city in March 16, 1937 by President Elpidio Quirino. Thirty years later, Davao was subdivided into three independent provinces, namely Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, and Davao Oriental. Over the years, Davao has become an ethnic melting pot as it continues to draw migrants from all over the country, lured by the prospects of striking it rich in the country’s third largest city.


The People of Davao

Although majority of the Davaoeños are migrants dominated by Visayans, Chinese and Muslims, the province is touted to have the most number of indigenous tribal communities or lumads (meaning literally “from the bowels of the earth”) living within its territory.

Among these are the Bagobos who live along the slopes of Mount Apo. Being the most colorfully dressed among the tribes, their hand-woven abaca garments are embroidered with geometric patterns and adorned with beads, shells and metal disks. The Bagobos are farmers who live in the hinterlands of Davao. The Guiangans, or Obos, like the Bagobos, are forest-dwellers. The Mandayas and the Mansakas, the more musically-inclined among the tribes, are skilled silversmiths. They inhabit the eastern areas of Davao del Norte and the remote mountain clearings of Davao Oriental. West of Davao del Norte are the Atas while along the shores of Davao Gulf dwell the Kalangans. The Manobos, also known as the Manubas or Man-subas (suba, meaning river in the Visayan dialect), are river-dwellers who are closely related to the Atas. Samal Island is occupied by the Samals while the Maguindanaoans inhabit parts of Davao Gulf and Saranggani Islands.

Like most indigenous tribes anywhere else in the world, these lumads face the constant struggle of protecting their ancestral lands from being plundered by unscrupulous new settlers, and by trying hard to preserve their culture in the changing world of traditions.


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