Philippine Daily Inquirer / 08:05 AM September 12, 2015
THE annual Kamahardikaan Festival in Tawi-Tawi brings out the cultural richness of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). On Sept. 22, the streets of the provincial capital, Bongao, will be filled with pangalay dancers, floats using the Badjao lepa or house boats, games and ethnic food stalls.
Kamahardikaan means “to honor” in Sinama, which is the vernacular of the Sama—the collective name of the people of Tawi-Tawi.
It also marks the day Tawi-Tawi separated from Sulu.
The event will project the cultures of the Jama Mapun, Tausug, Sama and Badjao in songs, dances, live music, fashion shows and a fluvial parade.
A highlight is the beauty pageant in which contestants parade in native costumes.
The event coincides with the Agal-Agal Festival or the Seaweed Festival which pays tribute to one of the country’s top produce, seaweeds. These are creatively used in costumes and festival decor.
These activities are organized by the office of Tawi-Tawi Rep. Ruby M. Sahali, with the Tawi-Tawi Tourism Council and Gov. Nurbert Sahali.
These are part of the Sahalis’ efforts to use cultural tourism as creative tourism, a business model for the province—which allow visitors to participate in and learn about cultural heritage.
“We invite everyone to come celebrate and have fun with us. You’ll make friends here and enjoy our hospitality and rich culture,” says Sahali.
The island province’s 11 municipalities will participate in the program of activities.
While promoting Tawi-Tawi’s natural attractions and culture, Sahali also aims to address environmental concerns. She is making a bid to get the Turtle Islands—a remote municipality of seven islands—declared a wildlife sanctuary. She has authored a bill to provide measures that allow tourists to enjoy turtle sightings without harming the environment.
Visitors can watch marine turtles hatch eggs on Turtle Islands. However, the presence of human beings and artificial life can frighten them and disorient baby turtles as they crawl to the sea. The bill aims to protect the turtles through zoning.
“There should be a sector for the community and another for the turtles to lay their eggs,” says Sahali. “That hasn’t been defined. When turtles hear noise or see light, they won’t lay eggs. Where else will they go except to that island?”
Sahali is proposing a budget from the government that would provide the equipment and manpower to protect the turtles.
“Tawi-Tawi’s main attractions are its pristine natural beauty, the variety of seafoods, and the smiles of the people. We are a thriving community of Muslims, the Sama tribes that live on the land and the sea, the Badjao and Tausug, all of whom live in harmony,” she says.
Contrary to perception that Tawi-Tawi is always the site of battles between rebels and government troops, the island province, in fact, has been relatively peaceful. “Although it is near Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga, Tawi-Tawi has been stable,” says Sahali.
Bongao, the provincial capital, is famous for its stunning hilltop views and coves. Bud Bongao, the highest mountain in the province, is sacred to the people. They climb up to commune with Allah and ask for miracles.
Climbers are greeted by macaques, local monkeys who enjoy being fed bananas.
“People want to see places untouched by human development and see how we really live,” says Sahali. Her mother, regional tourism president Juana Maquiso Sahali, has made Tawi-Tawi tourism-friendly.
There are bars, restaurants and karaoke joints in Bongao as well as beach sports. There are good shopping options for Chinese and Malaysian products, foodstuff and local delicacies.
There are daily flights from Manila to Tawi-Tawi, with comfortable accommodations for leisure travelers and conventions.