More than its natural beauty, Zamboanga Peninsula or ZamPen is known for its rich history and culture. It owes much of its diversity from its people, especially the indigenous communities that call it home.
Each of ZamPen’s five major groups—the Tausug, Yakan, Badjao, Subanen, and Visayans—has gifted the region with distinct traditions in the arts.
When it comes to the art of weaving, the province of Zamboanga del Sur takes great pride in its communities especially those in Kumalarang and Lapuyan.
A century-old weaving tradition
Among the weavers of Kumalarang, one family stands out in terms of skill and craftsmanship—the Dacula clan. This Maguindanaoan family has kept the art of ekam or mat weaving alive since 1890.
This century-old tradition that continues to flourish to this day makes the town synonymous with the Dacula brand. Abdulcasim, an eighth generation weaver of the family, explains that for one to be called a master, she must have already committed all the designs of their tribe to memory.
Lalowa Dacula, the community’s master weaver, says she started weaving at the age of 10. “I still weave at 62. I learned by observing my mother while weaving. When she took a break, I practiced using what she already had,” she recounts. Lalowa had been bestowed this distinction by the community as she knows by heart all their designs from the simplest to the most intricate patterns.
Sarifa, also an eight generation weaver, says that she grew up with weaving as their primary livelihood.
“This is what our parents, our ancestors have been doing for generations. I remember as a little girl, my family would bring our mats to fairs outside the country like Malaysia and they would bring home awards.” She has taken up the craft since she was 12 and shares that weaving comes naturally to her.
The weaving instructor explains that the family’s exceptional artistry can be traced to their mixed heritage. Her paternal grandmother is a Maranao whose traditional designs she translated to her pandan mat creations. While her mother is a Tausug who was inspired by the weaves of Tawi-Tawi.
Cultural intermarriage also enriched and diversified the artistic repertoire of the family further. This can be clearly seen in their pièce de résistance called the Maguiranon sa Sulog. It is a design which has five columns, each honoring a part of their heritage: rivers, mountains, and the three Moro groups of the Maguindanaoans, Maranaos, and the Tausugs.
Family lore has it that the one who created the design was Princess Payongan who comes from the line of the Sultan of Maguindanao, Lanao, and Sibugay. She was the wife of Datu Dacula III.
It is mostly the women who do the weaving, while the men help in the gathering and processing of raw materials. Only very few of them weave.
Pandan leaves are dried and soaked in water overnight to remove the dust accrued during drying. The leaves are then colored using natural or artificial dyes and air dried for a day in the dry season or two to three days when it rains.
This process does not include the actual weaving, which is equally painstaking.
Sarifa shares that there are many weavers in their community outside the clan. However, most of them are able to produce only simple designs. “These are sold in nearby markets and are called banig ng bisaya (Visayan mats).”
Lalowa says that members of the Dacula family are the ones who are able to produce more complex and artistic designs.
Every mat a story
The Dacula weavers use giant pandan leaves and natural dyes such as turmeric for yellow and annatto (atsuete) for orange. Each mat reflects an aspect of the group’s culture and every design has a story to tell.
From the colors to the patterns, these are imbued with meanings and stories that are integral to the community’s heritage. Sarifa gives the kumala,” a diamond pattern showcasing the history of Kumalarang, as an example.
Kumala is a Maguindanaoan word that means “diamond” while ladang means “fence.” As a portmanteau, Kumalarang is an apt description for a town said to be like a diamond that is hemmed in by mountains.
Pink and white symbolize a woman’s youth, while purple is for the elderly. Green and blue represent the pillars of the Royal House.
The family’s mats are sold in and out of the country. Through the support of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCAA), the family is able to export their products to other countries like Australia, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia.
These mats serve a variety of purposes. They can be prayer and sleeping mats and are used during Muslim weddings and burials.
Keeping a storied tradition alive
The Dacula family keeps the tradition alive by passing it on to the next generation through their School of Living Traditions. “Our SLT started in 2007 and we teach children as young as 10. Lalowa is one of our teachers,” says Sarifa who also mentors young weavers.
SLTs are UNESCO-recognized programs involving informal, community-managed learning centers where practitioners transmit their communities’ intangible cultural heritage, skills, and values to younger generations.
In the Philippines, the NCAA is the lead agency that provides capacity-building assistance to these schools.
In 2016, the Daculas designed a TESDA-accredited module on weaving with Abdulcasim as one of the technical writers. It is part of a six-month National Certificate (NC) II course that includes not only mat but also textile weaving and pottery.
Abdulcasim says that pre-pandemic, the family was active in trade fairs. “In 2010, we were the first group to join the CITEM or the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions in Manila through the help of the NCCA and Sen. Loren Legarda. After a year we joined again, Sarifa, Lalowa and I. Afterwards in 2015, the NCCA sent Sarifa to Kuala Lumpur for the International Craft Festival.”
“But that’s not all. Everytime there’s a trade fair in Manila, the NCAA invites us. The last was in 2018 before the pandemic,” the president of the Kumalarang Cultural Weavers Association adds.
They were supposed to go to California in 2020 for another expo but had to cancel their plans due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They still continued to accept orders via social media despite the situation, but it was only in February 2021 when they started regularly making mats again.
Despite the fast-changing times and even amid a global pandemic, the Dacula family remains unfazed in their efforts to preserve a singular tradition that has thrived for more than a hundred years.
How to buy/visit
Visitors can buy the famous mats of Kumalarang in different forms—as placemats, banig, bags, and purses—at the Dacula compound which doubles as a school and a museum.
You can also place your orders through their Facebook page.
A size 14 x 18 kumala-designed placemat can set you back Php350/pc. An ornate mantapunay (bird-eye) mat can cost as much as Php10,000.
To get to Kumalarang from Zamboanga City or Pagadian, public transportation is available through the Rural Bus Transit. For better accessibility, it is advisable to bring your own vehicle.
It is recommended to contact the same Facebook page prior to your visit. You may also coordinate with Abdulcasim Dacula at (63) 966-399-8824.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Region 9:
- Itravel Tourist Lane
(062) 991-1174 / 0917-722-6410; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Buenas Travel and Tours
- Travel Max Tours
(062) 990-2100; email@example.com
- Happy Campers Tour and Leisure
- MTR Travel Specialist
0930-061-1690 / 0997-745-2957; firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
All tourist destinations in Zamboanga del Sur have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.