In Search of Bayanihan
by Greg Bankoff
There is a romanticism, much of it state-sponsored, surrounding bayanihan and what it represents in the Philippines today. On the one hand, bayanihan has come to stand for the selfless values that are said to characterize Filipinos of all social classes and ethnic backgrounds; and, on the other hand, more prosaically, it refers to the many tit-for-tat forms of reciprocity that describe the various forms of mainly labour-related, dyadic relationships in poor, rural communities across the archipelago. The former portrays an idealised representation of the national spirit, while the latter depicts hard work, and lots of it. These twin meanings are epitomised in the etymology of the term, and whether bayanihan derives from the root word bayani, meaning a person who serves his/her community without asking for anything in return and who treats everyone as an equal, literally a hero; or bayan, signifying place or people or both, a locale that evokes a sense of belonging, and the incumbent reciprocal obligations borne out of shared experience and dangers in common, literally a homeland or nation. One has a relatively short history, emanating in the Marcos dictatorship but with roots in earlier times; and the other is ancient, forged out of a ruthless struggle with an environment where going it alone is dangerous (Bankoff 2007).
The more recent understanding of bayanihan appeals to an abstract sense of community welfare. It is seen as a form of emergency labour rendered in the face of a disaster that overwhelms the individual household, such as fire, flood or typhoon, and in which the community must act collectively for their own and others’ sakes. Everyone nearby is expected to contribute. These selfless acts of generosity, helping each other out and giving assistance without compensation, are often depicted by social scientists and other observers as symbolic of the Filipino way of group work rooted in tradition (Ang 1979). Disasters like these may happen to anyone and cannot be anticipated. Therefore, they are not a matter of reciprocity; but those who refuse assistance in such circumstances are noticed and may find it difficult to obtain help in the future (B. Fegan, email communication, 2003). Historically, too, these forms of community cooperation were most successful when the number of people involved were few, the organisation simple, and the objectives clearly defined (Rivera and McMillan 1952).
In debates over the nature of Filipino identity after independence in 1946, bayanihan became emblematic of a resurgent national spirit. It was popularised in the public imaginary through the rustic charm of the rural landscape paintings of Fernando Amorsolo (1892-1972) and given substance, in particular, by the iconic mural of the same name by Carlos “Botong” Francisco (1912-1969) (Duldulao c1982). Ferdinand Marcos subsequently pushed the ideology of the idealised rural community during the 1970s as part of his corporatist vision of the New Society (Marcos 1976-1980). Symptomatic of this rural idyll was the photograph of a group of men carrying a peasant house of bamboo and thatch on poles, that was placed ubiquitously on pamphlets and in school textbooks to epitomise the national spirit. Marcos even considered re-naming the country Maharlika, summoning the shades of a bygone class of warrior freedmen in pre-Hispanic Tagalog society to represent the citizens of the new nation. Nor was he alone among Southeast Asian leaders in reinventing indigenous traditions for political agendas. In Indonesia, President Sukarno drew on similar traditions to cast his new state as the idealised village society writ large. The five principles of Pancasila, the state-sponsored national philosophy, embodied village norms such as musyawarah-mufakat or government by consensus, gotong royong or mutual aid, and tolong-menolong or reciprocity (Morfit 1981).
The notion of customary Filipino values was also promoted by the Catholic Church and by sociologists connected to it, such as Fr. Frank Lynch SJ at the Ateneo de Manila University. Lynch compiled his Four Readings on Philippine Values in 1962, the central value of which the authors identified as reciprocity, utang na loob, literally a debt of the soul (Lynch 1962). But Lynch was fresh out of the Chicago School of sociologists and a Jesuit determined to push an agenda based on modernisation theory (Turner 1988). Accordingly, he viewed reciprocity as a voluntaristic choice that people made based on their cultural values. These ideas still have a certain cachet in the Philippines through the works of Lynch’s students and contemporaries, most notably F. Landa Jocano. In his prolific writings on the subject, Jocano identifies a shared sense of community, often defined in operational terms as neighbourhoods, that guarantees support for its members especially during times of personal hardship or common danger (Jocano 1997). Similar to the way Marcos attempted to idealise society, his beliefs have more to do with the values that philosophers, priests and politicians try to instil in civil society. However, social virtues are never as simple as they might appear when neatly codified in speeches or textbooks; and there is another, much older understanding of bayanihan (and all its regional variants) that describes mainly labour-related dyadic relationships in rural communities across the archipelago. “Nothing in a village ever could be that simple, so naively without motives and consequences,” observes James Hamilton-Paterson. “There is no such thing as pure altruism in a small community” (Hamilton-Paterson 1998, 18).
There are many forms of reciprocal labour practised by the various ethnic groups in the Philippines that fall under the general rubric of gantihan, where the root word ganti- means to reciprocate (or retaliate in its more modern usage), and the suffix indicates a form of payment. These dyadic, tit-for-tat relationships cover the main aspects of rural life. They include farm labour exchanges involving large teams of men with buffalos and gear, as well as women and boys to do the final harrowing and transplanting. Feasts after labour usually arranged by intermediaries, as farmholders repay work performed on the day with food, cigarettes and drink. Housebuilding, when kinsmen, friends and neighbours help build a new couple’s first bahay kubo (nipa hut) or renovate an existing one. And donations of money and goods given to the families of the recently deceased or on other occasions of grave personal loss. However, on these and similar occasions, a close reckoning is kept on the labour or help offered in order to properly determine the requisite level of “return” reciprocity. Each year a farmholder, for example, needs to accrue enough credits and pay off any outstanding debits to ensure future labour exchanges. Similarly, a woman or a girl of a bereaved family will sit at the head of the coffin at a funeral wake with an exercise book and list the names and amounts given by each donor to ensure that the family reciprocates appropriately on a suitable okasyon.
Aid in whatever form required, however, is rendered on the expectation that it will be returned in kind at the appropriate time. Need or lot often determines the order in which a person or family receives this help; the notion of succession is suggested by the now nearly obsolete term for this practice, turnuhan, derived from the Spanish word turno meaning “one’s turn”. There is great pressure on community members to participate in these exchanges and social sanctions imposed on those who fail to meet their obligations. If any indebted farmer is unable to attend on the day, he must send a replacement, if necessary, a hired one; otherwise he will find it hard to find help in the future. Labour is often performed on Sundays with families or groups working on average two to three days each year on one another’s concerns. Co-operation extends to such a degree that agreement is reached beforehand on when crops are planted so as to enable the same group of workers to go from one farm to another at peak labour times without conflicts of interest (Balmaceda 1927). Agaton Pal observed other forms of labour exchange post-World War II that, although still dyadic in nature, were manifestly more altruistic, and involved forms of organised work-bees where people offered their labour to those in need of assistance. But again this help was also rendered to avoid the criticism of un-neighbourliness, and with the expectation that it would be repaid under similar circumstances (Pal 1956). Historically, too, this form of cooperation was more pronounced in areas of new settlement, such as on the Central Luzon plain in the early twentieth century where “working cooperatively was their virtue in any undertaking to make work faster and livelier” (HDP Saverona).
While this older meaning of bayanihan has now largely receded from public consciousness, certainly in urban areas, and has been replaced by the image of selfless, communal undertaking, especially in the face of the disasters that recur with such frequency in the Philippines, the term is not without historical validity. There is ample evidence that Filipinos in the past resorted to forms of community endeavour in times of misfortune or loss arising from natural hazards. Julian Balmaceda, in probably the first study of its kind published in 1927, lists multiple examples of communal behaviour: how one community had built a special house “which might be occupied by anyone whose residence would be destroyed by a typhoon”; how all the houses destroyed by a typhoon in Ilocos Norte “were rebuilt quickly as soon as the storm was over because the owners could help each other by turn in spite of their lack of funds”; and, how in Antique, it was apparently the local practice to protect the community from floods by the communal construction of dams (Balmaceda 1927, 386-387, 401). These observations and later studies give substance to types of community activity, whether called bayanihan or something else, and whether borne out of a selfless love of others or the hard necessities of living in such a risk-prone environment as the Philippines. Attributing motivation to these practices probably better reflects the ideological perspective and/or agenda of the viewer than anything else.
Moreover, there is a real need to believe in something like bayanihan in an archipelago as dangerous as the Philippines and where the state, despite its best intentions, is seldom capable of ensuring the safety and security of its citizens. In its stead, trust is reposed in the family and the extended community, often cast in terms of fictive kinship. In his now celebrated thesis on the importance of the frontier to understanding the history of the United States, Frederick Jackson Turner credits the trials and tribulations of settling the American West with the promotion of rugged individualism and the spread of democratic institutions (Turner 1921). Perhaps, on the contrary, the frequency and magnitude of hazards that Filipinos confront on an almost daily basis promote a more abstract sense of community welfare and encourage forms of community support and reciprocity- -bayanihan. The everyday hardships posed by living in the islands suggest an intriguing relationship between risk, on the one hand, and the number and vigour of civic engagement and self-help on the other: those geographical regions in the country most exposed to personal misfortune and community danger are precisely those areas where such associations and networks seem to proliferate most readily (Bankoff 2007, 341-342). The significant role that non-government organisations (NGOs) and people’s organisations play in contemporary Filipino society might not only be the product of more recent political upheavals but also have a historical basis in the need to help one’s fellows survive and prosper when times are hard, and perils threaten.
The essay is part of the catalogue of Structures of Mutual Support, the Philippine Pavilion exhibition at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale.
Structures of Mutual Support is curated by Framework Collaborative (GK Enchanted Farm Community and Architects Sudarshan V. Khadka, Jr. and Alexander Eriksson Furunes).
— Ang, G. R. 1979. The bayanihan spirit: dead or alive? Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 7, nos. 1/2: 91-93.
— Balmaceda, J1927. Turnuhan as practised in various provinces Philippine Agricultural Review 20, no. 4: 381-421.
— Bankoff, G. 2007. The dangers of going it alone: social capital and the origins of community resilience in the Philippines Continuity and Change 22, no. 2: 327-355.
— Duldulao, M. D. c1982. A Century of Realism in Philippine Art. Manila: Fine Arts Corp.
— Ferdinand Marcos, F., 1976-1980. Tadhana: History of the Filipino People. 3 vols. Manila: [s.n].
— Hamilton-Paterson, J. 1998. America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing.
— Historical Data Papers, 1952. National Library of the Philippines, Saverona, Nueva Ecija Roll 47, p.3.
— Jocano, F. L. 1997. Filipino Value System: A Cultural Definition. Metro Manila: Punland Research House.
— Lynch, F. 1962. Four Readings on Philippine Values. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
— Morfit, M. 1981. Pancasila: The Indonesian state ideology according to the New Order government. Asian Survey 21, no. 8: 838-851.
— Pal, A. 1956. A Philippine barrio: A study of social organisations in relation to planned cultural change. University of Manila Journal of East Asiatic Studies 5, no. 4: 333-473.
— Rivera, G. and R. McMillan. 1952. The Rural Philippines. Manila: Office for Information, Mutual Security Agency.
— Turner, F.J.. 1921. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holy and Company.
— Turner, J. H., 1988. The mixed legacy of the Chicago School of Sociology. Sociological Perspectives 31, 3, 325-338.
Greg Bankoff works on community resilience and the way societies adapt to hazard as a frequent life experience. For the last 25 years, he has focused much of his research on the Philippines, seeking to understand how societies, both past and present, have learnt to normalize risk and the manner in which communities deal with crisis through a historical sociological approach. His recent publications include co-authoring The Red Cross’s World Disaster Report 2014: Focusing on Culture and Risk and a companion, co-edited volume entitled Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction (2015). An historical geographer, he is Professor of Environmental History at the University of Hull in the UK.