Remembering the ‘Mananabang’

By: Jobers Reynes Bersales July 08,2019 - 07:03 AM

The recent announcement by Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, during her first week back in the provincial seat, to increase the monthly stipend of Barangay Health Workers (BHWs) from 1,500 to 3,000 pesos reminded me of how far our rural health system has indeed moved forward in the last century or so. 

The photo I include in this column shows a group of old women (and just two men) in the July 25, 1930 issue of the newsweekly ‘Bag-ong Kusog’ about the ‘mananabang,’ traditional midwives, the forerunners of the modern and scientifically-trained midwife. 

When this photo was taken, these mananabang were, for the first time in the history of Cebu, undergoing training conducted by Trinidad Esturninos and S.P. Ylaya, two nurses of the Cebu Maternity House. Between 8 and 10 o’clock in the morning, they would undergo the basics of midwifery at the Maternity House.

Mananabangs or traditional midwives of the city of Cebu in 1930.

This period also marks the first time that the mananabang were organized into a formidable group. Not that they were not formidable enough. For if you go back further by three decades or more, most of the residents of Cebu, including the politicians running the towns and the province, were all born ostensibly under the careful hand of the old mananabang. Don Sergio Osmeña, for one, was not born in a hospital but at home. And while we know very little of his birth, he must have emerged into the world with his mother assisted by an old mananabang.

Our pre-colonial world actually placed many these mananabang in a kind of special position not just as traditional healers but, if they showed certain signs, of being ritual practitioners able to communicate with the ‘dili ingon nato’, elementals that were known to roam the physical world and cause harm if displeased. Such mananabangs with special powers were called ‘mereko’ or ‘babaylan’ or, if they were homosexuals,  ‘asug,’ according to the Jesuit Francisco Alcina in the voluminous “Historia de Bisayas” that he wrote around 1668.

With the onset of Spanish rule and the native conversion to Roman Catholicism, these ritual practitioners were suppressed until only the mananabang, so vital in childbirth, remained respected and even feared.

When this photo above was taken, each town in the province of Cebu had at least one trained midwife already. Yet, their presence only in the poblaciones or town centers meant that the supreme power of the mananabang continued to reign in the countryside. It is, however, quite surprising that even in the city of Cebu, the mananabang had not yet had any formal training in midwifery so late into the American colonial period as the 1930 article states. 

Fast forward to today and we find the BHWs, not necessarily childbirth deliverers but trained first responders to problems related to health and well-being even in the far corners of the countryside. But they are more than that. 

During the first term of Gov. Gwen Garcia (this is her fourth now), she started the Cebu Heritage Caravans, a massive participatory cultural mapping project in all the town and cities of Cebu in 2004 (ahead of the national government by over a decade). In this project, which resulted in the ‘discovery’ of hitherto unknown but now famous tourists spots and heritage sites, it was the BHWs who were at the forefront of documenting and inventorying natural and cultural heritage assets. 

They, like their erstwhile mananabang counterparts of nearly a century ago, were best suited to elicit the kind of information required to build a cultural profile of their locality. For they are the ones always on the ground, moving from house to house and on call even in the dead of night. What would life be therefore without them? 

It is thus much appreciated that Gov. Gwen has fulfilled within this first week of her return to the Capitol her campaign promise to increase the stipend of these first responders. 

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