Tribal Doctor: A Stranger or a Friend

I am a "Siganon"

"Sugfuni yap!" The Mangyan, an ethnic minority of Mindoro, Philippines, shouted to the open space. This meant someone from the upland must have dislodged the water system pipeline to wash their harvested root crops, leaving the lowland settlers to have no water supply.

The shout was more of a request to reconnect the line. The pipes brought clean water to the tribal village from a spring of a nearby mountain. However, the natives occasionally dislodge or cut the pipes with their bolos to create outlets at the upland.

During summer, the water became even more scarce. The flowing water in cascading rivers and bamboo faucets became trickles. I witnessed this while I was deployed as a volunteer of the University of the Philippines – Pahinungod to the Tao-buid tribe of San Jose, Mindoro Occidental. That summer, I too was shouting or get shouted “Sugfuni yap!” I was then a 2nd year medical student who was both excited and apprehensive to live with an indigenous group.

My foster family were Mangyans living by the periphery of village. Shouting is their way of life especially since the children can have the whole mountain as their playground. The shouting didn’t bother me at all, but rather, it was their whispers. Attending the daily chores of the family like cleaning the backyard or the farmland meant hearing whispers of the word “Siganon”.

I am a Siganon which means I am a stranger or a foreigner. The Mangyans don’t easily trust strangers. Even on my third week of stay, the people still kept calling me Siganon. My only wish in my volunteer work was for me to be assimilated to the community or at least get a friendlier name other than Siganon.

One night while I was about to doze off on my bamboo bed with goats, pigs and dogs sleeping just beneath it, I was awoken by my foster mother. A young boy from the upland tribe was brought down to the tribal shaman for an illness. Hastily, I took my flashlight and skidded with my foster mother to the shaman’s home. We headed to the darkness, my heart pounding but my mind focused in prayer, to give me the courage and to use me as an instrument of healing.

We entered the home with twenty or more tribesmen surrounding a thin and shaking child. Sweet potatoes were scattered on the floor. My foster mother had told me that the shaman had been throwing the root crop to drive away the evil spirit or the illness. I asked the shaman to permit me to see the child.

The child had a high fever and chills. With the flashlight, I checked the mouth and skin of the child. Considering the fever, rashes on the trunk, legs and arms, and the clincher sign which is the Koplik’s spot, the child definitely had measles. I rushed back to our home and got some medicines for fever and a blanket.

The child had difficulty in swallowing the tablet so I had to dissolve it in water. Later, I instructed a few tribesmen to boil water and taught them how to do a tepid sponge bath. With the scarcity of water, the tribe hardly had enough water to take a bath. Surprisingly, the men volunteered to get some water and started the flame.

To initiate the tepid sponge bath, I wiped the whole body of the child with a piece of cloth soaked in lukewarm water. After ten minutes, the fever and chills dissipated. The other members of the family soon took turns in doing the modified tepid sponge bath. Before heading home, I placed my blanket on the child, and I noticed a smirk and a laugh from my foster mother.

The next day, I asked my foster mother why she laughed when I gave the blanket. She told me that it is part of their culture that whatever you give to a member of tribe that would be your name. That meant my name would be “Kagamot” (for medicine) and “Ka-umot” (for the blanket). I also laughed with the silly names I’ve gotten. At the back of my mind however, I was grateful. I am no longer called Siganon; I am Kagamot or Ka-umot.

With the low immunization coverage for the Mangyans living in the upland areas, an epidemic of measles was imminent that day. Sadly, even the pregnant Mangyans were afflicted which would likely result to congenital defects. Fortunately, the local health center staff assisted us in treating the patients.



  1. Your spirit of service and nationalism is truly admirable. I wish I could have similar experiences as yours... This is really inspiring!