I met Rita in Batad, one of the small villages perched among the 2000-year-old rice terraces of the jagged Cordillera mountain range on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Most of the villages have no roads and can only be reached by walking hours — or days — via the nearest dirt road. I was waiting for some friends who had taken a stroll through the village, when Rita struck up a conversation with me.
After a few minutes of telling me about her life in the village, she disappeared into her house and returned with a tattered scholarly article written by an anthropologist some years earlier. It explained that Rita was the last living practitioner of her tribe's traditional weaving process. The document include photos of Rita harvesting vines from the jungle, stripping the fibres, spinning them into thread, and then weaving them into cloth on a simple handmade loom.
I asked Rita how old she was. She didn't know because at the time she was born her tribe didn't keep track such things. I asked her if she had taught anyone else her weaving method since the article had been written. She replied, saying she taught a man, who was slightly younger than herself and lived in the next village over. She laughed heartily as she explained how terrible he was at it. She told me that she had given up weaving for herself because it made her hands too sore.
My friends returned and Rita allowed me to take her photo before we began climbing the steep dirt path toward the potholed dirt road where we'd flag down the next passing bus. As we climbed the trail between the rows of traditional ifugao thatched huts jutting from the mountainside, I noticed that between them hung laundry lines adorned with jeans and basketball jerseys. We passed a group of teenagers huddled excitedly around a single cellphone. I was gripped by an unsettling certainty that I had just witnessed some kind of strange and terrible injustice that had no definable perpetrator and of which no one seemed to feel they were a victim.