The Ata-Manobo Tribe of Talaingod in Davao del Norte province.
My experience at Talaingod in Davao del Norte with the Ata-Manobo tribe.
THE PAST 5 YEARS of my life as an undergraduate student have been spent on reading and writing reports about national liberation struggles throughout the world. For years, I was left in awe with such movements and longed for the day when I would have the opportunity to go to such places.
I dreamt of the day when I would be able to speak with the people who face the realities of conflict, displacement and state sanctioned harassment. I wanted to understand and feel the emotions felt by those in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and South East Asia who have taken up the struggle by simple means like throwing stones at their perceived enemy. Is it just a normal reaction that results from anger?
Or is it something deeper that gives them a sense of empowerment as they witnessed the humiliations their own fathers and forefathers faced? I wanted to live the experience that causes men, women and children alike to fight and come to terms with the prospect of death. I wanted to know exactly how and when people begin to lose all sight of fear.
Little did I know that my questions would be answered the summer after graduating, ironically enough, the experience would take place back in the homeland of the Philippines centered around a group of people I knew nothing about. The struggle and fight of the Ata-Manobo, an indigenous group in Talaingod town in Davao Del Norte province in Mindanao was an issue missing in the articles and books I've read throughout the five years of college. I was informed about the medical mission in California from the Filipino-American Health Workers (FAHWA). And soon enough, I found myself with a plane ticket to Davao.
“When did you lose your fear?” is a question I've asked numerous times during my stay at Davao. And amidst the various answers and different ways of articulation, most expressed the same common theme of tactic and strategy. Its not to say that fear has been completely erased from the mind, as is so often portrayed in the characterization of such figures like Che Guevarra, Leila Khaled, and in the case of the Philippines, Datu Lapu-Lapu.
The feeling of fear is never lost. Rather, the levels of fear are only arbitrated and transitions throughout the process of organizing and working for the masses. The evolution one witnesses when working in solidarity with the people who are oppressed and neglected only serves as stepping stones. Despite the constant thoughts of worry, angst, and confusion, fear is mitigated with the realization that the work being done is for the people.
The work being done is for liberation. The work being done is conducted in the name of humanity. In all, the work is being done for the greater good.
And it was that evolution of fear that has become outweighed by the feelings of love that brought the Salugpungan school into existence in 2003 for the Lumad indigenous community in Talaingod.
The necessity of the school was a result from a 2003 medical mission which was a first in that specific community. With 98% of community members being illiterate, the mission faced many difficulties in starting the health program as the masses lacked basic educational skills. Thus, the initial priority of setting up health programs took a temporary withdrawal as the shift of focus turned to setting up schools.
It was after the establishment of the accredited schools that medical workers found more ease in implementing health and nutrition programs in classes. Basic education and health instructions become complimentary. For instance, courses differentiating 'Good and Bad Nutrition' are included in the subject taught to kids in Grades 1 through 2.
Medical conditions are still dire as the rampant problem of tuberculosis still serves as a Catch-22 for treatment in the community. Doctor Lynn Redoble, often known as 'Doc Lynn,' of the Community Based Health Services in Mindanao (CBHSA), has worked in Talingod from the very beginning and spoke with me about the accomplishments set by the school. Much works needs to be done. That is an evident fact. But in comparison with the health conditions of the children prior to establishing the school, she has seen a “big difference from 2003.”
Literacy among the community has increased as children once crippled to speak or communicate in any way with foreign missionary workers due to the language barrier, now move with more comfort and ease. Visayas and Tagalog are now spoken by many of the children. One girl in particular expressed her comfort and humor as she said that the English language was the only thing missing.
As for the children and the impact the school has had on their own lives in connection to their struggle, the school has strengthen their convictions and determination. Due to the nature of being part of the Ata-Manobo tribe and being children of war, they constantly face the realities of hunger, militarization and harassment from the Armed Forces of the Philippines among many other worries.
Despite such odds and adversaries that work against their livelihoods, an evident sense of selflessness can be seen as the kids expressed their desires of wanting to be teachers, nurses and doctors. When asked why, many spoke of wanting to help their fellow classmates and children. In short, the school has given them a sense of purpose. Rather than accepting the realities of fear that comes with the militarized environment, they strive for a life that will uplift the community. The children are well aware of their strong history and are willing to carry on the fight of their forefathers in retaining and protecting their ancestral land.
I spoke with two kids in particular, whose stories caught my eye during the art therapy session conducted during the medical mission conveyed by the Children's Rehabilitation Center (CRC). Among the 200 kids who participated that day, these two serve as perfect examples of the strength and determination as well as the poverty and realities of hardship faced by the children of the Ata-Manobo tribe.
The first boy I spoke with has caught my eye during registration as he stood in front of the line and took down all the kids’ names who were in line. During the sessions, he was the one whom the kids would call to lead the songs and chants. The leadership that ‘Boyet’ exhibited was truly extraordinary as his confidence and demeanor is something not readily seen in an eleven-year old boy. There was this tangible feeling of mutual respect between him and the rest of the kids. It was after speaking with one of the helpers that I found out he is the apo or grandson of one of the Datus or tribal leaders.
It was later during my interview with Boyet that I got to hear his account of life as an Ata-Manobo child. I got to speak with a child of war who gave me a small glimpse of the life he has to live in. As with many of the kids, Boyet said his biggest source of fear was from the sundalos or soldiers; more specifically, they spoke about their fear of the Philippine Army. The fear expressed by these children did not just come from their accounts of history and the struggle against Alcantara & Sons. These children continued to witness the presence and continued disturbance of the Philippine army among their community and cultural life.
What took me aback during my conversation with Boyet was the immediate distinction he made between the Philippine Army and the New People's Army (NPA) when discussing his fear of soldiers. Without any questions or mention of the NPA, Boyet spoke about their differences. Boyet accounts an instance when the Philippine Army came during the flag raising ceremony at school and how the soldiers came and looked at the presentation.
The teacher had to ask them to leave because they were making the children uncomfortable. After some questioning and suspicious gestures, the soldiers finally left. Boyet goes on to express why he's not scared of the NPA.
According to his accounts, when the NPA passes by, “they look strong, but are not mean. They don't stay and intrude upon the community.” On the other hand, the soldiers from the Philippine Army will stay and “make camp while they sleep in people’s houses or on the community stage”; all the while, asking interrogating questions accusing them of being NPA or NPA sympathizers.
In a life of poverty where children are neglected of their basic rights and right to childhood, further harassment and accusations do nothing to mitigate their trauma or enhance any sense of beneficial support from such means as government subsidies or aid or so called social services provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Then there was the eleven-year old boy named Jojo. Through the sharing portion of their drawings, it was revealed that his mother had committed suicide by drinking lason or poison. Immediately, I knew that I had to talk to him and ask the story behind his mother's suicide. During the interview, JoJo didn't say much about the incident. He was rather shy as Boyet was the one coaxing him to answer my questions. At first I thought the issue was too painful for him to account, but it was later revealed to me that many of the children still feel a sense of insecurity in regards to the language barrier.
With regards to poverty and the environment the Ata-Manobo tribe live in, I initially viewed his mother's suicide as a result of disparity. Little did I know that the first reported suicide case among the community had numerous layers to it. There was more to the incident leading up to the suicide that caused a mother of 6 to end her life. And there was more to the incident leading up to the suicide that led a woman, whose tribe has a long history of strength, courage and determination, to end her life.
The Conditional Cash Transfer Program (CCT) as implemented by the Aquino administration, is a mere remnant of Arroyo's 'For Peace.' While such policies portray the facade of being sincere and beneficial for the people, the hidden facts and loopholes not publicly stated only tarnish the so called concept of helping “the poorest of the poor.”
Helping me understand the various shortcomings of CCT was Kerlan D. Fanagel, the Secretary General of the Confederation of Lumad Organization in Southern Mindanao. In all, CCT does nothing to address the root of the problems behind poverty. Rather, it only serves as a “dole-out and band-aid fix.”
With funding coming from the World Bank, CCT does nothing but add to the burden of loans the whole nation is already entrapped in. As stated by Fanagel, “Hindi maka bigay sa angkat sa buhay. Hindi response sa poverty yung CCT. (It does nothing to lift up the life of the people. CCT does nothing in response to poverty.”)
For one, a portion of the CCT budget is allocated to medical missions and social services provided by the Philippine Army. In the grander scheme of it all, such services are part of the counterinsurgency program implemented by the Aquino regime which saw Oplan Bayanihan turn into 'Peace and Development Outreach Program.'
The only difference of the counterinsurgency program is in name, as it only allowed for further militarization to occur within the community. Social services are still lacking to say the least. Instead, communities see their land and own homes being used as a camping base for the Army. Instead of camps being 500 meters away from the community, detachments are now within civilian properties and utilities.
One of the publicized benefits of CCT are the subsidies given to communities who enact projects such as trash cleaning, putting up fences, or fixing community structures. While such negotiations for subsidies appear beneficial and reasonable, they do little to address the real problems of communities.
The cookie cutter approach to getting government subsidies is not realistic in regards to the Ata-Manobo tribe and indigenous communities in general. Such policies are not suitable for the real needs of the community.
Aesthetics are emphasized as opposed to things like farming, planting, and learning skills of multi-cropping. The techniques needed for their basic livelihood and survival is neglected. It goes to say that such policies meant to uplift the “poorest of the poor” only serves to further subject them of basic rights to survival. In that sense, it is no better than forced relocation and displacement from their land.
It was the educational condition of the CCT that entrapped JoJo's mother to enter into disparity and is one of the main reasons why the tribe witnessed its first reported suicide case this year in March. His mother took part in the CCT program that provides subsides to a maximum of 3 kids enrolled in school. With 300 pesos promised for each child, the mother also receives 500 pesos. In Talaingod, the CCT subsidies can be claimed at Santo Nino, a city below the mountains that cost about a minimum of 400 pesos in transportation via motorcycle.
For 2 years, his mother had been secretly saving up 500 pesos for emergency situations as well as giving her children money for school. That money was lost within a day as she used it for transportation in the hopes of claiming over a thousand pesos from the CCT subsidies. To add to the feelings of helplessness was the rat infestation and epidemic that had been ongoing in Southern Mindanao since 2009. Upon coming home, she found her harvest and crops destroyed by the rats. Within a matter of hours, she saw her saved up money gone, hopes shattered from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DWSD), and source of food for her family completely gone.
Arriving at the community, I admit that I didn't do much homework and research on the situation and community I would be spending time at. As far as the island of Mindanao goes, the only aspect of the region I was aware of was what's usually shown and portrayed by the media.
Needless to say, I received a crash course lesson on topics I knew nothing about. The Lumads, Alcantara & Sons and CCT have become engrained in my head as a result of this medical mission. More so, I never imagined that conversations with children would help me understand the systemic problem and the impact it has on the people who have little to nothing.
It was hard adjusting to life in the city after the mission. I'm sure the Boracay drink the night before, lack of sleep and fatigue from the hour flight led to the disorientation. But for the first couple of hours upon returning home in the city, I spent a good chunk of it crying in my room.
Days after returning to the city, I couldn't talk about the experience with a straight face. I would lose all composure and break into tears. As hard as I tried to share the beautiful experience with friends and loved ones, I only ended up sounding like a stuttering and chocked up child who just got in trouble.
Interaction with my family was disoriented for a while as I longed for the conversations I had with the people I met during the mission. Going from a place where water is scarce back to the comforts of home where water is readily available just didn't make sense to me. Going from a place where rice is a rare commodity back to the life where rice is provided at practically every meal was just hard to comprehend. The disconnect I felt with my family got to a point where I got angry at my two-year old old niece for crying when she couldn't watch cartoons.
Even speaking with individuals from progressive groups and movements is difficult. It's never a black and white situation, but the thought that there has to be something else rummaged through my head. There has to be something more to social justice for all Filipino people and for all those fighting for liberation. The people I thought I could relate to and talk about this experience with just didn't cut it anymore after the mission. Life just got a little more complicated coming back to the city and it all just didn't make any sense.
Exactly what was I so disoriented about? As I type this document, I still really have no idea. Sadness? Confusion? Anxiety? Boyet and JoJo's stories? Too much to soon? Post graduation crisis? I can't deny that those elements played a part. I can't describe that profound feeling of sadness felt upon coming home in one sentence; let alone, a 4-page word document.
A sense of clarity came from the same people that I mentioned. Given their accounts and seeing the living conditions of the Ata-Manob tribe, it’s easy to dismiss all positive aspects to their situation. I forgot about Boyet, who participates in conferences and dialogues that teach and inform people of their plight and struggle.
I forgot about JoJo who wants to be a toxicologist despite the painful experience he had with his mother's suicide. I forgot about the other children who defied their parent’s wishes of staying home to help with the house instead of going to school during the rat infestation.
I forgot about the Datus and whole community that continue to show their strength and determination of keeping their ancestral land. I forgot about the conversations I had with the teachers, nurses and nongovernmental institution organizers who chose to integrate and dedicate their lives serving those neglected. I forgot about fellow volunteers that came from Canada, Guatemala and the Netherlands who came to the Philippines to learn and see the situation of the tribe. It's because of all these individuals that Salagpungan still functions 8 years later and will soon witness their first elementary graduating batch despite evident obstacles.
I have no idea what the future holds for the country and the state of the indigenous people of the Philippines. Nor is my mind at ease with my role in the struggle. Organizer? Feminist? Student? Political Scientist? Journalist? I have no idea. I can only refer to a line from Blue Scholars off their track titled Hussein: “the only thing I'm afraid of is staying the same.”
Maybe it was 'too much too soon.' Perhaps its just a normal process and part of that transitioning of fear expressed by practically all of the organizers I spoke with. All I know is that this trip to the Philippines was different. It was the first time that I truly came home as a Filipino. For the first time in 23 years, I can truly say that bumalik ako sa sariling bayan. (By Jeni Francisco)