Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Philippines: Pray, Fast, Build

At left, UMCOR’s Ciony Eduarte and DAMBANA’s Norma Dollaga prepare to distribute UMCOR school bags to students in the remote Salugpungan community on the island of Mindanao. The students’ school was severely affected by a super typhoon in December 2012. Photo courtesy of Ciony Eduarte.

By Norma Dollaga
From July 12 – 16, an International Solidarity Mission traveled to the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines to visit the site of the Pray Fast Build Project of a Filipino ecumenical organization called DAMBANA. Pray Fast Build began earlier this year in Holy Week, when Christians were encouraged to pray, fast, and raise funds to help rebuild a school in a remote community of Muslim indigenous peoples. The school had been severely damaged by Typhoon Bopha, which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people in December 2012. Bopha was the strongest typhoon to ever strike the island of Mindanao.

Norma Dollaga, a United Methodist deaconess and leader of DAMBANA, and Ciony Eduarte, head of UMCOR’s Philippines office, were part of the group. DAMBANA and UMCOR partnered to facilitate the rebuilding of the primary school in the remote Salugpungan community. UMCOR also provided school kits for 200 children as well as reference books and other teaching aids and supplies for teachers.
Below is Dollaga’s reflection on the visit.

The path to the heart and life of the Salugpungan community, located in the barangay, or neighborhood district, of Panansalan, in the province of Compostela Valley, on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, is not an easy one. Only by truck can you get close. You must drive for more than two hours over rough and winding roads. Then, you must travel on foot for nearly another hour. The trail is rocky, muddy, and sometimes very slippery.

We were all drenched when we reached the place. Heavy rains had come after scorching sun. We marveled at the apparent beauty of the mountains. But a community leader lamented that we could not see the mountains at their best, referring to the splendid days before corporate logging took over the area. In addition, he said, Typhoon Pablo (also known as Bopha) had left the mountains almost bald, practically devoid of vegetation.

We stayed at the local school, which is being reconstructed. Classes have started, and the rebuilding has proceeded through bayanihan, or communal work. Parents and community members agree that their participation in the school project helps ensure that their children will get an education. That joint effort inspired PANAGSANDUG, the local people’s organization in Panansalan, also to participate in rebuilding the school.

The Salugpungan community has gathered its strength and risen above the recent tempest and pain that came with Typhoon Pablo. The bare mountains will grow trees again; the children will go to school again; and the farmers will sow again. This they believe. They have never given up the hope that has been their companion since long before the storm unleashed its fury. Through years of official neglect, they have learned to organize, to demand their rights be respected, and to build their dreams.

School for Teachers and Students Alike

“As teachers and volunteers in the community, we did not come here to teach and then leave just like that. Our concern for the community is comprehensive. The people have struggles and aspirations, too. It is not enough to teach children about arithmetic, reading, and writing. When we are with them, we also are thinking of the entire community life. We believe education must not be detached from the everyday reality of the children.” These are the words of Kakai Rosello, head of the High School Department of Salugpungan Ta’tanu Igkanogon Community Learning Center (STICLC) in Panansalan, Compostela, Compostela Valley, and Southern Mindanao Region.

Salugpungan is the word the Talaingod indigenous people use for unity. The Talaingod, Matigsalog, Manobo and other tribes organized themselves as Salugpugan Ta’tanu (People United to Defend the Ancestral Land). The organization has an expressed dream to empower their youth through education. Thus, an educational philosophy was conceptualized and organized to strengthen the unity of the Lumads, or indigenous peoples. This gave birth to STICLC.

The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc., and martyr-priest Fr. Pops Tentorio, PIME, had accompanied the Lumads and helped them shape their aspirations. They developed and continuously improved the curriculum with an overarching educational philosophy that is pro-people, nationalist, and scientific. It complies with the requirements of the Department of Education (DepEd) and integrates subjects and practicum on farming, environmental care, and children’s rights.

The Panansalan STICLC annex is one of the schools being rebuilt after the damage caused by Typhoon Pablo. It has 55 students with seven teachers who are all graduates of Education and come from different places in Mindanao. Teachers stay in the community as they are also volunteer community organizers. By integrating themselves into the lives of the tribe and peasants, they are able to understand their students and learn the most effective methods of teaching and learning. Teachers are also engaged in economic production and in co-discovering the gifts, talents, and abilities of the people. They also take part in training community health workers.

Kakai is an English teacher. In her youth, she was a volunteer of Gabriela, a women’s organization, and AnakBayan, a youth organization. She came to know about the problems of our society by listening to stories of fellow youth who were struggling to survive amid economic woes. She visited communities of farmers, Moro [Muslim] communities, and tried to link the situation of each one to national issues and concerns. For her, it wasn’t enough to know and analyze problems. There is a need to organize people and let their struggles and hopes unite them.

As a teacher, Kakai finds it both fulfilling and challenging to engage in this work. Born with a weak heart, there were times when she would collapse while trekking to school. She experienced difficulties in adjusting to the food, the long hikes, learning the language of the community, and even on the issue of toilet use.

“If we want the learning process to happen, then we have to be ready to become students, too. The answers to all our problems are not in the hands of the teacher. Our role [as teachers] is to blend with the people and be one with them in shaping the kind of community we want to have. Teaching children within the classroom is not enough. We have to be with them in their farming and harvesting activities, learn with them the lessons of collective life, and respect the dignity of the work of farmers. The conversation does not stop when we sing the goodbye song at the end of the class. We have to get to know who they are. And there is no way to know them except to listen to them and speak their language. If the people express the need for a water reservoir near the community, then we have to facilitate a discussion until we collectively design a plan of how to achieve our goal,” says Kakai.

The children naturally embrace their dance and music. They could not forget who they are as Filipinos and as indigenous people, because it is part of their curriculum. Just before dusk, when there is community gathering, children re-enact their history and current life stories through song, storytelling, music, and dance.

Building a school among peasants and indigenous peoples is not just about building physical structures, providing supplies and teachers. It is about building community life—the development of children to embrace a scientific, nationalist, and people-oriented education—and cultivate the capacity of community members, especially women, for basic health care, improved farming and agricultural production, and to nourish a collective community life.

We visited the community and were blessed by their radical hospitality and stories of enduring strength and perseverance despite the natural tempests and structural injustice that they wrestle with and that test their courage. The collective joy we shared with them through our material contribution from the Pray Fast Build Project has reached them. But, indeed, we received back the blessings we shared through their inspiring call to us to never give up hope.

We thank the people who made this experience of sharing and giving an even stronger testimony of loving communion.