DAVAO CITY, Philippines – I hit my head hard on the car window for the umpteenth time that morning. Outside, towering trees and bright flowers served as nature’s very own Waze, lining the dirt road and leading us to Sitio Contract, deep in Davao City’s Marilog District.
My companions and I alighted from the 4×4 and were greeted by a brown dog, pudgy and squat, its face that of an askal, and its butt as adorable as any corgi’s when it wagged its tail. Kring, the Social Entrepreneurship program coordinator for Zero Extreme Poverty, a coalition of nongovernment organizations helping the community with water supply, livelihood, and modern agricultural technology, led us through more foliage and onto a sloping path.
Cement steps took us to a wooden house overlooking the village, with its makeshift greenhouses being readied for strawberries. Chickens chased one another on patches of grass, and more wooden houses dotted the hills.
Panting, we stood by the front door and stared at the mountains before us. We pulled out our shawls and sweaters and wrapped them around our bodies as the Baguio-like chill hit us. The dog darted from one visitor to another and sniffed. As no food was forthcoming, it scampered into the house and settled under a wooden bench.
We followed soon after, and settled on the table. Platters of warm, sweet potatoes; soft, white cassava; steaming rice, fried eggs, and meat loaf (an import from a grocery store in the city) were laid before us.
We took our time as we ate our breakfast, contemplating the mountains and the skies that seemed so near from the windows. The coffee was boiled in a kettle, and it left dregs at the bottom of our cups. A small pile of sweet potato skin was all that was left on my plate.
After tearing off pieces of cassava to feed to the dog (we found out it had been named Jinky, though it looked more like Manny Pacquiao after a bout in the ring; the dog had gotten into a fight and had a scar running down its face), we headed down to the schoolyard. It was here that we finally found the members of the Matigsalug tribe, who had been strangely absent since we’d arrived at their home.
Their traditional garb was a beautiful, vivid red. The boys and men wore open jackets and shorts that were striped with yellow, blue, green, and white, and sprinkled with little diamond-shaped patches in blue and yellow. The girls and women wore blouses and skirts with similar patterns, but what made them stand out were the long strands of puffy rainbow-colored balls hanging down their hair.
Kindergarten and Grade 6 students were seated on a row of chairs facing the stage. Today, they would be moving up and graduating from elementary school, respectively. Their parents sat behind them, while the rest of the community stood watching nearby, rocking babies to sleep and keeping the other children on their best behavior.
The arrival of Fides Foundation president John Tan, with his wife Cynthia, as well as Zero Extreme Poverty head secretariat Benjamin Abadiano, spurred everyone into action. The Matigsalug gathered around one of the elders, who asked the visitors to place round objects, mostly coins, on a plate. Caressing a chicken, he chanted in their native tongue, then slit the chicken’s neck and let it go. The chicken flapped its wings as it wobbled in one direction, then another, until finally, it died.
Another ritual followed, as four children presented offerings of soil (or land), water, air and fire, to symbolize the four elements of life.
Then the graduates were presented to the audience one by one: nine pre-schoolers, and 13 Grade 6 students. With their parents, they went up the stage and received their certificates and a new backpack from Tan and partners from Ad’laine Bake Shop in Baguio City.
In between speeches from the tribal elders, school officials, and students, the members of the Matigsalug danced and sang. Raising giggles and “Aww”s from the audience were three Grades 3 and 4 students who performed a courtship dance. A girl strutted in front of two boys, looking into an imaginary mirror and patting her face. Each boy paced behind her, taking turns to throw a handkerchief on her shoulder. The heartbreaker then flicked each handkerchief off her shoulder, and continued to prance. Finally, one of the boys prevailed, and his handkerchief stayed on her shoulder. The other boy left the dancefloor, using his handkerchief to wipe his tears. The new couple faced each other in their first dance, and the audience clapped delightedly.
A sudden rain forced us to change venues, and the students carried their chairs into a covered common area. Here, awards were given to the best readers and writers, and even to the student who best embodied the Matigsalug spirit.
Proud parents went around shaking hands, and when the emcee told the graduates to hug their mothers and fathers, tears were shed, hinting at the sacrifices that had to be made for the children to get to where they were now.
After pictures were taken of the graduating class, of the families, and of the community’s benefactors, it was time to sit down for a lunch of native chicken, huge slabs of tuna and pako (fern). But I was more interested in talking to Datu Dionisio Siawan, the tribal chieftain, whom I was sure I’d seen while covering the lumad’s marches to Manila over the past few years.
Various indigenous peoples’ groups had been leaving their provinces to protest in the capital city against the occupation of their land, allegedly by soldiers or military-backed militias.
It began in September 2015, when Emerito Samarca, the administrator of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, was found dead, his throat slit and his body riddled with stab wounds inside the school. At the same time, Manobo leaders Dionel Campos and Datu Bello Sinzo were executed in front of their own tribespeople – children included – in Lianga, Surigao del Sur.
Thousands of lumad fled the violence, seeking refuge in a sports center in Tandag City.
I talked to Siawan, who did not speak Tagalog, with the help of Ailene Maasab, a Matigsalug woman who became a licensed midwife last year, despite her doubts that a married woman who already had a child could pursue further studies.
He said the elementary school that had been built in the village by Ilawan Center for Volunteerism and Leadership, under its Pamulaan Center for Indigenous People Education which was based in the city, kept children in school. Before it was founded in 2005, students had to walk seven kilometers – about two hours one-way – to reach the nearest elementary school.
Now they have graduates who go to high school in the lowlands, their education sustained by a monthly transportation allowance from Zero Extreme Poverty of P500 per student.
Siawan mentioned being summoned by soldiers stationed in the area who mistakenly believed that the school was being run by the New People’s Army. The tribal chieftain explained to them that it was the Matigsalug who had approached Ilawan to ask them to establish a school, and that the NPA had nothing to do with it.
Siawan said he told the military that they had even gone to Manila numerous times to get the proper accreditation from the Department of Education in 2006.
Datu Toto Calimpitan, a tribal leader and farmer, told of more difficulties the community faces. He has to spend over P100 one-way just to get his produce to the market in the city center, while being paid shockingly low prices. A kilo of squash, for example, fetches only three pesos. I had to ask “Tres pesos para sa isang kilo ng kalabasa?” again and again to make sure I heard correctly. If there was a shortage, a kilo of squash could fetch 10 pesos.
Calimpitan sought the government’s assistance for hauling and trucking services so that they can at least make a profit for their hard labor. A number of NGOs are already doing their part to promote sustainable agriculture – the 3C’s of coffee, camote, and cacao, according to Abadiano – and kick off organic hog raising.
As the men talked, I suddenly remembered with a shudder what befell the tribal leaders in Lianga, killed simply because we live in a country that does not appreciate, understand, or value its indigenous peoples enough.
I prayed that these precious Matigsalug children, who were being taught not only the basic curriculum approved by the DepEd, but also their age-old traditions, would be spared the fate of the Manobo youth from Lianga.
At the same time, I was extremely grateful for the chance to be among them, if only for a day. It was a privilege I hoped the rest of our brothers and sisters around the country would also enjoy.