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The Badjaos: Their Real Story

CEBU, Philippines - In a place like Cebu where people pay a generous price for a nice shirt, a person in dirty clothes with an unwashed face who tugs at  the sleeve of that nice shirt to beg is considered a second-class citizen, frowned upon, shooed away. How much more if that person is a Badjao.

The Badjaos are often associated with laziness because, as commonly believed, they would rather beg than work for money. They are also considered unhygienic.

 But while it may be true that there are some of them who actually ask for money, Felicito Amamsa, chieftain of the Alaska Mambaling Badjao Community, said most of them, including himself, have real jobs. Amamsa, who is from a family of chieftains, works everyday as a fisherman to feed his family. He also sells cultured pearls like his other tribe mates. “Wa may sweldo ang pagka-chieftain, gutmon akong pamilya kung di ko motrabaho,” he said in fluent Cebuano. Amamsa is one of the few Badjaos of his generation who knows how to read and write, yet he works as much as every one in his tribe does.

 He said most of the men in their community are either fishermen (Badjaos being sea nomads are skilled fishers) or pearl vendors (they have a steady supply of cultured pearls from Palawan and Mindanao). The women, to augment the income of the family, sell fruits and food in their community. It is a common sight inside the 5,600-square-meter community to see Badjao women selling green mangoes, orange juice and dishes, while their children are playing in front of a learning center. At the far end of the compound are men building brick houses while their wives and older children are helping in the background.

 “We don't build houses in Mindanao, so you can't call us lazy if we don't build houses here in Cebu. We don't even sweep our floors there, because we live in the seas most of the time, so you can't call us lazy if we don't also sweep the floors here. But we are adapting to this change. As you can see, we are slowly changing,” said Amamsa, who was three years old when his family and nine others left Mindanao in the 1960s due to rampant piracy in the seawaters. Before they built homes in Cebu, the Badjaos used to be sea nomads (hence, the name) who practically lived in their boats.

 It's been more than five decades since the Badjaos left Zamboanga, yet they still speak their own dialect fluently including the small children; they still don't sit on chairs or go out to see a movie. Amamsa said because they don't go out often except to earn a living, most of them have not adapted to the Cebuano culture. They still practice the Animist religion (with Tuhan as their god), and pray in front of an old chest or a “baul” where they keep relics of their departed loved ones for guidance and help. And while the older Badjaos admit to being illiterate, their children are already going to school.

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 To see the Badjaos transformed into educated individuals was a “huge improvement” in their community, said Sister Evelyn Flanagan of the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It's the Presentation Sisters who are sending the Badjao children to school since 1996. In 2008, after seeing a growth in the student population, the congregation built the two-story Nano Nagle Child Care and Learning Center, Inc., which presently prepares 90 young Badjaos for grade school, and teach their parents how to read and write.

 “We have 11 graduates in college, 90 children in pre-school, 127 in elementary, 232 in high school.We see the interest of the parents in having their children go to school, to have the freedom, away from discrimination. That's a huge improvement,” said Sr. Evelyn.

 Venerva Amil, who was born and raised by a Badjao family, believes that people ridicule them because they are different. But she said education can set that issue right. Once being called many names in high school because of her being different, Amil, a scholar of the Presentation Sisters from grade school to college, now 25, is a graduate of Bachelor in Elementary Education. She is one of the teachers at the learning center. She said she wants to be a part of that long-term project in educating her fellow Badjaos, as she believes that education is key to earning public respect. It will also give them better opportunities, and subsequently keep them off the streets in the future, she added.

 “Some Badjaos beg not because they don't have anything to eat. They beg because they have nothing else to do. This is why, for me, they have to be educated, to change their mindset,” she said.

 Teaching the Badjaos, whose families' main concern is how to bring food on their table, was not a walk in the park for the Cebuano teachers, said Annie Alterado, a teacher at the learning center since 2003. She recalled that in her first years, about 90 percent of their pupils would leave school two months after the opening to go with their families in their next fishing expedition. Back then the fathers would bring their entire families as they set out for these fishing trips, she said. But times have changed, if before the whole community was composed of 97 percent illiterate individuals, that number has droppedexponentially with children getting the right education, and the parents understand the need to educate the young ones, she added. About 70 percent of the adult Badjaos are also registered voters.

 But the problem does not end there, said Alterado. She said most of their pupils are still afraid to go outside of their comfort zone, which is their community. Of the 90 pupils they have, only about 35 are prepared to advance to grade one in June, she said. The learning center is a preparatory school for Badjao children, where they are taught the basics in elementary education and socializing. Only those considered ready are sent to the Mambaling Elementary School. This Presentation Sisters thought of having this procedure after their epic fail at the start of their operation. Sister Evelyn said that during their first year at the community, they made a mistake by sending all the school-age children to MES right away. After two weeks, all of the children stopped schooling altogether because of culture shock. The congregationthen went on by housing the children within their community, initially inside the rented houses of Badjao families, to teach them the basics.

 Amil was a living witness to this episode. She said only a few of them in her batch made it to college, some even dropped out. She blamed society for it, for their constant bullying, and partly her tribe mates for their lack of courage and self-esteem. This is the reason why she is helping the Presentation Sisters by teaching the children including those of her childhood friends', she said.

 As of this school year, the program, which provides all the students' needs from tuition to books, has seen 11 Badjaos, including Amil, who finished their college degrees.

 Avelina Johan, a native Badjao, is happy with the development in their community. For someone who does not know how to read and write, Johan said she is glad that her grandchildren are attending formal classes. She is also proud that they have birth certificates, something she and her siblings don't have. She said she may be in her 50s, her father in his 90s, based on how they look physically. “Wa ko kibaw pila akong edad, wa man koy birth certificate. Singkwenta na siguro ko,” she said laughing. Her mother died years ago, leaving behind her father to her care. They now live in one of the quadrant houses built for them by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI). Asked if she liked her new house, she said she does, but they have to come out of it during stormy days for fear that it would fall on them.

 The quad houses, which numbered 18 as of this writing, are composed of two two-story buildings, sharing a common comfort room. The brick houses are a far cry from the shanties the Badjaos have been occupying for so many years. It was the Presentation Sisters who sought the help of RAFI to build better housing units for the Badjao families following the 2005 fire that razed their old homes. They were able to erect new houses, made of lawanit and other light materials given by the city government, but these were easily destroyed by the elements. In 2011, RAFI started building the brick houses.

 “This is just part of our comprehensive plan to empower people so that one day, when we're done here, they already know how to run this area and continue the development. This housing project is just a strategy to keep them here,” said Anton Fuentes, RAFI's development officer.

 The Badjao Integrated Area Development Project (BIAD-P) RAFI and its allied organizations, including the Presentation Sisters, which reclaimed the whole property, expects to finish building the 35 quads this year. Fuentes said the houses will benefit all 140 families in the community. Chieftain Amamsa, however, said there are 200 families in his tribe already, but since most of them are related with each other, two to three families share one unit.

 As of the 2011 count, the Badjao population was 1,680, more than 700 of who are children. Fuentes said although they want to teach the families reproductive health, especially that one family has an average of seven children, they are not doing it as it may offend them. “We will just tell them that the size of their houses will remain the same, and that if they will continue to have kids they may have a problem with the space in the future,” he said.

 Each unit (ground floor or the second level) is valued at P6.50 to P9.50 per day, depending on the terms of payment. Fuentes said they have to make it a daily payable as agreed by the homeowners themselves. Water and power supplies will also be paid in the same manner, once everything has been completed, he added. A sweat equity of 480 hours has to be rendered by each homeowner, and this will be monetized so that they will know that everything they do for the project has a corresponding value, said Fuentes.

 A perimeter fence will be placed around the area, and a health center will also be built inside it to complete the whole package. The community already has the Dik Trom Center, a multi-purpose building, where they hold their regular meetings.

 Fuentes said they hope that after the whole project is done, the entire community will become self-reliant. He is glad that Asamsa and their council leaders, there are two in each of the seven clans, are cooperating.

 Sr. Evelyn also hopes the same: the Badjaos can stand on their own, years from now. She said that is their main purpose in giving them education. “Before the Badjaos were too illiterate, but now they're learning. And that's really good…to keep them from being discriminated,” said Sr. Evelyn.

 Meanwhile, Avelina said she may not live to see her grandchildren grow as adults, but she believes they will become better persons. Amil also wants the same, and for her people not to be ridiculed anymore. “Di mi masakitan tawgon og Badjao. Di lang mi bugal-bugalan, tawo man sad mi, masakitan,” she said.

Amamsa hopes that the next time the public sees his people jump from their small paddle boats to catch the glimmering coins tossed by passengers of big boats, tug at their shirts for coins, or play their improvised drums in the streets, they would be reminded of the unusually blonde-haired natives who braved the seas for a better life in Cebu.“Di man mi manakit og ubang tawo. Niari mi diri para mabuhi,” said Amamsa. — / QSB (FREEMAN)

 

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