RAFI Award for exemplary individual nominee: Portrait of a Teacher and Heroine
(The Freeman) - August 1, 2015 - 10:00am

CEBU, Philippines - Anita Castillon, 62 Principal and School Owner, Marmylone Learning Center

• Established three Indigenous Learning Schools in two mountain barangays

• Developed a system to sustain the feeding program within the schools

• Works closely with the Municipal Nutrition Office, resulting in the decrease of children’s malnutrition

• Provides skills training to promote self-reliance among the indigenous people

Up in the mountains of Lake Sebu of South Cotabato, one woman lovingly tends and nurtures the T’Boli families to help them grow into self-reliant communities.

Her Garden

Her garden is bigger than her house. There is a roofed, yet open structure, by the gate of her well-planted yard. School armchairs, damaged one way or another yet still functional, are arranged accordingly. Meetings with the parents take place here, she said. 

Anita Castillon, Nanay Anit to many, is a small woman. Yet this 62-year-old woman carries with her a colossal love for the many things that she does up in the mountains of Lake Sebu of South Cotabato.

After becoming a widow at the age of 22, Nanay Anit focused her life on raising her only daughter and teaching. Living in Lake Sebu since 1979 and working at the Sta. Cruz Mission have molded her into an educator, a mother figure, a patriot, and a T’Boli advocate.

During her time at the mission, she learned to love the T’Boli children. Their poverty and lack of access to education softened and opened her heart to them.

Aside from establishing the Marmylone Learning Center, her own private school located across her home, Nanay Anit has established three Indigenous Learning Schools in two mountain barangays in Lake Sebu. It is at these schools were she educates and nurtures T’Boli children.

“Nanay Anit sacrificed a lot by being far from her only daughter so she could serve the far-flung communities,” recalled Remy Unggol, a municipal councilor and a T’Boli. Now that Nanay Anit’s daughter lives in the USA, her days are mostly spent with the T’Boli tribe.

Nanay Anit is aware that the T’Boli families have a hard time making ends meet. To send a child to school costs the family P50 a month. To address this, she asks them to pay P20 a month and grow a garden, so its yield can be used for the school’s feeding program. With this system, parents like Lucia Talmenggoy, a native T’Boli, can send her children to school. 

In an effort to entice children to go to school, Nanay Anit works closely with the municipal nutrition office. Magdalena Padilla, the Municipal Nutrition Program Coordinator, shared that with their partnership, the cases of malnutrition among kids has dramatically declined.


“You can see the people’s need when you approach them,” Padilla said.

After having lived with the T’Bolis for many years, Nanay Anit has become the instrument in knowing their needs and finding ways to best address these, Padilla explained.

Her programs and initiatives encourage the parents to be proactive about their children’s learning. While in the past, neighbors had the habit of helping themselves to another’s garden, these days each family has their own garden to tend. The gardens yield enough for their own consumption and the Indigenous Learning Schools’ feeding programs. Families also assist in cooking the day’s meals.

Traveling to these target areas is never easy. These are mountainous barangays that require a big truck or a skilled habal-habal driver to navigate through the muddy and bumpy dirt roads.    

At times when no transportation is available, Nanay Anit goes on foot to reach the village and teach the kids.  For security and transportation, Nanay Anit asks for help from the Army in reaching far-flung areas like Barangays Takunel and Tasiman.

“It is our responsibility  to visit even the farthest communities and ensure their safety. But Nanay Anit, a civilian and not even a pure T’Boli herself, goes the extra mile for service,” said Lt. Col Abel Porto, Commanding Officer of the 27th IB Charlie Co.

To Lt. Col. Porto, Nanay Anit has become a modern portrait of patriotism.

Sometimes Nanay Anit is mistaken for either an insurgent or a questionable intruder. The T’Bolis, semi-nomadic as they are, do not instantly trust the lowlanders; after all, a big part of the land is now owned by non-T’Bolis.

However, Nanay Anit is unfazed. She continues with her work and gains the trust of the T’Bolis.

“Letting the people understand is hard. You have to level with them. She comes here every week. Before, the people were just afraid,” shared Roberto Bulol, a  T’Boli residing in Sitio Batutunggal, a community that has around 30 families.

Eventually the people get it: Anita Castillon is an ally. From then on, they help. In Barangay T’Noos, the local men carried the sand and gravel for the modest school construction through carabaos and horses. In Barangay Takunel, volunteer teachers like Grade 1 teacher Dunissa Anggol, stay with the local families near the school.

Surviving the modern world

Nanay Anit expressed worry over the T’Bolis, explaining that as more outsiders have taken interest in the land surrounding Lake Sebu, more of the original setters have had to move away from their lands and into the mountains. This has taken them away from the rural centers, making access to basic services and education a challenge.

To prepare the tribe and their children for other sources of income, Nanay Anit introduced other programs that allowed the T’Boli to expand their skill sets. “For them to survive the modern world,” she explained.

Aside from providing them with education through her Indigenous Learning Schools, Nanay Anit introduced livelihood programs like brass casting and abaca planting to the T’Boli. Nanay Anit hopes that self-reliance takes root among the T’Bolis.    

One would expect that she must earn well for everything she does for the tribe; after all, providing education to the indigenous kids is no easy task. Yet a visit to her house says otherwise. 

Her semi-concrete house is not the kind one expects a school principal and an educator would have, one who runs her own elementary school with 18 years of teaching experience under her belt. It only has two small rooms facing the equally modest porch. The second room is mostly occupied by people who help her with her programs for the tribe. Her hut is built on a small hill overlooking a big garden.

While Nanay Anit could easily pack up and join her daughter in the United States, she admits that her home was with the T’Bolis.

“Many people have ignored the IPs (Indigenous People). I cried because I’m happy,” Nanay Anit explained, after shedding a few tears. Her life was with the T’Bolis and she wished nothing more than to help them with their lives. This, she says, is her deep joy.

Anita Castillon has cultivated the land that is the heart and head of the T’Bolis. Just like cultivating the garden below her hut, she has to go down, dig the earth, water the plants, and wait for them to bloom.

And when they do, her heart blossoms with happiness.

(Anita Castillon is one of three finalists in the individual category of the 6th RAFI Triennial Awards. The winner in the category will be known Friday, August 14.)

IP Curriculum. The Indigenous Learning Schools use the IP curriculum so the children will be able to learn about their tribe, their dances, songs, and language. Nanay Anita wants of being a T’Boli.

Culture. Nanay Anit found ways to preserve the T’Boli’s intricate crafts. T’Boli’s handcrafts, brass casting, and beadworks are brought to the local tourism office for marketing and sales. 

Immersion. A native from Antique, Nanay Anit fully immersed herself into the lives of the T’Boli. 

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with