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Challenging Perspectives and Stereotypes of the Badjao Tribe

By Natalie Kavanagh

Natalie is participating in the Gold  Global Citizen Award. This is the first of her Global Blogs from the Philippines . 

“We are the Badjao, the mighty, mighty Badjao!” (Lyrics from the high school children’s own song from the music workshops)

In the thick of the intense fundraising in preparation for the volunteering project to Cebu this summer I have been constantly quizzed, “Who will you be working with?” As soon as I say “tribe” the stereotypical human nature kicks in. Some people naturally assume that the needs of the tribe will include food, clothes and education.  This couldn’t be any further from the truth. On our arrival, one of the most immediately noticeable things is the sight of children dressed in their bright clean uniforms. Badjao children being respectful of their uniforms before classOne little boy in particular could not wait to get changed out of his school uniform so he could play without messing it, that he had his sister take his uniform back to their house to keep it clean! In contrast with Ireland where it is not uncommon to see a child clatter their uniform in paint, chocolate and all sorts.

The Badjao children, and indeed Filipino communities’ regard for education is immense as well as their respect for the tribal elders. All of the children and young adults were very respectful in how they dealt with all of us and each other. They all use the traditional Filipino greeting of raising our hand to their foreheads.  There is no doubting that the name of the Badjao tribe creates immediate prejudices and judgements, both here at home and in the Philippines, based on the tribes history and nomadic nature.  However, getting to know and understand the tribe, they are continually changing that prejudice and perspective and carving out a future for themselves that they have previously been denied both in their local community and from the support, acknowledgement and basic rights being denied by the local and national government.

Badjao Band

Badjao Band

Meeting the teachers of the Nano Nagle School and seeing how hardworking they were was overwhelming. The tribe held a beautiful opening ceremony in which they showcased all of their talents with singing and dancing their tradition Badjao dance and Filipino Anthem. One of the most captivating things I have seen was the silent drama they performed and produced in regards to their heritage in which they demonstrated the troubles they have faced, and made reference to the work of the Presentation Sisters (partners of SERVE) in accessing the tribe’s right to education. The Presentation Sisters are a group of inspirational women dedicated to their mission to help others and have come so far in gaining the trust of the Badjao people. The Badjao tribe have shown themselves to be a strong and resilient people.  They do not hide behind the struggle of their people from fleeing Mindanao due to the violence towards them or how they are segregated from the Filipino community. Don’t get me wrong – there was many people that had lovely things to say about the Badjao but their kind words of how hardworking they are was outshined by the lack of predefined prejudices of many people. There is still a lot of work to be done on that front.

music class high school students expressing themselves

music class high school students expressing themselves

One of the main focuses of our project was to introduce music classes. Music throughout all schools in the world is aimed to build on confidence, improve team building skills, creativity and also is a fantastic way to get your message across. The Badjao children were exceptional at picking up these skills and it was evident, even at the end of our short programme, the contribution it made in terms of the children’s confidence. The high school and college children wrote their own lyrics, music and sang their songs about how proud they were to Badjao. Singing in the last day of the closing ceremony everyone joined in with “We are the Badjao, the mighty, mighty Badjao!” Having spent the time with them I will never stop talking about how amazing they are. Being with the Badjao is like being welcomed so warmly into a closely knit family, more like siblings than a community. From the very first day stepping foot into the community, the children running towards us so eager for us to play games and do dances with them. This love continued throughout the duration of our stay and their “peace-loving” nature radiated the whole time. It is definitely true that no amount of preparation and research could prepare me for who they are.

Despite the discrimination they face, the Badjao tribe are realising that they are just as entitled to a brighter future as other Filipino communities. With their growing confidence and self-belief, acceptance will come from those around them. As soon as we widen our perspectives, engage in mutual understanding and start projecting ourselves into the lives of others, I think we can start to live in solidarity and avoid stereotyping.

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