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The Badjao Beacons of Hope

By Dáire Drummy

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Imagine waking up each morning with the probability of not having food at your disposal. Imagine having one set of torn clothes. Imagine walking for over an hour, often barefoot, on hot tarmac and stones, to go to school. This was life for Junri Jundam. Junri lived alone with his grandmother in the Badjao community having been forced to leave his difficult family setup at just 3 months of age. His grandmother earned money by begging on the streets as she could not read or write and so could not find work to fund Junri’s education. Junri also sold pearls at a local market in Don Carlos in an attempt to provide for the two of them. Junri told of how he would often just have hot water (boiled in order to remove bacteria) as his sole source of nutrition for the day. He never saw college as a possibility for him due to the expense of simple things such as books, transport and food not to mention tuition fees. Luckily, the Presentation Sisters kindly sponsored Junri’s education which allowed him to flourish and earn his degree as a Bachelor of Education. Junri often used his transport allowance to buy food for his grandmother and other essentials for the house. Junri now teaches adult literacy classes to older students who were never educated as children and also teaches development education classes helping students in a wide range of subjects such as English, Maths an History. The ever-humble Junri stated he is “not what you would call a genius!” but does his best to help his students in any way he can and his desire to be a teacher stems from his own background and his determination to not allow a repeat of his difficult financial situation. From my experience of witnessing his classes, the students have the utmost respect for him and why wouldn’t they? He is one of the kindest, happiest, most genuine men one could have the pleasure of meeting. He’s also not far off the genius label if you ask me…

“If others can do it, why can’t you?”. This is the battle-cry of Nano Nagle Learning Center teacher Paulitha (Pau) Aliudin to the Badjao students. Paulitha told me of her struggle with bullying while she was in elementary school in particular facing daily abuse from fellow Filipino classmates who described her as ‘poor’, ‘dirty’ and ‘dumb’. Even when those in authority were told of this bullying, Paulitha, along with many Badjao like her, were (and still are) told to get on with it and that this is just part of school life. No one wants to be seen to defend the Badjao. At home, life was not much easier for Pau as her mother was often very ill and her father was a fisherman who would rarely have been at home so Pau was left to take care of the family from a very young age. Due to this, Pau would often sacrifice her own food for the sake of the rest of the family and go to school hungry. Much like Junri, the Presentation Sisters played a big role in putting Pau through school covering much of the financial side of things. Even more encouragingly, Pau described a teacher she had in Grade 1 (about 6 years old) as someone who was always quick to dispel any bullying and was always on-hand to help and encourage Pau. This woman is also the woman who Pau credits as her inspiration in becoming a teacher. Pau only joined the Nano Nagle staff this year and has been taking Montessori classes in the morning and afternoons. Her positive, inspiring attitude really has brought an additional breath of fresh air to the work in Nano Nagle.

The final woman I spoke to was Venerva Amil. Once again, Venerva spoke of the Badjao isolation in schools and the frequent bullying and marginalisation of Badjao students due to the fact that they did not have birth certificates and were not recognised as citizens by the state. However, Venerva’s main struggle came in the form of balancing tradition and education. The Badjao tradition is to marry early and the woman then leaves school and stays in the home while the man goes to work. Venerva was married in her second year of high school at the tender age of 14. However, the team at the Nano Nagle Center were not prepared to let Venerva leave school just yet and convinced her to stay studying right the way through college. Venerva went against the wishes of her mother whose priorities did not lie in education and saw Venerva’s place as being in the home. This remains a rare situation even in today’s Badjao society in that if a woman was to get married the expectation is that she follow tradition so it was incredibly brave of Venerva to continue her education despite pressure from her mother to adhere to tradition. Venerva was the first female Badjao to work in the Nano Nagle Centre and has been working as a Montessori teacher there for almost a decade. She continues to be an inspiration, in particular to young women who, even if they happen to be married young, can still continue with education and earn a professional degree for themselves.

While there still remains an archaic stigma attached to the Badjao name around the Philippines as being uneducated and unskilled, the stories of three Badjao people who are now teaching in their own society serve as a foil to these claims. These stories would not have existed 20-30 years ago. The Badjao are evolving. It shows an amazing turnaround for the Badjao community and things will only get better. From working with the high school kids over the past month, I can confidently say the Badjao community will be in safe hands. Through the guidance of the Nano Nagle Learning Center, these young men and women are transforming the way people view the Badjao community. They are the most talented, intelligent, and fun group of people I have ever met and deserve to be viewed in this way by society. I feel privileged to have worked with this community alongside these incredible individuals who have had to overcome some unbelievable obstacles socially, economically and mentally and are now devoting their lives to enhancing the community. These teachers truly are the hallmarks of success in which many Badjao aspire to; the beacons of light spearheading the rise of this inspiring tribe.

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I would like to thank Venerva, Junri and Paulitha for partaking in interviews with me as research for this blog. Their honesty, assistance and all-round kindness throughout my time in Cebu has made my volunteering experience much more beneficial and enjoyable.

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