And it feels good!
24.05.2009 - 30.05.2009 33 °C
July 7, 2009 – 12:25 pm
I was relieved when the dogs started barking. Dogs meant people. And people meant the village and an end to the mud-slick uphill climb that had been burning my thighs for the past hour and a half.
I was recently in the Philippines to visit some of the projects my organization has in the remote highlands of Occidental Mindoro. We are working with Mangyan communities, indigenous people who live in the forested mountains and have very little contact with – and plenty of mistrust for – “lowlanders”. I flew from Bangkok to Manila to San Jose. A two-hour truck ride down pitted gravel roads got us to the trail head. An hour and a half later, I have crossed streams up to my thighs, am pouring buckets of sweat, and am scratched to sh*t by not-so-friendly jungle foliage.
The village is a tiny collection of palm huts. There is a dilapidated wooden building with a dirt floor that doubles as their local church and community centre. There is no access to clean water, basic sanitation or health services. There are no roads to transport the small surplus of bananas, cassava and red rice that they produce.
And there is no school. That’s why we’re here today.
Shy and freaked out, the village kids hid behind adults, trees, fences, pretty much anything that would put some distance between them and the bizarre sweat-soaked foreigner. But, after one brave little munchkin let me snap her photo, they warmed up to me once I showed them her image on the screen. Bingo! The giggles and smiles started to creep out…
There are over a hundred and fifty kids in this village, and not a one of them goes to school locally. The closest school is three hours away on little feet. Some of the older kids go on an irregular schedule – if there’s enough food in the house to last them the school week, they’ll head out. If not, they’ll stay at home. The most educated adult in the village has a grade 8 standing.
Of course these people have their own knowledge, their own ways of knowing, I’m not trying to belittle that. It’s just – as a person who has been afforded pretty much every educational opportunity on offer in the Western world – it’s hard for me to wrap my head around communities with no access to education. How, from the elevated vantage point of the village, I can just see the touristy dive sites of the Apo Reef in the coastal distance yet a lack of basic sanitation here means kids die from diarrhea on a routine basis.
The plan is to build a school here. We’ve made the trek here for our third round of “meet-n-greet” chats with the village elders. My organization, Plan International, is currently being checked out by the village leadership. They are, quite wisely, talking with other Mangyan communities in the area who have already worked with us. They’re collecting references and making sure we are legit and a reputable development partner.
We have a solid standing in the community – we’ve helped build other schools, health clinics, latrines, helped train community health workers, and provided water buffalos and tools for farming. We’re helping Mangyan communities gain title to their ancestral lands so they can’t be summarily displaced by the mining companies currently eyeing up their mountains.
The meeting is over. Tomas, the village elder, is bouncing his last-born on his knee and telling us he hopes we’ll be able to work together. He seems to have decided we’re alright, for lowlanders Shy but smiley small-fry wave us off. I hit the trail, hoping it’ll be easier on the way down.