The mountainous countryside of Mindanao, Southern Philippines is home to the indigenous Lumad communities whose lives are constantly threatened by militarization and state-sponsored attacks. Through sheer determination and with the help of non-governmental organizations, they were able to establish their own schools for the education of Lumad children based on a homegrown curriculum that respects and promotes their indigenous rights and way of life. Today, many of these Lumad schools have been forcible closed as nearby communities evacuate their homes to flee from continuing threats, harassments and killings.

Angel May’s “comfort zone”

Seventeen-year old Angel May, a Moro-Obo Manobo student from Mindanao Interfaith Services Foundation, Inc. Academy (MISFI Academy) in North Cotabato, Mindanao, finds comfort in her everyday routine of activities at her boarding high school. 

At 3:00 in the morning, she wakes up to take a bath and prepare herself for the day. Angel May and her groupmates then cook breakfast for their other classmates who are either tasked to clean the dormitory building and its surroundings or feed the chickens and other animals in the school’s livestock. After the food is cooked, the dorm cleaned and the animals fed, Angel May and her peers proceed to tend their school garden farm where they grow vegetable crops like squash, okra, eggplant and gourd. Most of the fresh produce that they harvest go to the school’s pantry and food stockpile to ensure that they will have consumables for the next day. Any excess will then be sold at a reasonable price to residents living near the school. 

At around 6:00 in the morning, the students share a simple breakfast, usually steamed rice and a vegetable dish, that Angel May and her groupmates had cooked earlier. Their stories about the previous day’s lessons or today’s expected activities would fill the dining hall as they eat communally. For Angel May, this is the single important moment that gets her excited, to start the day she knows will be full of new things to learn.

After breakfast, the students hurry to the open field for the flag raising ceremony which starts at around 7:00. Classes then start at 7:15 and end until 5:00 in the afternoon, with an hour lunch break at noon. Angel May, being a senior high school student, has classes on Physical Sciences, Agriculture, Creative Writing, Oral Communication, Cultural Studies, Physical Education and Health, among others.

The bell’s ringing in the afternoon signals the end of classes. It also means another activity – Angel May and the other students will go back to the school garden farm. By working in the garden farm, they are able to apply the different lessons on scientific farming and food production that they have learned inside the classroom.

The students then retreat to their dorm rooms to rest after a long day’s work. They eat dinner together and the endless stories once again reverberate inside the common dining hall. Before calling it a night, they work on their assignments or study in the library. By 9:00 in the evening, they all have to settle down to sleep as the school dormitory’s policy of lights off is strictly observed.

On some days, Angel May and her co-students  go outside  the campus and provide the surrounding communities with basic health services such as blood pressure monitoring for the elderly, discussion on health and sanitation  and simple diagnosis of common illnesses. Healthcare from the government seldom reaches these far-flung communities, if at all. That is why the school’s health program extends itself to the community. This also serves as the students’ practicum – enriching their knowledge with actual practice supervised by their teacher who is a licensed nurse. With herbal medicines they themselves made, they are able to  provide medicines  to community members who are inflicted with  simple illnesses like cough and flu or skin diseases that are pretty common in the community. Grade 12 students are also being taught how to handle minor surgical operation procedures such as circumcision and cyst-removal operation. There are also lessons in acupuncture and other oriental medical healing.

In the rare occasion that Angel May gets to go home and visit her parents, usually during semestral breaks and the holidays, she surprises them with how much knowledge she has already acquired through attending the MISFI Academy. And even though being away from home for a long time has its downside, for Angel May this is a small sacrifice not only to help her family break away from the chains of illiteracy, but also to empower her whole community in claiming their right to self-determination and development. 

A beacon of hope

Like Angel May and many other Lumad youth, Bandam, a 15-year old Manobo, greatly values his education. He is currently a second year student at the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Development (ALCADEV) in Surigao del Sur, Mindanao. 

Bandam is grateful he gets to study in ALCADEV where he is being developed holistically – as a proud member of his tribe who contributes to the development of the whole community towards self-reliance and sufficiency. According to him, his fellow tribesmen did not have the same opportunity in the past.

Before ALCADEV and similar schools were established, Manobo children had to walk 16 kilometers to the nearest government-run school every day. Parents also had to provide for the school expenses for food, mandatory contributions and school projects. If those were not enough to hinder many of these children to go to school, they also face discrimination from non-indigenous children and even some of the teachers. Being poor, they do not have the luxury of new, let alone nice, clothes. There is also the language barrier. These result to teasing and bullying, which then result to discouragement in pursuing their studies.  Students graduating from high school were a rare occurrence in their community.

Illiteracy among the Manobos and other Lumad groups has further made them vulnerable to exploitation. Bandam recalled, as told to him by elders of his tribe, that in the past, landgrabbers tricked the Manobos into selling tracts of their ancestral land in exchange for a single can of sardines. Greedy merchants buy their produce at much lower prices than what it actually cost. On the other hand, the basic necessities they buy from the market are overpriced. Unable to earn a decent income, schooling for the Manobo families was next to impossible. This was a vicious cycle that stunted the social, economic and cultural development of the Manobos for years. 

Through the collective effort of parents, community leaders, non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups, schools like ALCADEV were established in Surigao del Sur, Mindanao. Bandam, along with his fellow Manobos, are now able to study in a school that is very much accessible to their communities without having to worry about financial constraints as everything in the school is free.

The Manobos and other Lumad groups rely on their ancestral land and the natural surroundings as their primary source of livelihood. That is why all ALCADEV students are being taught scientific knowledge and technologies about agricultural and livestock farming. 

Like Angel May, Bandam, along with his classmates, also get to put into practice what they had learned as they tended to the school’s garden plots every morning and afternoon. They also learn how to make organic fertilizers and make use of vermiculture. As a result, they were able to cultivate and harvest bountiful, organic and healthy fruits and vegetables. They also learn to make use of herbal medicines to treat common illnesses instead of going to the pharmacies in urban centers which was costly to them.

The school’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Local government officials have extended to ALCADEV their appreciation for bridging the gap in providing education to the Manobo communities. In 2014, the Literacy Coordinating Council – Department of Education awarded the school as the Most Outstanding Literacy Program in the region and 5th Most Outstanding Literacy Program in the Philippines. 

But perhaps the most important recognition the school has ever received came from the Manobo people themselves. It is the students’ will to study well, as evident in the community’s collective action to sustain its operation.

Lumad schools under attack

Recently, however, it is not Angel May and her classmates that can be seen inside the classrooms. For months now, soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines have occupied their school as well as many others all over Mindanao.

The Philippine authorities want schools like MISFI Academy and ALCADEV closed down. According to them, these schools are training grounds for rebels and should not be allowed to operate. They utilize the armed forces in initiating smear campaigns against the Lumad schools. A growing list of reported and documented human rights violations against the students, teachers and community members also points to the military as perpetrators.

The communities in which these schools are operating have long been resisting the intrusion of various development aggression projects such as mining and agribusiness plantations. The Lumads know that once these supposed development projects were given the greenlight, it would mean the end of their way of life as they know it. Eviction from their ancestral lands will be widespread. The destruction of natural resources will be inevitable.

Because of the strong resistance of the students and teachers of Lumad schools, as well as whole communities, they are being subjected to human rights violations. Multiple reports of military encampment in schools and other public places have been reported since 2009. The threats and intimidation suffered by Lumad communities have escalated to enforced disappearances and killings. Bandam recalled that in 2015, his whole community bore witness to the killings of their school administrator and two tribal leaders. Children and adults alike were made to watch the assassination to instill fear among the community. Schools are being burned down to the ground. 

Administrations, past and present, have done nothing to stop these atrocities. In 2013, the national ministry for education issued a memorandum order that further gave license to the military’s presence in schools, a clear violation of international humanitarian laws. In addition, many of the schools’ permits to operate have been revoked or withheld by the education ministry. Even President Rodrigo Duterte, in his 2016 state of the nation address, threatened to bomb Lumad schools should they continue to operate. 

Instead of cowering to the military and authorities, Angel May and her community, along with other Lumads all over Mindanao, journeyed to the country’s capital to share their stories and gather support from the general public. But even if they are seeking refuge, the Lumads believe that the education of their children should not be compromised. Thus the Lumad Bakwit School (Lumad Evacuation School) was born. Schools and some universities in Metro Manila have provided classrooms where the Lumads can hold their classes. Donations of schools supplies, food and other necessities have poured in to sustain the operation of the school. Teachers and students from Manila also teach special topics from time to time. 

The Lumad Bakwit School is in itself a form of protest. It is the Lumads showing their strength in unity and resilience in the face of attacks against them as people. It has, thus far, gathered huge support, both locally and internationally, providing the Lumads with reinforced strength to struggle for education and their rights.

Hope lingers

Angel May  is very grateful they are able to continue with their studies even though they were forced to leave home. That despite the terrible things that are happening to them, the support and solidarity they are receiving are more overwhelming. But some days they also battle with homesickness. They cannot help but yearn for the simple life they have back home. 

Bandam, after a brief support-visit to the Lumad Bakwit School in Manila in December 2019, is now back at Alcadev. He feels very deeply for Angel May and the other Lumad students who had to continue their education while in evacuation in the cities. He finds himself fortunate to continue breathing the fresh air of the countryside while continuing his studies. But he knows very well that all of these are possible only while they can continue to resist military occupation in their community. Bandam does not lose hope for the other students.

Despite her worries and fears, Angel May remains steadfast in her people’s will to defend their school. She draws inspiration from her fellow classmates and the future generation of students to continue on with their struggle. She may have left her ‘comfort zone’. But she believes that with the help of concerned individuals, she would be able to reclaim it. 

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