Blaan girl: “There is so much that people do not know about us”

KORONADAL (MindaNews/15 August) – The grade school girls we met at the Nelmida Elementary School in Sitio Lubon, Barangay Assumption, giggled when asked what they do for entertainment and other recreational activities.

“Pangako Sa’yo and It’s Showtime,” one girl quipped, saying that she enjoys listening to pop music, love and rock songs.

“Daniel Padilla, and On The Wings of Love (a brand new TV series that features James Reid and Nadine Lustre)!” another girl interrupted.

Rufa Mae Ann Pandat (L) with her friends who welcomed international delegates for a tribal village tour. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga
Rufa Mae Ann Pandat (L) with her friends who welcomed international delegates for a tribal village tour. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga

Rufa Mae Ann Pandat, 15, was among the Blaan girls who welcomed the Mexican delegates of the Koronadal International Folklore Festival for a village and tribal hall tour.

She was wearing what appears to be the Blaan’s traditional costume. The rest of the girls who were with her were in school uniforms. Posing for photos with their hands doing a Peace/V sign came naturally.

Asking Pandat and her friends questions about how they can preserve their own Blaan culture came a bit difficult for them. They did tell us one thing: that they will focus on their studies and do their best not to be too distracted by outside world trends.

Pandat said she was taught by her parents to be always proud of being Blaan. But that pride becomes difficult to bear when prejudices are on the prowl, ready to take it down.

“There is so much that people do not know about us,” she said. From there, people make stereotypes and judge them based on the way they look.

Pandat said that when she and her two other younger siblings are at home, they make bead crafts as taught by their grandmother. They also help with house chores.

Prejudice is common among her peers. This manifests in how some of her classmates show hesitation when she participates in activities outside the classroom. “I wish there’s respect,” she said in her own language. “I wish that my peers would take time to know our differences and to learn from each other.”

Pandat said she dreams of becoming a flight attendant so that she can see the world, meet new people, and gain new experiences.

But she reminds herself of the lessons her parents taught her about her identity: to never forget about being Blaan.

“When our population grows, I want people to know more about us,” she said. “I want people to understand each other and for bullying to stop.”

She said that it’s very common for people to blurt out “Blaan” as an expletive or a knee-jerk reaction when, say, dropping a mobile phone or a pen.

Vulnerable

At the opening of the Koronadal International Folklore Festival on Monday, Mayor Peter Miguel said the Blaan in the city are becoming increasingly vulnerable to modern world acculturation, risking the loss of their own identities and knowledge of their own lifestyle and culture.

Miguel said children are the most vulnerable to losing grip of their own culture as the advent of technology and exposure to social media may acculturate other aspirational lifestyles that could potentially lead them to be ashamed of their own heritage, he said.

The mayor said there are currently 8,000 Blaans in Koronadal. According to the Department of Tourism, they are scattered throughout the region, most of them thriving in the lower valleys of South Cotabato — from Koronadal to General Santos City.

He said holding an international event on culture and the arts can be a potential solution to bringing back to the spotlight the Blaans and to help the city realign their programs with the concerned community.

He hopes that after the event, there will be a stronger focus on the representation of the Blaan, as this would create a ripple effect on the city’s economic growth and the improvement of the Blaan’s life through empowerment in livelihood (like crafts and farming) and personal development.

He said that when this happens, the city can develop more scholarships and open more opportunities for the Blaan.

“Looking into how we can preserve and develop their culture has always been a part of our family’s tradition,” he said, referring to continuing the work of his father who’s long been passionate about the Blaan. The mayor’s father was the former mayor.

All-Blaan school

Señorita Monday Tony, principal of Nelmida Elementary School in Sitio Lubon, Barangay Assumption shared a glimpse of the life of Blaan children at school.

There are over 280 students enrolled in the school—all of them Blaan. “Some of them walk more than five to nine kilometers just to get here,” she said

Señorita Monday Tony, 48, principal of Nelmida Elementary School. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga
Señorita Monday Tony, 48, principal of Nelmida Elementary School. MindaNews photo by Jesse Pizarro Boga

The 48-year old Tony, herself a Blaan, said their culture is in danger in the sense that acculturation from the outside world is too strong.

An unresponsive educational system, Tony said, also greatly influences the children.

The regular Department of Education template is not applicable to the Blaan learners, she said, adding that the content that the department has in their learning materials do not necessarily work best for the children.

“We have our own stories,” she said, adding that there is currently no specific content for the Blaan.

The existing efforts of DepEd are there. For instance, there’s DepEd Order 62, series of 2011 called “Adopting the National Indigenous Peoples (IP) Education Policy Framework” that mandates the department to be culturally responsive to the needs of the IP sector.

But Tony said this is not enough. She still sees this at its infancy stage, yet to take full effect in their community.

Reproduction of materials needed for learning requires resources, Tony said. In her school, teachers themselves have to make their own materials for daily use without any technical support from the outside.

The current challenge that she sees is how the Blaan prioritizes education — if they do. Efforts of the stakeholders will be in vain if the Blaan don’t receive this well.

Tony said many of her fellows do not give high priority on education.

And the children are losing ground as well, she said. “Many of them are not fond of wearing their traditional attire; some do not even know how to do a Msif (traditional embroidery) on their dress (Albong),” she said. “Some also do not know their traditional dances and are not proud of their identity.”

Although they still speak their own language, many of them face discrimination—especially in how people use their tribe’s name as an expletive.

People also judge them in how their elders do not wear any footwear. “The elder go barefoot for a reason,” Tony said, referring to the tribe’s belief on ancient therapeutic effects of going barefoot.

Tony shared that in her school, at least three days are allotted for learning and development of the Blaan culture. “They’re encouraged to wear their traditional attire, they spend time in special skills lessons on dancing, crafts, heritage and the arts,” she said. There are currently four teaching personnel who are Blaan; the principal is the fifth. (Jesse Pizarro Boga / MindaNews)