MALITA, Davao Occidental (MindaNews / 05 April) — I mistook it at first to have been written by a second grader who had just learned how to write. The crude penmanship, the many misspelled words, and the arbitrary use of periods and commas throughout the Tagakolu composition were clearly the work of someone unskilled in writing. Furthermore, that piece of written work barely made any sense; it seemed more like a haphazard sequencing of random words than an essay.

The composition, however, was the work of a Tagakolu sixth grader. It was an essay written in response to the question: why it was important to study.

The boy who had written the essay was studying at a government elementary school not far from the Malita Tagakaulo Mission (Matamis). The essay was part of the qualifying examinations he took to avail of the scholarship offered by Matamis to Tagakolu children. That boy was actually of average intelligence and not dull-witted at all. However, the six years he had spent in elementary school had failed to develop his natural gifts and talents. And he is not alone.

Government schools with a curriculum ill adapted to young Indigenous Peoples (IP) like the Tagakolu, and a teaching force with a deficient work ethic and unprepared to work in a context that is unfamiliar to them has been turning many Tagakolu children in the mountains of Malita into an alienated and miseducated generation.

Since the beginning of mission work among the Tagakolu people in the 1980s, the Church had already been involved in education through its literacy schools. The PMÉ missionaries of Quebec at the time already saw the wisdom of teaching Tagakolu children in their own language. When the government started taking over these schools one after the other many years later, Tagakolu children had to learn Cebuano, the language of settlers. The teachers were descendants of settlers from the northern islands who had very little interest in the language and culture of the Tagakolu.

The Missionaries of Jesus (MJ) continued with the remaining schools and opened new ones when they arrived in 2006. Through the years some of those schools were taken over by the government and a few closed until only two remained.

Despite being adequately funded by the government, the schools that were turned over yielded graduates who could barely read or write and, worse, had no appreciation whatsoever for their Tagakolu heritage. They were producing a lost generation.

In 2015 the MJ started the process of transforming the two remaining literacy schools into elementary schools to be able to offer Tagakolu children quality education that is genuinely appreciative of their culture.

For some years now, the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples (ECIP) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had been helping Matamis prepare modules for the IP schools that wove the essential thread that is Tagakolu culture into the fabric that is the IP curriculum of the IP schools of Matamis. There was a hitch, though: where to find teachers who shared the vision of Matamis and where to get the money to pay them.

The beautiful vision of a school for IP children learning to love their culture seemed doomed from the start. A school with no teachers would be no school at all. We continued the plan, nevertheless, with our two remaining IP teachers and ardently prayed for a miracle. We were not giving up on the dream but did not really know what to do.

Our prayers were answered in Marites Gonzalo and in our new IP teachers. Marites, who is fondly called Matet at Matamis, had been an IP school teacher and a catechist at the mission for some years. She left to study and gained a degree in education. She then worked on her masters in anthropology after that. She was finishing her masters when she finally joined Matamis in 2016 to take charge of the two IP schools and the IP youth program.

She could have earned a lot more had she joined the government or had she worked with an NGO. She chose the road less travelled: she returned to her people.

Many people her age would single mindedly pursue a rewarding career to get ahead in life and enrich themselves. That had crossed her mind on several occasions, she admits, but her heart was telling her something else. She claims to have always felt a tug to go back, as if the mountains were somehow calling her. The time, perhaps, had come for her to respond to that call.

The two IP schools are located far from Matamis. They were put up in the communities that they would serve, far from the commercial and political centers. Travelling to these schools is no mean feat. The fastest and practical way of getting there is by motorcycle. We often wear rain boots when we visit the schools because we have to cross rivers numerous times or have to drive through the river itself. Occasionally we get stuck in mud.

It is difficult to visit the schools during monsoon season because the rivers are very often inundated. It is still a tricky ride when the water is low due to rocks and boulders in and by the river. Despite this, Matet is unfazed and carries on in accompanying the IP teachers and supervising the schools, visiting them as often as the weather permits. Although very professional in the way she works, she treats this work more of a ministry than a job. Her passion and love for her people shines through and is infectious. Her dedication inspires the teachers to also love the learners under their care and the teaching that they do.

We thought looking for teachers who were passionate about IP education would be next to impossible. We were gravely mistaken. Former literacy school teachers came when they had heard of the plan about the IP schools of Matamis. Young people also came forward and wanted to be part of this endeavor. It did not matter so much that the pay was small, what mattered to them was that they would be making a difference in the life of their fellow Tagakolu.

Matamis relies solely on donations for the salaries of its IP teachers. It does not receive any financial help from the state. Matamis is able to pay only the minimum wage of the IP teachers as required by law and that is not even half of what their counterparts receive in government schools. Nevertheless, our IP teachers teach with a passion that money can never recompense.

At the closing ceremonies in March, learners from Kindergarten to Third grade shared with their parents and their community what they accomplished after a year of attending school.

It may seem ordinary to outsiders but it means a lot to these communities. These children not only know what their counterparts know in the lowland, if not better, but they have learned more about their Tagakolu culture and are embracing it.

Had there been no IP school in the community, many of these children would not have been able to study due to the long treacherous trek to the nearest government schools. Those who could have gone to those schools would have ended up barely able to read or write, and would have been gradually assimilated into the Cebuano mainstream of Mindanao.

This coming June, we shall be starting fourth grade. We did not think that we could get this far but we have. We have much to be thankful for: God’s unwavering guidance and inspiration, the Tagakolu parents who provide for the food and shelter of our IP teachers, the people who have selflessly parted with the little they have to help the schools, and most of all, Matet and our IP teachers who love this work and who love their people.

The schools are simple but they offer more than the simple structures that people see. It is flourishing despite meager funds because of the many blessings it has received. The greatest blessings are the people who instruct the children, our IP teachers.

What sets them apart from their counterparts in government is that for them teaching is not a job, it is a mission!

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Fr. Joey Gánio Evangelista, MJ, heads the Malita Tagakaulo Mission of the Diocese of Digos. The mission is based in Malita, Davao Occidental