The Aeta scholars of Zambales-A A +A
Thursday, September 15, 2011
IN 1991 after Mt. Pinatubo erupted and displaced many residents in the province of Zambales, including thousands of aetas living near the volcano, a tribal chieftain ask a nun for help, but it was not for food, housing or money.
Tatang Bagoong, an aeta chieftain asked Sr.Mary Francis Borje, a nun based in the province if she can teach them to read and write. Sr. Borje explained that she was surprised with the request.
Sr. Borje asked Tatang Bagoong about his request and she got a disturbing explanation. ‘Sister, one day, I was forced to thumb mark and in that thumb mark I was threatened, I have eyes but I cannot see because what is written was in English, I cannot read, I am illiterate, what was written was a dead of sale that a part or their ancestral domain was taken.’
‘I was disturbed and I asked for guidance, my superiors told me to teach the adult Aetas,’ Sr. Borje said.
Sr. Borje explained that they started with adult literacy and that many volunteered to help her teach.
The first students were from Sitio Cawag, Alibang and the Philseco area, all in Subic town in Zambales.
In January 1995, she attended a mass in Manila by Pope John Paul II and in his homily, the pope said ‘as the father sent me, so I am sending you,’ and right after the mass it made her think. Going back to Subic, she again asked the permission of her superior to experiment with non-formal education for the young natives in the area. On March of the same year, the first classroom and two nipa huts, which served as a dorm for girls and boys were built, Sr. Borje started the St. Francis Learning Center.
When the school opened in June of 1995, they initially had 20 Aeta students including a mother.
Smiling Sr. Borje said ‘the adult mother was always teased by her classmate, she would come to me and cry telling me she was being teased,’ she did not finish class and went back to the mountains.
Sixteen years after establishing St. Francis Learning Center, they have successfully helped a handful of Aeta students graduate in college and vocational school. This year, some 300 students are currently enrolled in St. Francis and in their 3 annex centers in the mountains.
As I was sitting inside the grade one class, I met 9-year-old John Lander David, he was called ‘Pangas’ by his classmates for unexplained reasons.
He explained that he is from Cawag in Subic, his parent sent him to St. Francis because they had no way of sending him to a private school, his parents only rely on upland farming for their daily needs.
He went to St. Francis last year with no educational background, now he can read and write a little.
He is a jolly little grade one despite the age difference with his younger classmate; he gets along with them just fine.
Unlike any other student in the class, Pangas was in his neat white polo and blue shorts, raising his hand occasionally to recite in class. I ask him want he wanted to be when he grows up, he was shy, she looked at his teacher, his eyes were somewhat looking for comfort and then he looked back at me and said ‘a police.’ I did not bother to ask why because I had a feeling he would have a difficult time to answer. But he murmured and said, ‘para po makatulong (so I can help),’ I smiled and gave him a pat on his head.
It was hot inside the classroom, my chair was small, I tried my best to fit myself in it and I was seated at the back far away from the window because the teacher said I could not sit in front because the other children would not see the blackboard, she had a point.
I was setting my camera when I noticed two small Aeta girls crawling with their bags in tow until they reached the window on my left.
They sat on two vacant chairs and were whispering to each other, slowly the other girl reach for her bag and slowly slide it outside through the window and let go. It made me smile; these girls were making a break for it I said.
After a few minutes, they slowly crawled near the door, the teacher could not see them, she was in a blind spot. The two successfully got out and ran to get their bag.
Sr. Junetta Jimenez, who is the school principal, told me that they have also accepted kids around the area since the next school is far.
She said that the ‘lowlander’ or the students that are not natives or Aetas are more ‘makulet’ or pesky compared to the Aeta students.
“The Aeta students are more attentive in class, they participate and are well-mannered compared to the others,” Sr. Jimenez said.
The only hindrance she explained is the language barrier. She explained that new comers in the school only knows how to speak Zambal or Ilocano - it is the local dialect for the province and the Aetas.
“The first step we do is teach them Tagalog, then English and after that they are fine,” Sr. Jimenez said.
She explained that one of the reasons why some of the Aeta students drop out is homesickness.
“In their community, these kids are always with their parent, even at work, they are with their parents; they have very strong family bond,’ she explained.
The curriculum in St. Francis is like any other school in the country. The school is recognized by the Department of Education but during Fridays, the students are required to dress with their native dress. ‘Bahag’ for the boys and ‘bahileng’ for the girls.
“It’s cultural day during Friday, and at night, they perform traditional dance or song; this is part of making their tradition and culture alive despite being here while studying,” she said.
Food, clothing and housing for the student are free; the school has a garden for vegetable, a small rice fields and a pigpen.
Sr. Borje said that she, together with the three nuns, personally go to the market for their food needs.
“It’s much cheaper, if we are the one who go to the market because we get big discounts from our friend in the market,” Sr. Borje explained.
Funding comes from the church though not adequate; the school is operating with the help of private individuals who donate.
Sr. Borje said that they were getting help from the Philippine Charity Sweepstake Office (PCSO) for the past years but this year, she said they stopped.
“They have new management and new policy, but I’m still hopeful that they will reconsider,” she added.
As we chat she mention that she was going to follow up a letter asking for rice from the office of the governor.
“Every now and then I go out and beg, what we need is rice but so far the well has never dried,” she said. (Anthony Bayarong)
Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on September 16, 2011.