A school of their own

The road is long and muddy, riddled with huge boulders and lined on both sides with the wildest of grass.

It’s barely passable to vehicles but everyday, little boys and girls of pre-school age walk this way to get to school here in the far-flung mountain village of Tenuous, in Lake Sebu in the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The school is a tattered hut with small wooden tables and chairs. There is a two-room concrete shelter, which serves as both a library and the school coordinator’s office.

This community school is the second home for some 90 kids of the T’boli tribe, one of the largest indigenous people’s groups in southern Philippines.

The school, founded in 2007 by a kind-hearted woman who fell in love with the community, serves the children of roughly 200 families in this remote village. It started with 57 children and now has 90 pupils. The number continues to grow.

‘It’s my way of helping the T’boli people,’ says Anita Castillon, the school’s founder.

The school seeks to preserve the culture of the tribe by inculcating in the children the importance of knowing their cultural identity and rich heritage. More importantly, it also prepares them for elementary education offered only in the city.

In this school, the teachers volunteer their services because Anita cannot always afford to pay them, the school being outside the national government’s public school system.

‘It’s a community school. We work together to make this happen,’ Anita says.

As such, parents who wish to send their children to school have to grow bananas which they can sell to the market. The earnings from the sale of bananas are then used to send their children to the school, aptly named Silungan ng Katutubong Kaalaman at Tradisyon (Sikat) of Tenuos, or School for indigenous learning and tradition.

How ingenious and inspiring, I thought, as I listened to Anita, a woman whose eyes glisten as she talks about the school.

I met Anita during a visit to this far-flung community on a windy Saturday morning. I, together with fellow journalists, traveled for hours to reach the school, which is nestled in this mountainous village of Tenuos. We had to ride a rickety motorcycle to get inside the community and we had to get off and walk every few meters so that the motorcycle wouldn’t slide when we passed slippery roads.

It was a difficult ride. On the last leg, we had to walk because the road was too muddy even for a motorcycle. After a while, we finally made it.

The view of Lake Sebu, a famed and mystical lake in the southern Philippines, is breathtaking from here. But more magical are the smiles, laughter, songs and dances of the T’boli children who greeted us when we arrived.

We turned over school kits for the children, as part of our organization’s outreach activity. The kits contained notebooks, pencil, crayons, scissors and a small box of vitamins. It’s very little help for a gargantuan problem, but the children appreciated it very much.

It was a treat to see them sing and dance, all made up in their traditional colorful T’boli dress.

Theirs is a story of courage, hope and inspiration – the courage to make things happen; the hope to make these dreams last and the inspiration to go on with the daily grind of living even with very scarce resources and very little help from the government.

And this is what the government does not know: that despite its inability to help remote communities such as the village of Tenuos, the men, women and children here strive to maintain a school.

The perseverance of this community is unwavering, as reverberating as the songs of the T’boli children whose voices echoed in the depths of the mountain and in our hearts.

Photos by the author.