394 feet of hope
Mention Basilan and chances are that negative images will come to mind, no thanks to frequent news about the social and political conflict that has hounded parts of the Philippines’ southern territories.
And if it is not conflict that puts it in the news, this island-province off the southern coast of Zamboanga peninsula and the largest and northernmost island of the Sulu archipelago, is also known for its people’s crippling poverty.
Basilan is among the country’s poorest provinces, especially among the Samal Bajau, one of its major ethnolinguistic groups, along with the indigenous Yakan and the later entrants Tausug and Chavacano, as well as the Sama-Banguingi.
The Samal Bajau (which means “children of the sea”) live in stilt houses along the seashore, keeping themselves apart from other groups. Their villages are normally hard to reach so the people have very limited access to government services such as healthcare and education. Very few Bajau children graduate from high school, much less from college.
Fortunately, the Claretian Missionaries of the Philippines decided to take action in 1996 when they put up the Claret Samal Foundation, Inc. (CSFI) to “help build a Samal Bajau community founded on their indigenous culture.”
“The Foundation’s establishment started a long process of community organizing and leadership formation,” explained Fr. Dennis Tamayo, the Foundation’s founding director.
In 2005, CSFI, with funds from the Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF), planned to build a footbridge in Teheman village, the biggest Samal Bajau community in Basilan’s Maluso town.
Why a footbridge? Of all the problems besetting the Samal Bajau and of all the possible ways to help them with their problems, why a footbridge?
As can be read in “A Samal-Bajau Bridge to a Better Life” (Morallas, 2005), which appeared in the 2005 PEF Annual Report:
“To feel the necessity of a sturdy footbridge, one has to live in a house that stands above the sea and to have no other means of transportation but a banca. The banca is not motorized; one has to paddle from the sea to the river (which is possible only during high tide; otherwise, the precious banca gets stuck in the mud) to reach the market, the school, or the sari-sari store.”
Realizing the benefits such a bridge would give them, the Samal Bajau gave full support during its construction. The men helped the hired laborers put up columns and walkways and the women paddled their bancas to and from dry land to ferry construction supplies, and food and water for the workers.
When finished, the new bridge gave fresh hope to the Teheman village and the Samal Bajau. It gave them easier access to land, which in turn opened new opportunities for accessing healthcare, education, and commerce, among others. More Bajau children could to go to school, even high school. And interaction with their land-dwelling counterparts was now made more possible.
“Bajaus naturally shy away from land because we get everything we need from the sea. This self-imposed isolation, coupled with poverty, has made us always feel inferior to other tribes. However, it cannot be denied that many government services require us to step on land from time to time. Thus, access to land is important,” shared Flordeluna Jawali, the facilitator for Bajau elementary and high school students in Maluso.
As facilitator, Florentina’s job is to ensure that students attend school. She is one of only four college graduates from the Maluso Bajau. But that is soon to change with 10 Bajau students now currently in college.
As of June 2022, Maluso had around 200 elementary and high school Bajau students, 29 attending central school. Thanks to the footbridge, the chances of more being able to make it past Grade 10 have significantly increased.
The community so appreciated the completed 394-foot span they soon planned to expand it themselves.
After the bridge, more projects followed for the Maluso Bajaus. CSFI partnered in 2017 with the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation to establish the Yellow Boat School of Hope — the first ever school in the Teheman community site.
With school now much nearer, more Bajau children in Teheman could attend classes while those from other settlements were ferried from home and back in bancas donated by the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation.
The school only catered at first to pre-school, kindergarten, and Grade 1 children. Later, students up to Grade 4 could be accommodated when more classrooms were built.
With better access to education, Bajau children can now hope for and dream of a brighter future, in part due to the financial assistance and partnership provided by PEF.
Bella Narke, Edita Jarane, Jomari Bai Rulla, and Risa Juhan are all Grade 4 students at the Yellow Boat School of Hope. Bella and Edita dream of becoming teachers while Jomari and Risa want to become doctors. All of them want to finish their studies to be able to help their families and be of service to others.
A generation ago these dreams of the Maluso Bajau would have remained as dreams. Parents had wanted their children only to be able to work or to get married as soon as they reached puberty.
However, other factors are still preventing children from going to school regularly.
“Apparently, Bajau parents still need to see the value of education. With poverty staring them in the face on a daily basis, their children’s education often takes a back seat in their list of priorities. That is why we are continuously coming up with initiatives to encourage the kids to go to school,” revealed Fr. Jeffrey Rasay, CSFI coordinator.
Among these initiatives is a daily feeding program for students of the Yellow Boat School of Hope. Each day, students get a free lunch of porridge prepared by CSFI college scholars. Funds for these “manna packs” are provided by CSFI from sales of Bajau products, such as woven items and dried fish, and proceeds from the rental of boats.
The Bajaus of Maluso have indeed come a long way since their bridge was built. The bridge has enabled this once-isolated community, although still poor and marginalized, to see the possibility of crossing over to a better life.