Zambales – What counts as ‘right’?

by rachel

Spent the afternoon trying to brainstorm various ideas for workshops to conduct with the Zambales Aeta Indigenous community of Maporac. I’m finding it very hard and so I’ve ended up here to question as well as perhaps seek some answers, whether through the process of writing or if anyone would like to comment and help me out here.

The indigenous aeta community of the philippines is a community native to the lands of Mount Pinatubo. After the 1991 eruption however, the community was displaced to lower more urban areas of the philippines and therefore removed from their ancestral areas. The aeta people are highly skilled in jungle survival skills as we observed while on a previous service learning trip with the Maporac community last october. They are also very deft with their fingers and do a lot of weaving work, producing large bags, baskets etc. from rattan.

So the main issue that (we believe) they are facing and that they seem to have communicated to us is that of a loss of cultural heritage. And also this discrimination towards the indigenous people of the philippines in general. I remember this one afternoon with the chief where he shared with us how difficult it was to get the area that they were living in now (in the area of Cabangan, Zambales) to be officially recognised as their ancestral domain so that they could be given the security that future generations would not be forced to relocate again.

Time and again, he also stressed to us the importance of education for the children in the village. It was because of education that he himself was able to go out of the village and stand up for the aeta people, securing them what they have today. But education in the village doesn’t come easy. While they do have a school within the village, there are not enough classrooms in the school to accommodate for the kids in the entire village – while the government will provide teachers to the school, they will only do so if the village itself is able to provide for a classroom for teaching. Hence, children in the village stop going to school around the age of 12-15 years old.

I remember one evening when we were walking to the river with a few of the kids – most of the children hadn’t been dismissed from school yet. But a few of them came and found us and wanted to walk down to the river so off we went with them. On the way there I was talking to Hazel, who is about 13 years old. I don’t remember her exact age (though oddly enough I remember her birthday without the year). But the point is, she is young. She’s definitely younger than me (I am 17 this year) and of school going age. So Hazel usually hangs out with a group of about 4-5 other girls but that day none of the other girls were around. This was our conversation:

me: “Hey! Where are Theresa and the others?”
her: “uhmm… school! They’ll come later, school finishes at 5!” (albeit in slightly less fluent english)
me: “oh you don’t have to go to school?”
her: *shakes her head*

While she shook her head she was smiling slightly and looking down at the gravel path. I don’t know if I’m just being sensitive but I felt a tinge of sadness in her smile. At that point I didn’t know what to do, whether to ask her more about why she didn’t have to go to school or just switch the topic since it didn’t seem to be a topic that made her particularly happy. I ended up talking about other things, like her birthday etc. but I still wonder about it. I’m sure she’s not the only child her age who doesn’t get the opportunity to go to school anymore.

I feel like enabling these kids to get the education they deserve in order to represent their own community in this rapidly changing world is really important but at the same time I don’t know how much we can do for it? We can and we have started raising funds for their new classroom block but other than that we’re not so sure what to do. Come June we will be spending 14 days with the community and I just hope those 14 days will enable us to help them better. Some of the other GPS (Global Perspectives) groups in various other areas are going in and teaching english to the youth etc. But I don’t know, I question the sustainability of doing so? If we go in once and try to teach them english, what happens when we leave? And if they already have another teacher teaching them english on a regular basis what is the significance of us disrupting that? It’s my own personal take I guess but during one of our discussions another member of my team brought up how someone once told her friend who did a service learning trip something along the lines of “When you come you disrupt all our lesson plans and when you leave the children just keep crying about you. Maybe it’s better if you just give us the money.”

I don’t want that to be the case. The community we’ve been working with has honestly been nothing but sweet to us. Sometimes I feel so bad like I wonder whether we are disrupting their usual activities, having to work with us. The elders were always so willing to talk to us about what it was like to be an Aeta and the children were absolute angels, making us flower crows, walking us back to our hostel and everything. These people are some of the most genuine people I’ve met and I really don’t want any of what we are doing to have a negative impact on them instead.

Which is why I feel at such a loss as to what to do right now.

I was initially the co-leader for this trip but due to my other commitments (LeAd), I stepped down to be a project I/C for the workshops segment instead. What we initially intended to do for workshops was to work with the women of the village over the last few days of the trip, using the first few days to interact with them and break down barriers. We wanted to do Playback Theatre with them in an exploratory way to try to delve into the various issues of their community or just the stories that they had to share. However as we were unable to find a suitable supervisor for the project and we are most certainly not qualified to carry out playback by ourselves, we are unable to do this.

So now the question is – what do we do? I spoke to a number of the NGO workers that accompanied us on the trip last year and will be accompanying us this year as well and they suggested teaching the women some form of an alternate livelihood in order to empower them and also possibly bring in some form of income. I hesitate as to what kind of alternate livelihood though? Because it has to be something that is representative of but at the same time does not commodify their culture whilst being economically viable? Ahh… it’s just really hard to think of something.

I did some research and chanced upon these two pages:
http://www.caritas.org.au/learn/programs/australia—tjanpi-professional-development
http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/grassroots-creativity-weaves-desert-into-life-20120624-20wfu.html

The NGO involved has basically used grass weaving as an artistic platform to engage the women in these communities in order to raise awareness for the community while raising funds for them through the sale of these artworks. I’m quite sure the women would be highly capable of doing something similar but on our side I don’t know if we would be able to raise similar awareness of their work through it? But we are an arts school and we do have the privilege of having our own public gallery in which we can display the various artworks in order to raise awareness but it’s all so tentative!!!!

If anyone has any ideas please please do comment and let me know, all ideas are welcome!

A bit of background about our team, we are a group of 26 students from School of The Arts (Singapore) and as such we have a certain amount of ability in the arts, from visual arts to music to dance, theatre and film. We do hope to be able to bank on our skills to aid the community.

All ideas are welcome and I do hope to see some comments, thank you for reading all this!!

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