Rawtit looks nothing short of a stone-age wonder woman. The fabled tribal matriarch comes with all trimmings of a superhero; gigantic in size, a huge knife as traditional gear, magical powers to leap miles in one bound and lycra swapped for a loincloth. She brings peace to the forest and all its inhabitants.
Not surprising then, the Mangyan people– both children and grownups alike, experience a blood rush listening to the heroic adventures of their ‘great grandmother’, as Tao Buid tribe elders on rare occasions regale her legend with choicest of idioms and superlatives.
It is folktales like Rawtit’s that has kept company to one of the Philippines’s most reclusive indigenous tribes for centuries as they live scattered in remote, small settlements dotting the tropical rainforest of Occidental Mindoro.
For generations the majority of all seven tribes of Mangyan have lived in physical and social isolation from rest of the Filipino population. The ethnic and linguistic minority of less than 25,000 are among the poorest and most marginalised people in the Philippines with limited contact with the outside world. A Mangyan family earns on average just $0.34 a day. Nine out of ten Mangyan have poor access to safe drinking water, 60% of Mangyan children are malnourished and majority in the community are illiterate.
However, in recent years development organisations like Plan International have reached out to Mangyan tribes and made successful efforts in bridging the divide. “The challenge is to include Mangyan in the development process and yet keep their culture and identity integral,” says Naty Silorio, a senior Plan official overseeing development projects with the Mangyan, including those focused on education and livelihood.
One such unique project is setting up of Alternative Learning System (ALS) centres especially designed for Mangyan community. Mangyan people are being given basic literacy lessons within their community in their own dialect and are additionally being taught Filipino and English languages. Given that the majority of Mangyan adults have never had any formal education, these non-formal schools take both young and mature learners. “So far we have established 22 ALS centres in Occidental Mindoro and have over 1,000 learners on our books,” says LP Cordova managing the project. “The project provides early childhood care and development, and elementary and vocational education through the development of learning curriculum that is relevant to the needs and culture of the Mangyan.”
The ALS project has been a significant achievement in preparing learning materials for Mangyan in their own language. Each of the seven tribes of Mangyan speaks a different dialect. Basic literacy modules for ALS, prepared by the government education department, have now been translated into all seven Mangyan dialects to ensure their maximum reach. The work involved contextualising lessons in Mangyan culture and using images and references familiar to them.
Rosendo, an ALS teacher is himself a Mangyan belonging to Iraya tribe. “It is not difficult for me to teach my community members because I can speak the local dialect and can teach them Filipino and English using our own language,” he says. Mangyan are wary of outsiders or “lowlanders” as they call them. So, Rosendo is received warmly by his community and his learners do not hesitate to participate in all his lessons.
For people like Jonalyn it is a chance to start a new life at 21. He never went to school in the lowlands for fear of bullying, a common refrain of many Mangyan children. If not their remote settlements, discrimination at school often keeps Mangyans children away from school. However, attending his first class with children four times younger, Jonalyn is determined to charter the world outside. “I want to be a teacher. I want to see my community progress so no one will laugh at us,” he says.
Pedring Calata is happy his child does not need to risk his life crossing the dangerous river to go to his nearest school any more. “He is now taking lessons in the non-formal school within the community,” he says. His community is so impressed with the teacher that they plan to construct a home for the ALS teacher with bamboo and forest grass.
With very little documentation, much of Mangyan’s cultural and social history faces risk of being lost to time. Even stories like Rawtit’s folktale are fast disappearing in communities where the younger generation have not lost the link to their oral history from elder storytellers.
The ALS initiative has a strong element of preserving and promoting Mangyan’s unique culture. About 50 traditional Mangyan cultural items such as stories, songs and poetry have been developed for the first time into 13 story books for the community in tribal dialects. Furthermore community members and teachers are being trained to use art forms like painting and shadow puppetry to keep Mangyan traditions alive.
So very soon, Mangyan children, in a world years behind the digital age, will no longer have to wait for special occasions to enjoy the Rawtit experience. They will only need to turn the pages of their tribal story book and join their gallant protector on a voyage to Mindoro’s mystical rainforests.
(Davinder Kumar is an award-winning journalist and Press Officer for child rights and community development organisation Plan International. He is also a Chevening Human Rights Scholar. This is his second article of a three-part series on Philippines' indigenous Mangyan tribes.)