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REMEMBERING |  How a school for the Lumads was built from a letter written on yellow paper wrapped in ice candy plastic, Part 2




QUEZON CITY (MindaNews) – The last time I visited Kulaman in April 2016, the road construction from Isulan to Senator Ninoy Aquino town was underway. As with your other projects, there were no tarpaulins bearing your picture and your name to announce what you helped build there. The only notice about the construction activities was the Project budget bearing seal of the Commission of Audit and the signature of an auditor.

Through the Department of Education headed by Secretary Armin Luistro, your administration also approved the construction of a school in one of Kulaman’s farthest sitios, Lageton (also referred to as Lageten).  The village, which is part of  Barangay Kuden, is around 22 kilometers northeast of the Kulaman town center. 

This was in response to a letter from a para-teacher who was teaching the children in their community at the same time doing adult literacy. The teacher’s name was Pelin Tagaken, a Dulangan Manobo. The letter was dated July 27, 2014. 

The request for a school arose when our research team from Ateneo de Davao University – Ateneo Institute of Anthropology, was conducting a commissioned research on land access in aid of designing the National Community Driven Development Program (NCDDP) of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) with funding support from the World Bank. 

As part of research ethics, my colleague and I requested if it could be guaranteed that our research sites be selected as project sites for the forthcoming program. When we were told that all sites will have to undergo the regular project site selection process, I discussed this with the community during our fieldwork before we underwent the validation for the Free and Prior Informed Consent process (FPIC) for the research project on July 30, 2014.  

A long discussion among the leaders and community members ensued: they agreed to be a case study for the commissioned research so that their plight would be known by the government. They asked if there were other options. They described that given the local dynamics, there were no guarantees that their village would be selected as a Project site for NCDDP.  All they wanted was for a school to be built in the village.  

During that time, Pelin was already running a literacy project for children and adults with the support of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and the Religious of the Notre Dame Mission (RNDM), for the building, the school supplies, and her modest allowance. However, once the children reach school-age, they have to go to the town center and enroll in Notre Dame of Kulaman, with the OMI and RNDM’s support for tuition, school supplies, boarding house and food. 

The town center is a four-hour walk, through a well-travelled footpath through Balatakan for the cash-strapped Manobo.  At that time, the fare was 800 pesos per trip for a 1.5 hour motorcycle ride from Kulaman to Menting, the nearest drop-off point. The village is another 3.5 kilometers away, traversed on foot.

Because of this categorical request, I suggested that they try writing the Secretary of Department of Education. I said I will find ways to ensure that the letter reaches the Secretary’s office, but with no promises of positive response. I remember explaining to them that government processes at the national level are more complex than at the local level.     

It took Pelin days to decide to write because it was going to be her first time. 

On July 29, 2014, the night before the FPIC validation, Datu Koyo Tagaken, Pelin’s father and his party arrived at the convent where our research team was staying and handed me the letter. The letter was handwritten on a yellow pad paper and was carefully wrapped in an ice candy plastic. Among the people who were at the convent when the Datu arrived were Fr. Renante Aban, OMI who was the Head of the IP Ministry; Mr. James Ramirez, one of the local officials of the NCIP; the members of the research team; and the convent boys. I opened the letter and told everyone it was Lageton community’s request for the school. 

I waited for the opportunity for Butch Rufino, the Secretary’s staff, to come to Davao City. I knew Butch from Ugnayang Pang-Aghamtao – Anthropological Association of the Philippines (UGAT). I gave the letter to him without any fanfare after his meeting at Ateneo. We didn’t even have time for coffee for me to pitch the letter. We just talked briefly while we walked down the building and he waited for a taxi to bring him to his hotel.   

When I handed him the letter with a number of pictures to give the community a face and a post it note of the contact details of the head of the IP Ministry, he just said to me nonchalantly, “we get all kinds.” I wanted to think his poker-face response was only due to tiredness from his marathon meetings. While a friend who was a friend of the Secretary could have sent a text message about the letter, we decided not to, to see how far the letter would go and how the administration would respond. Then the community could really claim that the school was built though their own effort, finding their own voice to tell the government what they needed most. 

Sometime in 2015, I was told by Fr. Aban that some DepEd officials from the region visited Lageton to check the area. It was uncertain if there was going to be another visit. 

It was Mr. Ramirez who told me that the school in Lageton was built when we serendipitously met each other in Manila for NCIP’s 21st IPRA celebration in 2018.  He thought I should know this because I was never able to go back to Kulaman since 2016.  I confirmed with the staff of Sec. Luistro about the school, and he said the budget for the construction of the school and the hiring of teachers were already allocated before your term ended.  

When you passed on on June 24, Butch Rufino sent me a copy of the Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) issued on May 17, 2016, by the Department of Budget and Management, amounting to 500M pesos “for the construction of 605 classrooms in 261 sites in Regions 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 for Indigenous Peoples in Mindanao,” Lageton included, “per Office of the President approval dated 4 May 2016.”  Butch also told me the heartwarming story that you personally knew this initiative. 

Through various shares of my FB post about the beginnings of the Lageten Elementary School, I learned more details about it. 

Its first teachers were hired in June 2016.  The school was initially placed under Sewal Elementary School until they became independent with their own ID on September 16, 2016. Currently, the school has four permanent teachers teaching 150 pupils from kindergarten to Grade 6. (To be continued)

[Eizel Hilario is a cultural anthropologist who lived in Kulaman Valley (Senator Ninoy Aquino municipality) in 2004-2005 as a volunteer researcher for the Human Security Project jointly implemented by the Indigenous Peoples Apostolate, Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission with funding support from Assisi Development Foundation. She continued doing fieldwork in the area until 2016 for various research projects. The Dulangan Manobo in Kulaman named her Okon, which means young girl or little sister].




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