A reflection on the pandemic experience of an indigenous culture

Jenny Lynn Lee

APC shared this presentation during the online roundtable discussion on Covid-19 and Interconnecting Concerns in the Philippines on 29 July 2022, organized by the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC) in partnership with the Ateneo School of Government. This activity is part of the in-country listening sessions of the Southeast Asia Task Force of the Vatican Covid-19 Commission, where ESSC serves as the Task Force Secretariat. For the Philippines, the first roundtable discussion was held on 4 May and focused on the general impacts of the pandemic in ecology, economics, grassroots movements, and public health. This second roundtable discussion shares perspectives of the pandemic impact on farming communities, indigenous cultures, internally displaced persons, and rural health units.

The upland village of Sitio Bendum is far from the barangay center, and prior to the 1990s, children walked for hours to go to the nearest public school. When Amay Pedro (Pedro Walpole SJ) came to Bukidnon in 1992, the community sought help from him to build a school, as government could not respond at that time.

Education in Bendum began as literacy classes and developed into a graded cultural education program in the late 1990s, where the mother tongue was used as a medium of instruction and culture was taught in the curriculum, including local livelihood and handicrafts. The school was named after Apu Palamguwan, the ancestor of the Pulangiyēn who had visions of the future and wanted his people to be prepared to face the challenges of the future.

The community wanted their children to grow up grounded in their cultural identity, able to manage the gaup – or the land, forest, and waters of their domain – and uphold the values and traditions of the culture, especially the tradition of being peace-bearers, even as they gain skills to relate and assert their cultural integrity with broader society.

The APC school secured the government’s Department of Education (DepEd) recognition in 2005 and 10 years later, began a high school. Now, K to 12 education is offered in APC’s main campus in Sitio Bendum and K to 3 education in connecting schools in four other villages in Malaybalay, Bukidnon and in Esperanza, Agusan del Sur. Student enrollment ranges from 300 to 400 students, with 27 community teachers.

The mother tongue is used in the lower grades, as this is now a DepEd policy, and orally as a language of learning especially in Mathematics and Science. Grade school students learn local livelihood and handicrafts while high school students learn forest management and organic farming. The senior high school offers the TechVoc track and their internship involves activities that benefit the local community.

The Philippine government was most supportive of indigenous education in the first part of the last decade, starting from initial efforts by then DepEd Secretary Edilberto De Jesus and fully operationalized when Brother Armin Luistro was the DepEd Secretary. The Indigenous Peoples Education Office under Butch Rufino was very active in engaging with indigenous schools across the country. At that time, several DepEd policies and memorandum orders were crafted based on extensive dialogues with indigenous schools.

Educational challenges exacerbated by the pandemic

1. A basic challenge for education in the uplands is poverty, particularly hunger and malnutrition, which impact children’s ability to absorb lessons and keep up with their academic work. This was exacerbated during the pandemic when many people lost their jobs.  Students had difficulties in comprehension and retention pre-pandemic and with face-to-face classes, which worsened during the pandemic when they had to read and answer modules on their own. APC adopted modular distance learning in the last two years.

2. Another challenge is the low educational attainment of parents and their inability to provide guidance to their children. They spend their days in the farm and cannot help children with homework. During periods of high alert levels, the children cannot be asked to come to school. Home-based learning proved to be an impossibility as parents could not provide guidance or even a structured learning environment at home.

3. Another major challenge for students in the uplands and from poor households is English comprehension. English is the medium of instruction for most subjects and practically all learning materials available are in English. With no resources at home and in the community to support English learning, and with comprehension and retention problems due to hunger and malnutrition, the pace at which they learn English cannot keep up with how academic English is used in the Philippine curriculum. They could get by before the pandemic because teachers used local languages in the classroom, but modular learning required that they engage directly with the English-based modules. This was especially difficult for Mathematics and Science.

4. Another major challenge which we are now becoming more aware of is student formation. Parental guidance at home is weak and communities are also not proactive in protecting children and young people from negative external influences. In villages, young people are exposed to violence, sex, and other dangers from computer games, online videos in their cellphones and social media. Parents are not able to mitigate or counter these influences. This exposure shapes student behavior and values and affects how they relate with peers and elders. This was exacerbated during the pandemic because children and young people were often left to their own amusement in the village when health protocols required them not to go to school.

5.  Another prolonged concern in the uplands is the precarious peace and order situation.  This impacts the villagers, students, and teachers. Security incidents, even when actually far away, disrupt classes and are a great source of stress, anxiety, and trauma. This continued during the pandemic, but now, given that group activities in school were prohibited, our avenues for processing trauma were limited.

Good practices that emerged to respond to these challenges

1. Because Covid cases in the uplands were low, we asked the children to do their modular learning in school when these were allowed in specific alert levels. Teachers were able to provide guidance and supervision and helped stabilize student learning, however limited the outcomes.

2.  APC runs a dalēpaan, a cultural household where students from other villages stay to study in Bendum. Here, Ates (elder sisters) and Kuyas (elder brothers) look after the students, who follow a rhythm of life where they learn the values of work, discipline, and community living. Students from different villages learn how to live and communicate with peers and elders, strengthening the bonds across communities. These children are provided food, healthcare, and tutorial support, addressing some of the challenges in upland education.

3.  During the pandemic, APC as an institution beyond the school implemented a Youth Work Experience program where local youth not in school received training in construction, farm and forest management and received daily allowances to augment their family income. This helped with the increasing economic insecurity during the pandemic.

4. A major resource for indigenous schools are its community and cultural practices. Two of these practices are the bentela daw sayuda and the holding of rituals.  In the bentela daw sayuda, people in the community come together to discuss a concern and discern resolutions. This is done immediately after a concern has emerged. In rituals, elders lead the community in thanking the Creator and seeking help from ancestors and spirits for ongoing concerns. This sense of the community coming together and people being in solidarity with each other as they face challenges is crucial in a context of much uncertainty and insecurity.

Key lessons learned

At a time of great societal uncertainty and instability, it was important for the school to hold together and be a pillar of support to the community. APC teachers were greatly challenged in developing learning modules, but the school chose to continue to operate and held fast in the midst of constantly changing alert levels where students had to go back and forth between in-school modular learning or home-based independent learning.

The most important thing at this time was to simply continue, to not give up, and to rely on each other, giving the best we could offer to students that provided continuity and stability in their education.

How can the church fill in the gaps?

The church has plenty of resources in psycho-spirituality, values education, and character formation. The question is how the church, in local settings, can work with families in the psycho-spiritual and character formation of children and young people, and how the church can empower families to come together to address community-level concerns in this area, such as the impact of negative external influences.

People in the uplands often marry young, in their teens, and parents have limited capacities in providing guidance to their children. In APC’s case, this role often ends up being that of the school, so church initiatives at the family and community levels would be very much welcome.

I believe the church’s psycho-spiritual resources may also be useful in helping schools develop capacities in guidance and counseling and perhaps even in administering psychological first aid in the aftermath of traumatic events.

What reforms are recommended?

After the first part of the last decade, the indigenous schools’ agenda was not as central to DepEd. An ongoing concern is that there are only a few DepEd structures at the regional and local level for indigenous education, and indigenous schools are categorized with private schools, which often have greater resources, and the requirements for private schools are expected of indigenous schools.

This is not supportive and empowering of indigenous schools because our context often greatly differs from private schools. I believe there needs to be more representation and dialogue at the national level about the direction of indigenous education so that this can influence not only policy, but also the implementation of policies, as regional and local DepEd offices often have a limited understanding of indigenous schools’ contexts.

I also think that regional and local DepEd offices need to be more empowered to listen to indigenous schools and make decisions and recommendations based on the specific contexts of the schools, instead of simply requiring schools to comply with nationally-crafted policies that seek to cover all schools but sometimes do not make allowances for local circumstances.

Jenny Lynn Lee is the APC School Manager.

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