Friday, January 8, 2010

The Sea Gypsies Under the Bridge

At International Volunteer Day, I met Phil, a newly-minted PCV who is working with indigenous Bajau people. They’re sea gypsies who used to live in the Sulu Islands off of Mindanao, fishing and pearl-diving, but with the unrest there (and, ironically, tourism, which brought development to their traditional spots), many have relocated to Central Luzon. Phil works with a small NGO (it’s the pastor and pastora and him) called God’s Love for the Indigents Ministry (GLIM). There’s a lot he can do with them in terms of teaching basic life skills – sanitation and hygiene, importance of education and the like. The people support themselves in two ways – begging, and/or selling pearls. Phil invited me up to his site for some Small Business Development consulting.

Just getting there was interesting – I took all three train lines (with three pat-downs!) to get to the bus station, and then a crowded, non-air-conditioned bus. Some people have commutes like that every day. Phil said he’d meet me at the bridge – as we crossed, he talked with many of the men who were fishing from it. The Bajaus don’t fish from it though, because they were used to fishing in the sea, and fishing in a river is too different for them.

I’ve seen people living under bridges already, but I’m still not used to it. The Bajau houses are built like the ones they had down south (that is, those who didn’t live on boats) – woven (and/or made of scrounged materials) and on tall bamboo platforms. The height worked to the advantage of 22 of the 27 homes when the river flooded in October – five homes were swept away (and have since been rebuilt) and the GLIM center was flooded to its roof.

The Bajaus had originally been displaced to parts of Metro Manila, but development forced them to move to ever more undesirable lands. Paraphrased from the GLIM profile: They were moved under the bridge with the consent of the department of Public Works and Highways; the bridge served as a remote area away from local residents and therefore allowed the Bajaus to live peacefully as an isolated yet organized community. But without any programs and projects to empower them, just relocating them wasn’t enough. The pastor and pastora, who had served as missionaries with other Bajau populations and who were therefore familiar with the culture, set up the ministry in their hometown to help them assimilate into the community, advocate for their rights (since they traditionally did not own land, they are not recognized as an indigenous group) and give them opportunities.

Some of the realities they are dealing with – they had a CR for the community, but someone got sick and the people thought it was due to the CR, so they destroyed it. They go in the river instead. They don’t have electricity or running water. They speak a different language. The adults can’t read or write and they don’t see the value in sending the children to school when they can send them out begging. Other Filipinos marginalize them and have negative perceptions and attitudes about them.

I spent most of the day at the center. First we had lunch – I never ate couscous with my hands in 27 months in Morocco, but here I ate chicken and rice with my hands. You kind of ball up the rice the same way Moroccans ball up the couscous; I can’t say I did it well but I managed to eat and not make too much of a mess. Then we talked about the pearl business. They already had some posters and brochures that tell the story of the tribe and they have some fancy boxes for packaging. They design and assemble their own pieces and already have a reputation for quality. So there’s some competitive advantage already. We suggested that they include a card with the story in or on every box. We talked about market segmentation (locals, who know the Bajaus, think they get a deal if the pearls are in an envelope; tourists like the pretty boxes), selling locations (they do some fairs and in the summer migrate to tourist spots for weeks at a time to sell on the beaches, but the rest of the year go into local neighborhoods – and maybe sell one set of pearls a week if they are lucky. Are there places where they could be more successful, for example near shopping areas or bus stations, where people either come thinking about spending money or have time to spend?), occasions (Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day), sales techniques and holding a workshop to discuss them (who are the most successful among them, and why?), pricing strategy (everything’s negotiable – if they can overcharge someone and get away with it they will, which might be all right for one sale, but then someone feeling taken advantage of could tell his neighbor… so would you rather sell one at a high price or more at lower prices and maybe even get repeat business?), and other ideas.

I felt in my element until we went out to tour the community. And then I remembered that I’m shy. Much as I would love to play with the kids, I have a hard time when they look dirty and need their noses wiped. More than in other places, I was quite a curiosity – the girls touched my hair and clothes and jewelry and bag, and I’m not comfortable with that either. At least I took pictures of and with the kids, which is a winning strategy here. And I didn’t have to regret my lack of Tagalog, since they didn’t speak it either. And the adults were nice (shy also!) and I enjoyed meeting them. I was glad to see it for myself, but I’ll admit I was relieved to get back to the center, where despite being full from lunch, I mustered up the appetite for merienda, and even more relieved when I got back to my home turf. I felt a little bad about being hands-off, but once again I reminded myself that some people have the skill set for interaction with the poor, and mine is in the brainstorming. I hope I gave them some ideas that will help them with their business, which in turn can help them with getting their many needs met. Overall, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to visit, and I will keep in touch with Phil to see what happens in his two years here!

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