Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Tayabas Ayta

My supervisor’s wife is a doctor; she works with another doctor who is in charge of a study that documents the medicinal practices of indigenous tribes. As part of the study he also does a needs assessment and tries to help the people get what they need. He wrote a proposal about the Aytas near his hometown of Tayabas. My supervisor passed it along to me to send to the people with whom I’ve established relationships, to see if there was anything any of them could do (and a couple said they would consider it or pass it along further, so it was worth it). My supervisor thought it would be helpful to actually see the community, so on Sunday he, his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his grandson, the new French intern, the doctor and I piled into a van and went to Tayabas, in Quezon province.

When I went to Subic I met Aetas – I think Ayta is just a variation; that’s how the people here spell it. They have some appearance attributes in common (smaller stature, darker skin, kinky hair) but different languages and stories and different cultural practices; there are actually 33 different Ayta (or Aeta, or Negrito) communities in this country. The Tayabas Ayta have an extinct language – two elders know it but are reluctant to share it with outsiders because people have come and gone without leaving anything sustainable. They were traditionally hunter-gatherers so didn’t have a concept of land ownership, and when the land was divided up they didn’t get any. They have been informal settlers in their current location for 25 years, but can get evicted at any time. So land is a priority.

There are 60 families in this spot and another 19 nearby. They used to inhabit the land from the mountain to the sea but as Tagalog people moved in, they were pushed into (of course) the land that nobody else wanted. The men still do some hunting – turtles, monitor lizards, wildcats – but not enough to sustain them. They do some seasonal work, planting and harvesting and construction. They do some woodcarving too (Christian symbols, because there is a market for them, but not at a fair price). They would like some livelihood for the men. At present, the women sustain the tribe, gathering plants on Good Friday and turning them into medicinal herbs (one day of gathering sustains them for the year!). So they can’t just relocate anywhere – they want to be on land near their gathering spots. They don’t have the money to buy the land they are on, but that would be ideal.

The adults are uneducated and the children usually drop out of school because they have to work and also because they are harassed by the other kids, so a segregated school (where they can also preserve their culture – now I understand why the Mangyan have a segregated school) is another priority, as is adult education. They have had some help from outside – a basketball court, a tribal hall with a toilet, and cementing of the hilly pathway – but nothing long-term. They also want a culture-sensitive health program.

It took about three hours to get there (and the day was made longer by stopping for breakfast, merienda and dinner, which made for a nice family outing but a long day – so we left at 8:30 am and got back at 10:00 – and remember, I had woken up at 5:00 for the run). It rained for most of the day; it hasn’t rained in Manila in what seems like months, but there is a different weather pattern here. We crossed a rickety bamboo bridge and climbed a steep hill. All of the houses are made of wood – nothing out of concrete, in case they have to relocate. We sat and talked with the tribal council for a couple of hours – that is, my supervisor talked with the chieftain, with occasional comments from others. His wife and the doctor quietly translated for me. My supervisor may be in a position to get them land and maybe meet some of their needs; nothing was expected of me, but I think the thinking was that if I saw for myself, I could describe it better if I find someone who is in a position to help. It was an interesting day and another aspect of the Philippines - and once I realized I had seen Bajaus, Mangyans and Aytas three weeks in a row, I wrote about all of those visits to my World-Wise Schools class!

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