Lumads of Davao del Sur: Students without a School

Lumads of Davao del Sur: Students without a School. Written by Hon Sophia Balod for

“Tak tak tak.” It’s the sound of a bolo hitting the chopping block, reducing rotten and rejected bananas from the plantation into small, circular pieces. The chopping would go on all afternoon until the sun turned golden and the shadows of the banana trees envelop the little town of Hagonoy, Davao del Sur.

Three boys would fill the sack with chopped bananas, the sour stench of decay prominent as the boys sealed the bag. Tomorrow these will be delivered to the farmers as fertilizers for the next planting season. To an outsider, the sacks are just garbage filled with rotting fruits. But to these boys, this is money equivalent to a couple kilos of rice, some fresh vegetables and meat from the market. If they are lucky, they would have spare change for school allowance.

“Tak tak tak.” The working day is done, and they tuck in for the night, happy and content from the 300 kilos of chopped bananas they sold for P1,200. They paid the delivery truck P500 and then split the profit among themselves. “Hindi gaanong malaki pero pwede na rin” (It’s not much but this would do), one boy said.

They would wait have to wait for over a month until the next harvest to earn this much money.

The boys belong to the indigenous group Lumads, a collective name for the 18 indigenous tribes in Mindanao. The term Lumad comes from a Visayan term meaning “native.” The town of Hagonoy is home to Lumads, and like the three boys who chop bananas, most Lumads earn their living from working at the banana plantations. Since most villagers reside along coastal areas, Lumads also rely on fishing as source of livelihood.

Daily grind. Chopping reject bananas.
Daily grind. Chopping reject bananas.

Squatting Students

The next morning, school is waiting for brothers Julito and Jaymar. Their friend, RJ, has stopped schooling to work and earn money for his family full time. He says he wants to go back to school someday and finish a vocational course. “Kahit ano, basta makapag-aral lang” (Any course will do, as long as I get to study), RJ said.

Meanwhile, the brothers are not eager to go to class. Since June, students have been camping out in a nearby covered court after a whirlwind destroyed their makeshift nipa hut classrooms. Around 104 students, most of them Lumads, are packed inside the court, with each class a few meters away from the other. A Philippine flag hangs in the center of the court. The school might be stripped of the dignity of a functional classroom but the flag represents hope, the principal said.

As the sun rises, the students play hide-and-seek from the heat of the sun. “Sinusundan naming yung anino ng araw para maiwasan namin ‘yung init” (We follow the shadows cast by the sun to avoid the heat), a student said.

Sometimes it would get so hot the students are forced to move the chairs and blackboard to the other side of the court. The floor is also reeking of urine and feces as goats and other farm animals casually roam around the school area. “Sobrang init saka hindi kami magkarinigan sa dami ng estudyante,” (It’s too hot in the covered court and we can’t hear each other properly), Julito said.

Life is less complicated when it’s raining. Classes are simply cancelled.

Conducting classes in a covered court might not be the most conducive and appropriate location to learn and study. But not conducting any class at all would be a bigger loss and insult to the children. In 2013, 8 out of 10 students living near the aplaya (coastal area) dropped out from Hagonoy National High School. The school is too far from the community for students to walk, the principal said. Children do not have enough money to ride a tricycle or a habal-habal. Many do not even have enough food in their stomach to give them energy to walk.

Ang aplaya ay kabilang sa mga barangay na nasa convergence zone na isa sa mga pinakamahirap na barangay dito sa Pilipinas kaya naisipan namin na magpatayo ng extension school. Ang problema, ang makeshift classroom, hindi masyadong matibay, madaling masira” (The coastal community belongs to a convergence zone and is considered one of the poorest barangays in the Philippines. We decided to build an extension school in this community but makeshift classrooms are easily destroyed), said principal Rayki Buat.

The principal knows a nipa hut is not a conducive place to learn but a hut is all the school can afford with their meager budget and land restrictions. Unless the government or a private entity donates a land, they could never be allowed to build a concrete building for school.

Temporary classrooms
Temporary classrooms

DepEd: ‘We are K-12 Ready’

The Department of Education insists the country is ready for the K-12 program which was launched in 2013. Under the program, students must undergo a basic 12-year cycle of education (six years of primary education, four years of Junior High School, and two years of Senior High School) to provide sufficient time for mastery of concepts and skills, and prepare graduates for tertiary education or employment.

But are we really prepared for this change in curriculum?

The education department says we are. The shortage of classrooms is said to have been solved. More than 66,000 classrooms have already been built and some 41,728 are planning to be constructed in 2015. This contingency plan to build more classrooms of the government seemed to reflect on the national statistics. In 2014, the drop-out rate has decreased by 2.3% from 2013. The number of out-of-school youth has also declined by 2 million in 2013.

Hagonoy, Davao del Sur
Hagonoy, Davao del Sur

Far from Reality

The data is impressive, yes, but to the children of Mindanao, these are just numbers on a spreadsheet.

What is real for them is this hot and smelly covered court where they spend hours studying and shouting at one another just to be heard by the teacher during recitation. What is real are these broken chairs and old blackboards which were never replaced for two years because of the lack of budget. What is real is this Science book which five students share at a time. What is real is the sound of their grumbling stomach when they go to school without eating anything for breakfast. What is real is the now.

The principal said they would be moving back to the makeshift nipa hut classrooms as soon as they are repaired. It’s not much change, he said—nipa schools are also unbearably hot during sunny days, cold and wet during rainy days. The roof might fly off if a strong, rogue wind attacks, and classes may be suspended or cancelled yet again.

Circumstance might throw them off from one location to another but the children of the aplaya remain unfazed. They may be students without a school, but they would gladly jump from one place to another if it means an opportunity to learn. What’s important is they continue studying, continue learning so that one day, they would get a decent job and they would no longer have to settle for anything less than what they deserve.

Education is key to getting out of poverty: that’s the basic lesson these children are taught everyday. They could not leave anything to chance, or rely on the government’s help for that matter. They have to make it on their own, even if it means chopping rotting bananas all afternoon for a measly income, or going to a class without walls.

“Pangarap ko sa buhay ay makapagtapos ng pagaaral at maipakita ko sa pamilya ko na kahit ganito ang sitwasyon namin makakaahon kami sa hirap. Kailangan ko makapag-aral para ‘pag  may mga anak na ako, mapag-aral ko rin sila.”. (My dream is to finish studying and prove that I can get my family out of poverty. I need to study so that when I have my own family, I can send them to school as well.), Julito said.

Is there hope?
Is there hope?

[Entry 92, The SubSelfie Blog]
#TanawMindanao Part 3

Editor’s Note: Our brothers and sisters in Mindanao have always complained of isolation, and of being painted a negative image in the media. #TanawMindanao is a series of content dedicated to mainstream their issues, demystify their stories and show that we are all the same. They just have a harder battle to fight towards peace, and this is the contribution of to that effort.

Part 1 — The Siege of Zamboanga’s Youngsters
Part 2 — The Hope of Muslim Orphans
Part 4 — Finding Peace in Zamboanga City

About the Author:

Subselfie - Sophia

Hon Sophia Balod is the Global Editor of She is also Editor in Chief and Outreach Manager for the Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal and foreign correspondent for GMA News. She graduated from the Mundus Journalism Masters Programme in University of Amsterdam in 2018.

She is the recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Media Award given by the Media Correspondent and Volunteer Organization (MCVO) in The Hague, The Netherlands. She is a media fellow of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and recipient of 2016 Gawad Agong and Sarihay Media Awards for Excellence in News Reporting  on  the plight of indigenous people and environmental issues.  Journalism 2010, UP Diliman. Read more of her articles here.

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