Teacher Asria Mindalagat (girl in stripes) wipes a tear as they celebrate Kanduli. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Holding their faces on their palms in an attempt to cover their emotions, the Muslim mentors quietly cried as teacher Tayato Mnidalagat, one of the senior educators led the community prayer.

The Duyog Ramadan which is a joint celebration of the month-long holy activity among Islam believers, Christians and Indigenous Peoples was shared by community teachers of the Mindanao Interfaith Service Foundation Inc., (MISFI), from all over Mindanao who was in Davao City for their skills training some time recently.

About one-fourth of the community teachers of MISFI are Islam believers and nearly half of 85 mentors are Lumad who have finished education courses, and are teaching IP children in the different regions where the 32 Lumad schools of MISFI Academy are located.

Thus, the tears that were shed among them were full of meaning as they shared common experiences in their assigned areas and learned from each other how to cope with the challenges in each of their learning communities.

Teacher Muslima Edres (far right) celebrates Kanduli together with other MISFI indigenous people and Christian mentors from all over Mindanao during the month of Ramadan. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

Many of them have relayed their apprehensions and misgivings, and shared their joys and sorrows for the whole school year in each of their areas of assignments as they teach the IP children.

Not a few among the teachers had harrowing experiences, harsh treatments and even suspicions and threats from military authorities who were allegedly sowing intrigue against MISFI and their work in teaching among the IP children.

School year 2016-2017 was a challenging one for most of the community mentors of MISFI, especially among those who have undergone grave threats, harassments and vilification in their assigned communities, from state military forces.

A MISFI school in Pangalay-ayan, Kitaotao Bukidnon starts their day with a flag ceremony. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

Still, despite the teachers’ precarious situations in the Lumad communities, majority of them persisted to enlist for new assignments under MISFI Academy school communities for this school year. In fact, 80 community teachers are presently deployed in different IP communities in five Mindanao regions where the 32 Lumad schools currently exist.

“There really is a felt need for education of their children among IP communities that were reached by MISFI,” says MISFI Executive Director Percinita Sanchez.

She added that a year ago there were only 25 schools and 78 teachers who have taught in the different campuses of MISFI Academy, but currently, these numbers have multiplied.

Thus, despite the challenges faced by the community educators especially those in militarized areas still, most of the teachers persisted with their work.

An Indigenous approach to education

MISFI has continued to serve the IPs despite the difficulties faced by the staff through the years since 1984. Though its education component under MISFI academy has only started for barely a decade ago, its approach to basic education for the Lumads have made it quite different from that of the mandated curriculum set by the Department of Education and Culture (DEPED), as the curriculum responds to their basic needs, particularly food security.

The inclusion of the study of Agronomy for instance, which is part of subjects in elementary education is a fitting introduction for the young IPs to respond to the needs of their community in food production and food security. Indirectly, MISFI also teaches sustainable agriculture to the whole community they served through the education of their children.

A Teacher watch as children play. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

Relevant in every sense

It is no wonder then that through the years, more and more IP communities have requested for MISFI Academy to establish a school, especially among those IP areas not reached by the Department of Education (DEPED). The presence of MISFI Academy in the Lumad areas also meant immediate relief especially for children who used to walk long distances crossing rivers and mountains just to reach the nearest DEPED school located a some kilometres away from their homes in the hinterlands.

MISFI executive Director Percinita Sanchez and Community Education Coordinator Milagros Tan with Muling children during a recognition ceremony held in Davao City in 2016. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

This enthusiasm among IP communities for MISFI Academy however, was not shared by government agencies including some DEPED officials and soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines assigned in some of these areas who alleged and suspected that the schools are “operated” by the New Peoples’ Army (NPA).

The Association of Community Educators (ACE), an organization of community teachers recently demanded from government authorities to respect the “Indigenous Peoples’ Constitutional Right to Education and Self-determination” has decried what they perceived as “militarization in schools, imputation and accusation of teachers as part of the rebel group (or red-tagging)…”

ACE teachers further reminded that the State is mandated under the Philippine Constitution Article XIV Section 2… specifically “to encourage non-formal, informal and indigenous learning systems as well as self-learning, independent and out-of-school study programs particularly those that respond to community needs”.

They noted however, that DEPED has not been listening to their complaints.(davaotoday.com)

A Lumad child bears a heavy load of root crops for the family sustenance. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

To get to their assigned school, teachers endure crossing the Salug river. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

Teacher Tammy Gallardo look out into the horizon. (Fides Avellanosa/davaotoday.com)

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