Leah removed her slippers. Then she was running fast. Her classmates were cheering for her. She was smiling as she ran to and fro picking up and dropping small pieces of stones. From time to time she would look at her classmate on the other lane who was now ahead in the potato race.
The race was one of the games played during the gift giving activity dubbed as “A sharing of love and culture.” Hagiyo (the organization I set up for indigenous peoples) organized the event, in partnership with ERMZ Marketing and in coordination with Buyabuyan Elementary School.
To reach Leah’s village, we passed by several mountains – some with trees but most are bare – through long, winding and rough roads, some parts even muddy as it had rained a few days ago. The muddy roads were the reason we re-scheduled the activity, as the jeepney was not be able to go up the mountains.
Finally, after more than an hour, we arrived in Leah’s village. She is a six-year-old kid who belongs to the Ifugao indigenous group located up north in the Philippines. It would have taken us about two to three hours to reach her village if we walked as this is the case most of the days. There is only one schedule of the jeepney going down unless you rent one as we did.
One by one, we downloaded the sacks of food packs from the jeepney. Older kids and some of the volunteers that had accompanied us carried the sacks and the boxes of books from Caritas Manila, another local organization we partnered with to the school by walking down the mountain and up another one to reach the school.
As for Leah, she picked her second to the last stone and tried to run faster. The other kid from the other team did the same. Leah’s team lost. But for a few hours that day, the school ground was filled with laughter and shouts of cheers as the children played games.
After the games and the cultural presentation where the indigenous children showcased their talents and culture, the gift giving was done. When I gave the food pack to Leah, her smile was back.
Afterwards, we’re off for lunch in the house of uncle Mariano, about 25 minutes away from the school, I saw Leah walking as she was holding her food pack. And I thought about kids who would usually have a car fetching them from school. I then started a conversation with her and that’s when I learned she usually walks to school early in the morning.
When she told me that that, I looked at her. It was at this particular moment that I noted, She was three feet tall! The road is rough, at times muddy, up and down the mountain. Then I remembered, her house was closer compared to her other schoolmates, who even walked a longer distance to reach their school and some are even younger than her. I then learnt that the nearest secondary school from her place is located in the other village, which is about an hour’s walk, about 5 kilometers.
The day’s experience reminds me of the issues faced by indigenous peoples like the lack of access to education among others.
In 2012, Ifugao province is included among the top 20 poorest provinces across the country. The province is no longer on the list, due to lower poverty incidence, but a lot of work still needs to be done.
In the Philippines, there are about 14 to 17 million indigenous peoples. Yet they are among the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society. Social provision in indigenous territories is far below that of the rest of the country.
In addition, indigenous peoples are among the most educationally marginalized communities due primarily to access, equity and equality issues. The United Nations Human Rights report echoes the same sentiment, “the enjoyment of the right to education is not fully realized for most indigenous peoples. Deprivation of access to quality education is a major factor contributing to social marginalization, poverty and dispossession of indigenous peoples.”
Also, one of the statements of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that, “Without education, indigenous youths cannot fully develop their ability to realize their self-determination, including their right to pursue their own economic, social and cultural development.”
Like Leah, I am also an Ifugao. I grew up from a poor family, my mother and father do not have regular jobs and I wasthin as a child – I believe my childhood photo could have been aposter for a malnourished kid.
I remember my mother would borrow money so I could have money to pay some school fees, or for me to join a field trip or when I represent the school on quiz competitions.
In the end, I was able to finish school, graduate from college and earn two Masteral degrees – thanks to scholarships. But more than that, I have seen how hard working my parents were, how helpful my aunt Imelda was and some relatives.
I know Leah’s parents are also hard working. However, this might not be enough for her to be able to finish her studies. If I was able to finish my schooling, I know that Leah and other indigenous peoples can do as well. And I want to help make it possible.
So it is my dream to create opportunities for indigenous peoples to be able to better their lives. To offer social entrepreneurship for sustainable education that promotes community engagement and responsible tourism as well as provides life skills and culture learning done in informal learning spaces.
It’s a huge task, one that I can't do alone.
I need people who care enough to do something to change people’s lives. Are you one of them?
 International Fund for Agricultural Development (Country Technical Notes on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues)
 University of the Philippines Forum