A time to be a person for others
What I’ve learnedBy Sam Sadhwani
Philippine Daily Inquirer
The rite of passage of any Atenean (aside from cheering for the Blue Eagles when they make the 5-peat, of course) is the much-anticipated immersion program.
In their senior year, students get the chance to leave the comfort of the hallowed halls of Ateneo de Manila University, and spend a weekend immersing themselves in marginalized sectors of society.
The choices vary. For me, immersion meant a two-hour bus trip, a confined jeepney and a 4 x 4 bumpy “excursion” to Manabayukan, Tarlac.
Admittedly, I am immensely sheltered. My parents provided me a comfortable home, the latest must-haves and the means to travel around the world when I was growing up.
As grateful as I am to have been given that privilege, I never thought to immerse myself in my own country. This program gave me the opportunity to do just that.
And, although three days with no bathroom, no electricity and no cell phone signal was tough, I would never trade the experience for anything. I learned three very important lessons.
1. We should embrace our culture.
Coursing through the mountains and rivers of Tarlac, I realized how beautiful our country was without the clutter of buildings and unending street wires. The tall, green trees and the ripening crops made for a breathtaking sight. But beyond the scenic view, I had never been so proud to be a Filipino until I met the Aetas of Manabayukan.
The Aetas are a simple people. Their tiny community of nipa huts, with a miniature grade school supported by the Department of Education, has about 200 people.
Traditionally, Aetas marry around the age of 15. The suitor presents a dowry, livestock and a nipa hut to his intended’s family. The community has a designated “captain” or village head and an albularyo (folk healer) to safeguard the community from possible dangers and evil spirits.
It was certainly an experience learning about and witnessing the Aeta beliefs and rituals. On my last night in the community, a few other Ateneans and I were tasked to perform an Aeta ritual with the heads of each family. Following their movements, we each danced the ritual taripi around the bonfire, with the albularyo playing the bongos.
To say that dancing the taripi was mortifying would be an understatement. But I was filled with so much pride at participating to care. It dawned on me that our culture was so rich and genuine that we should stop trying to modernize it and make it something it is not. Instead, we should take the time to appreciate our fellow Filipinos and understand the lives they lead.
2. We should count our blessings.
Despite the simplicity of the lives of the Aetas, it was evident they were happy. This does not mean they do not have problems. They have lots. They are in dire need of medicine and they have no waste management system, to name a couple. Despite all this, they never fail to appreciate life and the blessings that come their way.
My assigned family got their food by hunting. Each night, the head of the family, Tatay Arnold, would journey up the mountains to catch wild animals for the next day’s meals.
On my last day, Tatay Arnold caught a bayawak or a monitor lizard. He was ecstatic. Apparently, catching a monitor lizard was rare. At lunchtime, I noticed none of the other family members was eating the prize catch. When I asked why, Tatay Arnold explained that he caught the lizard for me.
I was incredibly touched by the gesture. It was a testament to their generous nature. They were willing to offer me their special meal. Needless to say, I now know what monitor lizard tastes like.
The kids found happiness in the smallest of things. They were overjoyed scrubbing their bodies with the bars of soap we brought, they were amused by the shadows the flashlights produced at night and, above all, they were so excited by the pictures we took of them.
If anything, this made me so ashamed. I, who had not had to worry about medicine, food or clothes all my life, have an endless list of complaints. The Aetas, who are burdened with so many problems, find never-ending ways to be happy.
It was a humbling and eye-opening experience. I realized there really was more to life than the latest gadget, or the newest trends.
3. We are responsible for those around us.
Above all, I realized that we are responsible for one another. One of the biggest problems of the Aeta community is their lack of awareness. When Mount Pinatubo erupted and the Aetas settled in Manabayukan, they planted crops as their main means of livelihood. However, because they are not aware of their legal rights, people are starting to steal their land. Now they are increasingly experiencing food shortage.
There are other problems, too. They have been influenced by the sachet phenomenon (buying items in small packs or sachets), but they have no waste management system so their land is being filled with more and more trash.
I believe, as fellow Filipinos, it is our duty to help. Now that we are aware of the problems of the Aetas, we need to do something about it.
Along with the Holy Spirit Aeta Mission, a community dedicated to educating and empowering the Aetas in Tarlac, we are all called, in Ateneo’s terms, to be “a man for others.”
Sam Sadhwani is a fourth year AB Communications student at Ateneo de Manila University. She plans to study fashion business abroad, which is no surprise as fashion is in her DNA. She is the daughter of fashion writer and model Apples Aberin.