Bagobo teacher honored for coming home | Inquirer News

Bagobo teacher honored for coming home

By: - Reporter / @TarraINQ
/ 02:12 AM September 17, 2011

Some trek for hours or brave a river’s strong current to get to school.

Others study their lessons by the faint glow of a lamp or in the throes of hunger, having been forced to make do without dinner. Still others labor at odd jobs—from doing the nails of strangers to working nights at the canteen—to raise money for tuition.


Bagobo teacher Anabel Ponce Ungcad has gone through it all. And the past is still painful, the tears quickly flow.

But the 30-year-old is encouraged by the present and how she can change the future: As the first college graduate of her tribe on the slopes of Mount Apo, she is giving back by helping members of her community transcend the limitations of their circumstances.


“The situation of our tribe prompted me to take up education because I saw their need to learn. They were so thirsty for education but we had no school,” Ungcad told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

“Now, I’m the one giving them hope. Who else will help them get an education but someone from their own tribe?” she said, her voice breaking.

Ungcad, a teacher in the Department of Education’s Alternative Learning System (ALS), is among the four educators honored this year in “The Many Faces of the Teacher,” an annual tribute held by the nonprofit Bato Balani Foundation and Diwa Learning Systems.

The other three are ALS teacher Nelfa Cepillo, who established community learning centers for Mangyans in Oriental Mindoro province; Concepcion Tababa, also an ALS teacher who crafted a learn-to-work program in Tubugan, Iloilo province; and Rosebelle Mercurio, a Special Education teacher in Cavite province.

The four teachers had a common mission to bring education to those who otherwise would not have access to learning—the very same struggle that Ungcad had to wage throughout her school life of some 15 years.

“Our community is so poor. We have nothing to eat… almost just sweet potato. People in the tribe are illiterate. That’s why I was so determined to study. I promised myself that I will come back one day to share and give back,” a tearful Ungcad said in Filipino.

The determination drove the young student to walk two hours a day from their remote sitio to the school in the town proper of Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur province, and back.


The steep trail became even more dangerous on days of heavy rains, but her courage always conquered the raging river.


After high school, Ungcad applied for and won a scholarship sponsored by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in 1998. She enrolled in an education course at the Southern Philippines Agri-Business, Marine and Aquatic School of Technology, the only state college in Davao del Sur.

“[The scholarship] did not cover all the expenses, just tuition. So my mother took a job as a maid in Digos City. My father was already sick then, but he brought vegetables from the mountain every week to sell in the town proper for extra money,” Ungcad said, repeatedly apologizing for her tears.

Her own tribe doubted that she would complete her studies.

“They wondered how I could finish school when my parents were just farmers and I only had corn to eat. That’s one more thing that motivated me. I wanted to show them that even if we had no money, I could finish school,” she said.

The youngest of five siblings, Ungcad is the only one in her family to get an education. Her parents, both farmers who collectively earned P80 a day, encouraged her to push on even if they could barely afford her schooling.

“I also did whatever I could to earn extra: I cut hair, I did manicures, I sold banana pudding… I also worked at the canteen and earned P30 a day, but that I set aside to help my father buy his medication,” she said.

Dying wish

Marcelo Ungcad died of a stomach ailment at age 57 in 1998, just after his daughter’s first semester in college.

“Before he died, he told me to finish my studies to help my family. He told me that I should do whatever I could to finish school because he had nothing else to leave me but education. He said we will never improve our lot in life if I don’t finish school,” Ungcad said.

By 2002, the young woman had fulfilled her father’s dying wish. She passed the board exams on her first take and got an assignment that she attributed to fate.

“When I learned that I was being assigned to my own community, I felt it was heaven-sent because I had been telling myself that I wanted to go back to the tribe to be the one to teach them,” Ungcad said.

She has not changed stations in over eight years, shuffling her time to attend to three community learning centers in the town of Sta. Cruz, including her own village.

Over the years, Ungcad has taught more than 300 students, from out-of-school teens to village elders, including a 90-year-old who had “zero knowledge, not even his own birthday.”

To start her students with what they knew, Ungcad translated ALS modules into the tribe’s native Bagobo-Tagabawa language. She also encouraged—and retained—attendance by preparing meals for her students: She asked the local government to cover for rice and spent her own money for the dishes.

“I saw that they really wanted to learn because of their experience. When they go to [the town proper], people would dupe them and pay them less than what their products are worth because they don’t know how to read the weighing scale,” Ungcad said.

“And they also want to be the ones to write the name of their chosen candidate when it’s election time. People in our tribe always have ‘assistants’ to help them vote in the elections because they can’t read, but sometimes the assistants write the name of another candidate,” she said, chuckling.


Learning has brought notable changes in Ungcad’s tribe.

“There are now small sari-sari stores… And people are a bit more civilized now. Before, they didn’t care where they left their waste. Now, because of our health and sanitation classes, they have made makeshift toilets and taken better care of their health,” Ungcad said.

With more options in life, younger Bagobos are also putting off early marriage, unlike in earlier generations, she said.

“When I came back, it’s like the air has changed. My tribe is so proud of me; they look up to me like I’m a celebrity.  They tell their children, ‘Look at Anabel. You should be like her, finish studies and pass the board,’” she added with a shy smile.

Being the most educated Bagobo in her village has also brought her family personal gains. Now married, Ungcad has built a simple home near the town proper and cares for her 65-year-old mother, Rita.

She earns a little more than P10,000 a month and sends her siblings’ children to school with only one request—that they finish school so that like her, they can lift their families from poverty.

“Before, we had nothing. I was happy then if we had a plate of pancit (noodles) on the table, and I wished that someday, we’d have a lot of pancit. Now, that dream has come true,” she said.

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TAGS: Bagobo, Education, Mindanao, Poverty
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