July 07

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The Magic of Mindanao

The Magic of Mindanao:

Mindanao is the second largest and southernmost major island in the Philippines. Its population exceeds twenty million. Here is the greatest need for the children we help at Save the Children. Traveling here for work last week enabled me to see the extreme poverty and yet vast resources and natural beauty. It’s quite a dichotomy.

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It is so easy to be mesmerized by the natural beauty of this island. Mindanao is almost magical. The need is great but great progress is being made. A family may be poor here but the views are spectacular. Everywhere!!! It certainly beats the slums I saw in Manila. Everything is clean here. The sea, plants and climate are ideal.

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Due in part to widespread poverty and religious diversity, Mindanao has seen a rise in Communist insurgency. It also holds the largest Muslim population in the Philippines. Armed rebels are here, though only in certain areas, and threaten the peace here. Armed  separatist movements occur here too. Thankfully, armed security points and wanted posters with the faces of the military insurgents or MI’s have helped to reduce the conflict over the past several years. I went thru one such security checkpoint. While the guards approached very sternly and searched my vehicle with drawn guns, it was almost amusing. Why you ask? They were singing George Michael’s, ‘Careless Whisper’, while conducting business.

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A family’s life here can be very challenging. The armed rebels can interfere with a child attending school. For a parent to send their son to learn, they may be forced to agree to allow them to join a rebel group. A daughter could be forced into a child marriage in exchange for a primary school education. If they refuse, the entire family can be shot and killed. Could you imagine being told in the US that you would have to allow your son to join such a group or your daughter to marry as a condition of school registration? The largest hardship a child faces when registering for kindergarten in the US is the dreaded immunizations. Yet that’s the reality for many Philippine families.

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Hunger here is extreme and many children are walking the street. Ironically, Mindanao is considered the agricultural capital of the Philippines. Eight of the ten top agricultural items exported, which include delicious pineapples, come from here. Thus, there also is great hope. Save the Children’s work here includes protecting children so they can be safely educated and supporting their families by helping stay in safer areas. We also are trying to teach families how to grow their crops and eat healthy. One of the largest health issues here is over seventy five percent of children have round worms. This is due to the consumption of raw fish.

Mindanao is also culturally diverse. In addition to multiple religions, various indigenous tribes also exist. They are notably darker than other Philippinos and are discriminated against because of this. Save is helping to educate the tribal children and improve their overall health. Each tribe has its own dialect so communication can be difficult. Tagalong or English often are not understood.

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Many areas of this island also suffer frequent power outages due to the woefully inadequate power supply. This can make reaching the population very challenging in a time of need. The Philippines is the most disaster prone area in the world. I experienced an earthquake here. Typhoons occur up to fifty times a year. Evacuation must often occur door to door. Rain is very heavy here during the wet season. I experienced this first hand and learned how to walk down a mountain in mud. You must be barefoot and go sideways. Be prepared to slide and slide and slide. We used banana leaves as umbrella substitutes. I actually think they work better.

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I certainly learned the need to try and fit in as much as possible. I was told to cover my hair and wear traditional Muslim attire. Plus it was just respectful of the culture I sought to understand. I also learned how we room while travelling. I shared a room with seven other women and only two bathrooms. I was a little unsure about this especially after viewing the restroom. It worked out just fine. We all did yoga at 5 AM along the ocean. This was a great way to practice my Tagalong and become immersed in the experience.

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In closing, I challenge each of you to get out of your comfort zones. Try to experience a new culture. You don’t have to travel to some far away land to do this. I suggest chatting with someone you don’t know at work or in your community. Push yourself to approach a stranger. Ask a foreigner to teach you to speak a few words of their language or tell you about their country. Go to a foreign restaurant and eat a new cuisine. I promise you it will change your stereotypes and create a completely new perception of the world.