Niño is slumped on the floor of the bamboo hut. Legs crossed and arms folded. Every once in a while he dips his hand into the pocket of his stained, smelly t-shirt and brandishes a bird feather. He waves it about half heartedly and glances out the half open door to the world outside.
When a horsefly unwittingly enters his airspace, it meets a ruthless end as Nino’s two work-hardened hands crush it to death with a loud clap. Silences rules once more and the pondering continues. It is unlikely 15 year old Niño Sanghear is considering the form for today’s Galway Hurdle. The only race which occupies Nino this Ladies Day is the race for survival.
This young adolescent is a member of the nomadic Ati Tribe. They are an indigenous race, similar to the Aborigines in Australia and like their Outback brothers, were the first settlers in the region. The Ati Tribe has 28 settlements across the island of Panay in the western Philippines.
To be quite honest with you, I always had these fantastical and romantic views of what tribal life in the rainforest would be like. Swinging from tree to tree. Having a shower under the waterfall. Tackling lions and anacondas in ones spare time. Hunting wild pig for dinner.
Running around a big camp fire with afew banana leaves hiding our nether regions as we danced to the beat of tribal drums. With the benefit of hindsight, I can safely say these notions were flawed and rather naïve.
Last weekend, after a two hour barefoot walk/climb we arrived at Igalwalagan, an Ati tribe stronghold. Freddy and I have been assigned to this project. We were the second and third white people the locals had ever seen.
Young children cried out of fear. Even the rooster knew there was something different about us. Many of the children here are badly malnourished and receive little in the way of education. Nino left school when he was 12. Why? He is needed at home to help find food for the family.
They are not immune from the global phenomenon of increasing food prices. Rice to them is the equivalent of the potato to Ireland in the 19th century. With the current high price of rice, it rarely features on the Ati menu now. Maybe just once or twice a week. These days their daily diet consists of root crops found on the hills along with natural growing fruit and berries. Our mission here is to help launch a nutritious feeding programme along with setting up health and education centres.
Last week, before I left ‘civilisation’, we had an opportunity to visit the Barangay (local municipal area ) of San Remegio in the province of Antique. It was completely devastated by last month’s typhoon. The scars of the horrors that unfolded there just afew weeks ago are still glaringly evident.
Waters, two metres in depth, gushed down their equivalent of Shop Street. Ten unfortunate souls perished. Four have not been found. And probably never will be. Joe Avon Arelogo, a 20-year-old farmer, told me that on that day a funeral cortege was on its way to a cemetery in the countryside.
On hearing of the impending disaster they decided to tie the coffin to a tree as they had little time before the typhoon was to strike. After the typhoon passed, they returned to that spot. The coffin was there allright. However, the body was not.
Avon Arelogo’s rice crop was devastated. “It will take three years before the land is fertile again,” he sighs. “My livelihood was washed away with the rains.’ At that, his valiant attempts to maintain his poker face fail for the briefest of moments.
Two rogue tears escape and slowly navigate their way down his bony left cheek. We were just there for a day. It is they who must live through the hardship.
Back in Igalwalagan, dust was falling. We all sat around the kerosene lamp that Niño had just lighted. We shared stories, food and experiences. I was even cajoled into singing The Green and Red of Mayo! Although we were outsiders, they accepted us. I found this humbling. They may not have money. They may not have much food.
Tomorrow the struggle will continue. For now though, laughter reverberates around the hut. Everyone is just happy to be alive. Life here is simple. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them.
William Browne is part of the SERVE Philippines group who are volunteering for seven weeks in the Philippines in South East Asia. While there, they will work with some of the most deprived peoples in the world who live in seriously underdeveloped and squalid conditions. If you would like to support the projects, a special account has been opened with AIB Bank to facilitate donations. Account Number: 81392034. Sort Code: 93-74-36. Further information available on www.serve.ie