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Village of Kanawan

A look at the Aeta, the aboriginal people of the Philippine archipelago

The village of Kanawan sits on the flank of Mount Natib on the Bataan Peninsula. It looks across a small valley to the ridge where the Philippine Refugee Processing Center once stood. When we lived in the refugee center, we’d often walk along the ridge and look down into the valley and its brilliant green rice paddies. On weekends, we would join refugee families swimming in the stream that ran under the hanging bridge leading to Kanawan. Sometimes we walked across the bridge to visit the village.

Kanawan was and still is home to the Aeta, a minority tribal people who are probably among the very first settlers of the Philippine archipelago. The Aeta, also called Negrito, are darker skinned and have curlier hair than their Filipino neighbors. They are an Australo-Melanesian people, like the Aborigines of Australia. Originally hunter-gatherers, the Aeta now farm as well, though they have not lost their knowledge of the jungle.

A group of friends once hiked up into the mountain, with Mang Ige, an older Aeta, as guide. He pointed out wild bees and medicinal plants along the way. Short and slight, he was tireless. When we’d ask how much further it was to the waterfall and swimming hole we’d chosen as our destination, he’d reply: “Only one cigarette.” I later figured out his cigarette was many meters long.

The Aeta of Kanawan looked across the valley to the refugee center, a community of many thousands of refugees that had running water, electricity, dozens of classrooms, a hospital and neighborhood medical clinics, gas station, post office and many churches. They had none of these things. They’d once lived on the land that the Philippine government gave so generously for the care and training of Indochinese refugees. This gift deprived the Aeta of the resources of that land, including large mango trees and a valuable harvest. They moved across the valley. In their new location, they were even further from the elementary school in Morong, down the hill from refugee center about 5 kilometers. In the rainy season, children stayed home as it was too hard to walk the daily round trip of 14 kilometers.

Lina Hervas, who is today my wife, was the spiritual ministries coordinator for our agency, World Relief. She worked not only with the refugee churches but also with Filipino churches in the region. Lina visited Kanawan and was struck by the disparity between the living conditions of the 35 Aeta families and those of the refugees. She decided that her ministry included Kanawan and so began to visit more often, bringing some of the nurses from World Relief’s medical program over the bridge and up the hill to offer clinics. Lina also enlisted teachers to offer literacy classes for adults, encouraging them to learn more about their rights and to vote.

Over the years that followed, Lina continued to bring services and raise money for Kanawan. Medical students from George Washington University and Johns Hopkins spent time in the village. Volunteers helped the villagers to build a school and a church, and later a larger church. Water was piped down in a bamboo aqueduct to the village. Electricity arrived.

I returned to Kanawan after a 16 year absence in 2005 and found the village much changed. Children still played games in the dirt with pebbles and sticks and flipflops and rubber bands, water buffalo still rested in the shade of mango trees. But I saw a tractor, and women washing clothes under a spring-fed hose. I met Pastor Dumulot and his wife and visited the new school. I heard radio. People greeted Lina as an old friend, and she seemed to know their stories, who was pregnant, who’d moved away, who’d returned.

We return to Kanawan on every trip to the Philippines, often with friends from our refugee center days. A little girl from the village was one of the flower girls at our wedding in December 2008, attended by Pastor and Mrs. Dumulot and a small group from Kanawan. That month my grandsons rode on a water buffalo under the mango trees in the village.

This past spring Lina was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony of the elementary school, now six grades. The student body includes many children who are not Aeta. This is due in part to the intermarriage of Aeta with other Filipinos in the area over the past decades, and also to the fact that Kanawan’s school is now more convenient than Morong’s for many of the Filipino families living on the periphery of the former refugee center. Lina lobbied energetically with local Rotarians and politicians to provide scholarship money and schooling beyond grade 6 in Kanawan, so the Aeta children can continue their education.

Our bridesmaid graduated this year. Next year, we’ll again cross the swinging bridge and walk up the hill to visit her and our other friends.

David Blair of Harrisville is the cofounder and former executive director of the Mariposa Museum & World Culture Center in Peterborough. He writes about his travels and life the Philippines.

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