As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to loom over the country, the Bajau community of Matina Aplaya struggles to cope under its shadow. Access to health services remains difficult, education has become a challenge for teachers and students, livelihoods have been stunted by stringent lockdown regulations, and the accumulation of disposable wastes continues to pester coastal communities.
For Project Dyesabel, such issues are a focus of their advocacy and have sought to address these issues through a variety of projects since their foundation in 2018. One of these projects is MuSEAkahan, an annual benefit concert for Davao City’s Bajau community, with this year’s program running with the theme “Kanta, Kwento, Kalikasan (Kantahan at Kwentuhan para sa Kalikasan sa Iisang Musikahan). MuSEAkahan 2021 was part of the non-profit marine conservation organization’s celebrations of World Environment Day, World Oceans Day, and its 3rd Anniversary.
The program was streamed last June 5 via Facebook live; featuring performances from local artists like Joey Ayala, Kaliwat Performing Artists Collective, Davao Chambers, and Kinetics among others, and stories of the Bajau community in the time of pandemic.
“Hayaan nating ipaalala ng musika na kaisa tayo ng mga kapatid nating Lumad… na pare-pareho lamang tayong lumalanghap ng hangin, umiinom ng malinis na tubig, inaaruga ng kalikasan,” said Carmela Melai Santos, Ecoteneo Director and Board Member of Dyesabel Incorporated.
Stories from the community
In highlighting their struggles in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event featured the stories of the community which were gathered through interviews of individuals like Melody Adjari, Edjie, Cecelia, and Lolita.
Melody’s story told of Bajau children struggling to access basic education during the pandemic, with the lack of instruction from teachers making it difficult for them to understand lessons.
“Lisod kaayo oy kay syempre, as a student siguro na lang pod, kung wala jud and explanation sa teacher, mag lisod jud kag answer,” Melody expressed.
[It’s very difficult because, if I put my feet in the students’ shoes, without the teacher’s explanation, I would find it hard to answer (the lessons)].
Further aggravating the situation was the difficulty in shifting to online learning, where Melody expressed that students struggled to catch up with their lessons due to the severe lack of technological means in the community. She even pointed out how the students resorted to answering for the sake of submitting due to such difficulties.
“Aside sa walay computer, wala pa juy cellphone nya lisod ba. Based sa akong makita nako sa akong manghod, murag wala siyay laing choice ba kundi magpataka nalang ug answer,” she said, further explaining the need of research in subjects like math or science.
[Apart from not having computers, they also do not have cell phones, so it’s really difficult. In my brother’s case, I can observe that he has no other choice but to answer randomly].
Edjie and Cecelia also shared about how their community’s livelihood was hampered by lockdown restrictions. For Edjie, he can no longer fish as freely as he used to because of more restrictions.
“Lisod kaayo kay halos dili maka panagat. Di ka maka panagat kay nay harang. Bawal mugawas,” he said.
[It’s very difficult because we couldn’t go fishing; there were boundaries there. We’re not allowed to go out].
For the coastal community, being cut off from their main source of food and basic needs is a pressing concern.
Fortunately, people and institutions aware of the community’s plight flocked with donations, providing them with rations that ensured their weekly sustenance – something Edjie said he was thankful for.
“Pero ang maayo ato kay naay manghatag ba. Bugas, mga sardinas. Naay daghan kaayo manghatag halos kada semana – mga Bisaya, mga taga barangay. Maka tabang-tabang pod,” he said.
[What’s good is that there were people who gave us food like rice and sardines. There were a lot of people who gave us food every week at most times. People from the barangay, which is good].
Fishing was not the livelihood impacted by the pandemic, as Cecelia’s story proved. According to her, many in the community have resorted to selling thrift items online or peddling beside crosswalks due to the financial impact of the lockdowns.
Due to restrictions of going outside, her usual daily income of 300 pesos dropped to 100-150 pesos.
“Lisod kaayong panahuna kay dili kagawas. (Ang akong kita) 150, usahay 100,” she said.
[It was a very difficult time because we couldn’t go out. (My daily income) is 150 pesos, sometimes 100].
Sellers like her are sometimes forced to wait for the ration when their income is extremely low.
Last to speak was Lolita, who told of the community’s struggles with trash buildup along the seashore that would block sewers and cause immense flooding.
“Inig mag baha, naa tanan pod sa amoa ang mga sagbot. Mugawas ang mga sagbot nya mubalik diria sa amoa mag tapok,” she said.
[During floods, wastes would accumulate in our area. The wastes would move outside, however, it comes back to our area and accumulates].
Lolita added that they need cleaning equipment like brooms, dustpans, rakes and shovels. They would take matters into their own hands by cleaning up and burying the wastes, she said.
Project Dyesabel and the post-COVID-19 recovery plan
“Witnessing and documenting their experiences for the past years prior and during the pandemic, we realized how important it is to make a recovery plan that is designed by, with, and for them,” project head Amiel Lopez said.
He also added that the project would make sure to put the community at the forefront of its recovery plan through lobbying their concerns to relevant agencies.
Through the series of interviews conducted by the organization, Project Dyesabel identified three major problem areas the community experiences which are amplified by the pandemic: “access to quality education (edukasyon), reliable and certain livelihood (kabuhayan), and access to our healthcare (kalusugan).”
“For the edukasyon, we will continue to support them in their transition towards their modular learning thru turning over school supplies needed by the community, assisting the Bajau teacher and para-teachers in the community through technical support (e.g lobbying their inclusion towards the education),” Lopez said.
On the other hand, prospects for more livelihood for the community other than fishing, ukay-ukay street vending, and sari-sari stores are in the works.
“Some are expressing a support to their livelihood such as additional capital, a seed funding to a new potential livelihood, and more that would ensure their continuation of their livelihood,” Lopez said.
For healthcare, Project Dyesabel lobbied mass testing for the community especially with the confirmed cases of COVID-19 last November to December 2020, wherein the city government assured to do “its best to make it happen.”
“What we will do for the recovery plan is to make them be part of the inclusion towards the government’s healthcare plan and also to put forward the Bajau community’s healthcare plan,” Lopez said.
Lopez also clarified that the themes may be refined and solutions for each will “always be referred to and designed by and with the Bajau community.”
“What our role in Project Dyesabel would be, is we will only amplify, facilitate, support, and forward their plan and to make sure that it would definitely serve their community’s needs under it’s 3 themes,” Lopez said.
The efforts of Project Dyesabel for Davao City’s Bajau Community, particularly through MuSEAkahan 2021, are nothing short of admirable. The idea of promoting a community-based recovery plan that the community would spearhead is unique from the usual strategy of relief donations and cleanup programs. Ultimately, such efforts shed a glimmer of hope for the Bajau community, whose stories may finally achieve their much-deserved happy ending.