1991-10-08 00:00:00

A southern tribal welfare organization is working to ensure that "sea gypsy" children learn to read and write instead of scouring the seas for pearls or travelers´ coins.

The Office of Southern Cultural Communities (OSCC) has started primary classes up to grade three for Badjao people in Tampalan town, Basilan, 875 kilometers south of Manila.

Lessons are conducted in "floating classrooms," bamboo and thatch rooms built on stilts over the seashore like many homes in the coastal town.

Badjao, the smallest of the Muslim groups in the Sulu archipelago, is reportedly the least "Islamized" and its religious beliefs and customs are still largely animistic.

Badjaos are known as excellent pearl divers and fishermen. Their young wait on small boats in harbors or along sea routes for pleasure boat passengers to toss coins into the Basilan Strait.

Edga Juaini, OSCC development management officer, said the school was built in Tampalan because Badjao people do not attend schools in other towns.

Juaini said they fear mixing with other Muslim groups who they feel are discriminatory.

Badjaos, who move with the tide in their small boat houses, reportedly have the highest illiteracy rate among the Muslim groups.

"It was very hard to convince parents to let their children go to school. They preferred to teach them quick means of livelihood like fishing or diving," Juaini said.

Literacy classes for Badjao adults have also been started. "We have to go house to house and give free school materials," Juaini said.

Some 30 adults graduated recently from functional literacy classes conducted by the OSCC and the Department of Education, Culture and Sports.

Neneth Carvajal, a grade one teacher in Tampalan, described Badjao children as "fast learners who are interested in education."

Noriam Ladjagais, involved in the campaign to establish an Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, says the primary classes and adult programs for the Badjao are not enough.

"Badjaos still cannot stand up for their basic rights," Ladjagais said. She claims their backwardness and illiteracy can be attributed in part to neglect by the government and Muslim leaders.


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