moved here

Engaging with indigenous young adults, from Bendum to Guyana

29 February 2012

Young adults in Bendum learning welding, masonry, and sewing skills. Photo Credits: ESSC

Stefan Garcia, SJ

I had come back to Bukidnon for the first time in seven years, somewhere that I have always described as my favorite place in the world.  This was my home visit to the Philippines, but it was also an opportunity to see a work that we could dream of setting up in Guyana, the region of the Society I will be serving in the next few years.  Like in Bendum, the Rupununi area I work in is remote from the city with tribal peoples formerly neglected by the government.  The situations are quite different but also remarkably similar in some aspects.

While Guyana is located at the same degrees of latitude as the Philippines (though half a world away in South America), it is mostly one large landmass as opposed to the extensive archipelago that is the Philippines.  It is also much less populated, having about 700,000 people to the 90 million of the Philippines.  Unlike the Philippines, Guyana has a large majority of its rainforests in a healthy condition.  Because of this asset, Guyana has become a center for sustainable development, especially carbon trading schemes.

Similarities between the communities are almost as numerous as the differences.  Like with many of the communities of Indigenous Peoples globally, health care, education, water and electricity utilities and roads are underdeveloped.  Most people survive on subsistence farming, and there is little employment or entertainment.  Young people leave the villages, effecting a brain drain that mirrors what is happening to the trained professionals in the capitols.  Alcohol and illegal drugs are more common, exacerbating familial woes.

My hope is that the work over the next few years will create a youth training program in the Guyanese interior connected to the government schools.  The Hulas program with indigenous youth in the upland community of Bendum, Philippines was the perfect place to start.  Hulas is a training and formation activity with indigenous Pulangiyen youth who are not in school and is part of the Bridging Leadership in Mindanao project of the Environmental Science for Social Change supported by Misereor.

While the differences in place mean that an exact copycat program will not be possible, certain elements of process are applicable.  Starting from understanding and listening to the needs of the community is key.  Often, people desire the development of key practical skills that the communities need.  Hulas activities include skills training in carpentry, masonry, sewing, and metalwork as part of the program.  At the core of it though is the development of young people with an identity and a voice.  Classes on leadership, cultural identity, peace, and the environment are kept both interesting and relevant by constantly bringing the information to the real world through exercises and reflections.

Most inspiring to me was the way the courses were taught.  Not to be seen anywhere was the orderly but dull formality of the traditional Filipino classroom.  Teacher was not up front regurgitating a textbook to the children.  Instead, something much more reminiscent of Plato’s dialogues was in evidence.  Questions were asked and discussion made between the youth and instructors.  Little of the adult-child dynamic was observable; in its place was the free and easy banter of equals, with much hilarity throughout the lessons.  The empowerment and creativity that such an atmosphere generates were palpable.

Most valuable were the psycho-spiritual sessions in the evenings, when students and staff were asked to share the deepest parts of themselves, their dreams, their hopes, their relationships and their values.  The generosity of this kind of honesty was strongly affecting and helped cement friendships.  This part of the day was often described as people’s favorite during the program assessment.

The results of such a program are inevitably difficult to quantify.  Will we suddenly have eloquent and impassioned leaders take charge of Mindanao, developing centers that fulfill the gamut of needs necessary for development statistics?  Possibly, but I do not think this is what it is all about.  The results are plain to see, even without statistical analysis.  Just ask one of the students what the course did for them, and they will probably give you an answer that is witty, sincere, and confident.  Most importantly, you are bound to get an honest answer, something we all desire most from our future leaders.

Stefan with Pedro Walpole in Bendum.

Stefan Garcia is a British Jesuit who visited northern Mindanao, Philippines last December.  His mother is English and his father is Filipino.  Before joining the British Province, Stefan grew up in Cebu in the Philippines.  He studied zoology before joining the Jesuits and is now in Guyana for Regency.

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