“Normal” stories from Basilan (Philippines)

Publish date 29-02-2024

by Mauro Palombo

«Everything is back to normal» is the serene incipit of the story of the 2023 activities of the Claretian fathers of the mission on the island of Basilan. Mission among the "nomads of the sea", the Samal-Bajau, started more than twenty years ago by his friend Don Renato Rosso together with Sermig, who has supported it since then, collaborating in particular to define projects to improve the precarious income from fishing . Particularly for the many families in the Pangasaan area on the west coast, remote and, until recently, isolated by land.

“Normal” means first of all as before the pandemic. The health impact is not serious, but the fear in the communities is great which has pushed them to isolate themselves and caused a heavy stagnation in trade.

“Normal” then means as before the conflict which for many years throughout the southern Philippines caused deaths, destruction, insecurity and isolation of the communities dispersed throughout the territory: the children, if they could, went to school amidst many risks, the fishermen risked being attacked, the mission operators were unable to reach the Bajau, some were kidnapped.

The autonomy granted by the Philippine government to the people of the south, predominantly Muslims despite the strong settlements of Christian inhabitants from the north, had put an end to the large-scale conflict. Then another few years to stop banditry. Senseless hatred is still lurking: some groups of fanatics still carry out sporadic attacks in churches.

Only starting from true peace is everything possible, here in Basilan, as everywhere. And development precisely requires being able to implement initiatives with consistency and continuity, to generate change and offer new life in communities.

The good news is that for the Bajau, sending children to school has become normal: school is always the key to a future. All year round the children were able to go to pre-schools to prepare for public school; and in after-school programs that help them in a challenging commitment, even with nutritious meals. Boats carry them from coastal settlements onto stilts, and then onto school buses, in which they travel safely. Operators can come to the settlements for evening training of adults in the community centers gradually created, for health and hygiene education programmes...

The fishermen go out to sea, not too far out to avoid encountering pirates; several Bajau today also work on larger boats, making use of their skills. The services supporting fishing are functioning at full speed: the purchasing center for their fish - which feeds the schools of the Claretians - at the right price and weight, the revolving fund microcredit for families who need it for lines, hooks, dryers installed in the villages for the conservation and sale of the catch, the small cooperative where they are supplied in solidarity terms. And again, the rich craftsmanship of the many objects made by women who grow and then weave plant fibres. Pig and poultry farming projects will now be added to support the mission.

More than twenty years of support for constant commitment, in all conditions, have led to a stable turning point, a structural impact, a lasting change; to the involvement of local entities as well, further strengthening the initiatives and helping to advance their autonomy. There is still a long way to go for the full integration of these communities, but the road is clear and has proven to be very practicable!

Mauro Palombo

NP Gennaio 2024

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