The Badjao Tribe or Sea Gypsies in the Philippines are known as the people of no value .
Imagine that; their very name translates as of no value . They have been a constant presence on the Sulu Archipelago off the Southwest Coast of the Philippines and eek out a living, mainly from the sea, by diving, fishing and selling their wares. They have been cast aside, ostracised, treated like no human being should ever be treated. They are not even recognised as Filipino on their death certs. The saddest thing of all is that they themselves have only begun to realise that they do indeed have a right to respect and dignity. They are now going to school, learning new skills and some have even graduated from college.
This is down in no small part to the Trojan work of a Presentation Missionary Sister from Galway who together with the late Redemptorist Missionary Priest, Fr. Frankie Connon, literally found them by accident in 1997. Sr Evelyn Flanagan has seen a lot in her seventy one years but even she was shocked by the conditions in which she found the people living on the sea. “I was horrified and angered” smiles Evelyn, an engaging, hard working and passionate missionary. “Myself and Fr Frankie had heard about them and made it our business to track them down. It’s a hard concept to get one’s head around; people living on the sea and their conditions were horrendous. They lived on house boats or houses on stilts which absolutely no adequate living conditions whatsoever. They were lovely but their lives were anything but. We started visiting them on a regular basis, we brought food and we began to work with them where they were in their lives. We were struck by their gentleness and lovely ways but stunned by what they had to endure. They were the ‘untouchables’, totally shunned and downtrodden and that both upset and angered me. We found them to be totally trusting and innocent and they are recognised as being the most peace loving of all tribes. We vowed that we would do what we said and keep our promises to them to try and build up their trust. Because they are so trusting they have been hugely let down in the past and exploited by those who had no respect whatsoever for them. I remember one of the first people I met, he was a little child who had a massive cyst on his head and going to the hospital was alien to the Badjao as quite frankly they wouldn’t have the money and would generally never be treated with any little bit of respect . I brought the little guy and his Mother to the hospital and it was quickly and simply removed but that was only because I was with them and I just made sure it was done. Imagine that, the child could have died for the lack of a simple procedure but the whole incident spoke volumes to me”.
Evenly continues..”I like people who are different and who follow the beat of their own drum. We’re don’t all fit into neat little boxes but nobody should be treated the lesser for that difference. The Badjao are quite a mystical tribe , they are an Animist people in that they worship the soul world ; the moon , the stars and the all important sea , they have a huge and lovely affinity with the sea and naturally for them everything revolves around it . They worship Tuhan, the God who protects them. They live by rituals; they have a ritual for absolutely everything; birth, death, love and everything in between. It is fascinating really. I would love if people took time to get to learn about them and know them”.
As she began to learn about them and know them Evelyn set to work on what they needed.
“Well, they needed everything! They needed shelter, food, education, a voice and people who would stand by them. We listened to them, and it was probably the first time they were ever listened to. The Chief of the Tribe asked us to educate his people. Education truly does set people free and we wanted freedom for them. Education really is paramount. We set to work; we lobbied for a large trance of sea to be reclaimed so that we could build a bit of structure for them and hats off to the Irish people as every single cent of this was donated by Irish people. It is important to stress that we made sure they were still clustered around the sea as it would have been shameful to take them away from what they loved and had always known. However in 2005 they were burnt out, we still have no answers as to why or who did this and it was an awful setback for them and for us but we just persevered and got on with it. This time we built quadrant brick houses that are more solid so no more ‘accidents’ could happen. I say’ accidents’ as at the time it was claimed to be an ‘accident’..we can only surmise”!.
Anyway, onwards and upwards! And so it was but on a tough hard road.
“Well, funding was and is a huge problem; It is a constant worry for me as I am afraid it will run out and we won’t be able to pay the teaching staff. However the Irish people are just great, they are a decent generous people and support us on a regular basis, both financially and practically. Lots of Irish students come with SERVE for weeks at a time each summer. There is a lovely story I have to tell. I once hired a Teacher and to be honest I had no idea where the money to pay her would come from. A woman from a very wealthy family came to visit us and initially she was very wary of the people. However she has proven to be one of our most loyal and steadfast supporters, she funds the salary of that teacher and she is just an unbelievable support to us. Just shows, God works in mysterious ways!”
“Today we have 140 quadrant houses which house four families in each building, the Nano Nagle Centre Educational Centre and St Bridgid’s Health Clinic. We also have a ritual house for the people to observe their rituals and we have a vegetable garden and water tank so that they can have clean fresh water. We do something on Child Protection every single month, both for the parents and the children. We have 90 little ones in Kinder and a feeding programme, we have made huge strides”.
Another great stride being made is the selection of community leaders. “We have had 13 leaders drawn from the community since 2011.It was beyond them to think that they could ever be leaders of anything. They are now role models for their community and are fostering a sense of pride in being a Badjao. Our educational programme has worked wonders. Venerva ,our first female to ever graduate is now teaching others and she has her Masters and another , Junni, is also teaching . In all we have 14 graduates now including three from Marine Engineering College and a Criminologist, amazing achievement”. Indeed on the day we visited Evelyn on our ‘World Missions Ireland’ trip it was immensely touching to see a video that showed the graduations.
Also touching was the respect and admiration the Badjao have for Evelyn. One said “She is kind and fun, she is like a Mother to us. She has lifted us up and makes us feel good about ourselves. Above all she has stayed with us and has not abandoned us”.
And that is the essence of missionaries and their work.