IRIGA CITY, Camarines Sur, Philippines — In this modern world, there are still primitive people virtually untouched by civilization. These are mostly aboriginal folks who live in the mountains. In the Philippines, they include the Isnegs (also known as Itnegs) in the Ilocos, the Aetas in Central Luzon, the Agtas in Bicol, and the Tasadays in Mindanao. Anthropologists say their ancestors were the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines.
Visiting Bicol last month (February), I came to know for the first time about the Agtas who live in Mt. Asog, also known as Mt. Iriga, in Iriga City, Camarines Sur.
I met Sister Felicitas B. Delima, DSA, executive director of the non-profit, private Fatima Integrated Farm School in Iriga, who knows much about the primitive Agtas because she has committed herself to help these indigenous Filipinos. (Dr. Ernestina delos Santos-Mac, president of the Filamcco Foundation, is a patron of the school and an orphanage located in the school’s complex.)
Sister Delima was so passionate about her mission to alleviate the plight of the Agtas that at the get-go, she had to hike several kilometers and climb the steep mountain to reach the tribal folks’ village. She found out that the villagers were impoverished and severely malnourished. This galvanized her into action.
For a start, Sister Delima taught them how to cook a simple but nutritious meal – chicken feet with malunggay (moringa).
She also found out that the villagers were totally illiterate as they did not know how to read and write. This prompted her to launch a program to educate them. At the beginning, there were no blackboard, chalk and pencil, and so she had to use bamboo sticks to write words on the soil. At present, practically all household members, children and adults alike, are attending classes.
Later, with the assistance of her supporters like Doctor Mac, she put up a cathetical center to introduce Christianity to the Agtas.
Do they have some kind of religion before Sister Delima reached their village?
Sister Delima said, “They were animist,” — they believe in the existence of spirits in the things around them such as trees and wild animals. Because of this belief, they respect nature. Before they cut a tree, they performed a ritual that pays respect to the spirits. Before the planting season, they pray to the wind and rain to give them bountiful harvest.
Their being illiterate has contributed to their impoverished situation, Sister Delima noted. In the past, they brought their harvest of bananas, root crops, vegetables, etc. down to the lowland to sell them. They were frequently cheated because they didn’t know how to count and do simple math like addition. Whatever the buyers told them as the cost of their produce, they just accepted it.
That was in the past. Nowadays, as a result of Sister Delima’s basic education program, they know how to count and put price tags on their produce. The lowlanders could no longer cheat them.
Perhaps because they could no longer take advantage of the Agtas, some lowlanders have complained about the activities of Sister Delima. The common comment against her: She is not a nun because instead of staying in the convent, she is always in the mountain. She was even suspected as a leftist.
Sister Delima takes the nasty remarks against her in stride, saying, “I am just living my faith.” She reports that in the coming graduation rites at the school, a bright Agta man is graduating as mechanic.
She also reports that the Agtas were taught personal hygiene. They now use soap when they take a bath. As a result, they no longer stink.
She said, however, that there is still much to be done to achieve her objective – which is to integrate the Agtas into mainstream society.