KIDAPWA, PHILIPPINES – Sulaiman Salik, a 15-year-old Muslim boy from the southern Philippine city of Cotabato on the island of Mindanao, was nursing a gunshot wound in a hospital when he met Tomo Matsui, an author from Tokyo, five years ago.
An orphan, Salik was then under the care of government welfare personnel after having been caught in crossfire between Muslim rebels and government forces in nearby Pikit in North Cotabato Province in central Mindanao.
“When Tomo-san saw me at the hospital, he told me he’d send me to school. Of course, I agreed right away,” Salik, now in the sixth grade, said in a recent interview at the Mindanao Children’s Library Foundation in Kidapwa.
Matsui, 58, formally established MCLF in 2003 primarily to carry out storytelling, medical and scholarship projects for disadvantaged children in Mindanao, including those from indigenous and Muslim groups.
“In 2000, I visited an evacuation place where I saw many children lying on a cement floor. I felt pity for them. I did storytelling because I can help them with their emotions and I can heal their wounded hearts,” Matsui said.
He first set up Tomo Library in 2000 in nearby Davao Oriental Province, followed by the Library Fund for Asian Children in 2002.
“I arrived in Mindanao on the invitation of a Japanese priest friend. He introduced me to an orphanage in Davao Oriental. I was interested to come because I had background in indigenous culture and experiences with indigenous people in Japan,” Matsui said.
He said MCLF currently has more than 500 students from elementary school to college, comprising Christians, Muslims and members of indigenous tribes like the Manobo. Around 80 of them are housed in the foundation, given free food and other basic necessities.
Supported by benefactors from Japan, the foundation has already produced around 50 college or vocational school graduates, including MCLF President Asrie Sabil Hussain.
Mary Grace Cadungog, 52, a native of Pikit, said she decided to actively take part in the foundation’s activities, even though she already serves as the town’s assistant social welfare officer, because of its advocacy for education.
“Educating the children here of this generation will hopefully reduce violence in the future because reason will prevail over arms. It will change the mind-set of the uneducated,” the foundation board member said.
Cadungog laments that the chaotic situation in her hometown caused mainly by the political conflict between Muslims and the government has not improved since her younger days in the 1970s.
Recalling warfare when she was in the fifth grade that forced her entire family to evacuate for two years and which left Pikit a “no-man’s land,” Cadungog said, “It’s just sad that even after I’ve finished my studies, gotten married and am now a grandmother already, Pikit remains a poor town because of the conflict.”
The town is located in territory partly controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest secessionist group. The government and the group are trying to forge a peace agreement.
Pikit relies on corn, coconut and freshwater fish production.
If not armed encounters, natural disasters like heavy flooding also disrupt the normal life in Pikit and its neighboring towns.
Interfamily attacks among Muslims, locally known as “rido,” also persist, which Hussain, herself a Muslim, partly attributes to lack of education.
“Most of those carrying firearms are the uneducated. (Education) will help reduce rido because they will start to use their minds in sorting things out and discussing issues,” she said.
In giving emphasis to Muslims and the indigenous people, MCLF holds cultural presentations to help preserve “cultures and traditions in Mindanao inherited from the ancient people.”
“MCLF created a strategy on how to make a peaceful community for children. Through our cultural celebrations, we learn and understand how important are our tribe, beliefs, traditions and especially our identity,” Matsui said.
“Educating the children in Mindanao is very important to let them know why there is poverty and how to achieve true development. If they have knowledge about it, they can help find a good solution for it,” he said.
Education Secretary Armin Luistro has thanked nongovernmental organizations that launched programs aiding the government’s goal of institutionalizing an educational system that is sensitive to cultural minorities.
Luistro recently launched the Philippines’ Response to Indigenous People’s and Muslim Education, a three-year program funded mainly by the Australian government, and also unveiled the department’s Alternative Learning System Curriculum for Indigenous People’s Education.
By developing curriculum and training teachers sensitive to traditions and values of Muslim and indigenous groups, the first project hopes to address the concern that only 50 percent of both indigenous and Muslim children complete elementary education.
Elaine Ward, an Australian government aid program counselor, said the theory is that injecting cultural values and traditions of indigenous people and Muslims into the Philippine basic education system will make schooling relevant to children and boost pride in their own culture.
“With that kind of motivation, it impacts on their learning achievement by 25 percent,” Ward said.
As he pursues his studies, Salik also enjoys his stay at MCLF because of the company of his fellow scholars, regardless of their origin and beliefs.
“I am happy to be chosen as a scholar. It is important for me to finish my studies so I can work and help my younger siblings,” said Salik, who wants to become a police officer.
Matsui said his mission will continue despite some challenges, such as visiting rebel-controlled areas, for as long as there is poverty in this part of the Philippines.
“Nothing can stop me from this mission because my love for children will never end,” he said.