A new school building funded by the Japanese government was recently opened for children of the B’laan tribe in the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao.

Around 80 percent of the 10,000 residents in Mindanao’s remote village of San Jose belong to the B’laan tribe, one of the more than 100 ethnolinguistic groups in the country. They rely on farming or work on fruit plantations, with most families struggling financially.

In an interview, tribal leader Macay Col said younger members never had any prospects, but with the opening of the new school building, “the youth of our tribe are willing to finish their studies. There is great interest. So hopefully, they will have better livelihoods in the future.”

The new two-classroom building, built of concrete and with facilities and equipment worth 1.48 million pesos (¥3.37 million), was handed over Sept. 17. It is the second school building constructed with financial assistance from Japan since 2011. The first, which was formally handed over in February 2012, was worth 1.2 million pesos.

Napsa Seromines of the International Children’s Action Network, the nongovernmental organization that carried out the project, said the first building was funded by private donors in Japan and the latest by Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

Project manager Hiroyuki Fukuta said his NGO aims to help underprivileged people while maintaining their cultural identity. The school uses specific books and teaching methods to raise awareness about the B’laan tribe’s cultural heritage, and to empower students to speak out against discrimination.

“You are not ‘just’ children. There should be no ‘just.’ You are the children of the present generation who have the power to do something meaningful in the world. We believe that children are powerful, that’s why we are supporting you,” Fukuta told students at the opening ceremony.

Local student May Ann Pabria, 13, said she had grown excited about going to school.

“Before, our classrooms were mere huts, made only of bamboo. So we couldn’t really concentrate because we were distracted by the activities outside. And when it rained, we got wet. The only thing I will miss from that old classroom is the fresh air,” Pabria said. “With our new (building), we have enough space, new seats, a toilet, and even a shelf for our books.”

School Principal Carmelo Tangonan said the number of students has increased since the first building was inaugurated last year. The school now has nearly 400 students, up from fewer than 300 the previous year. He said he was particularly grateful to the Japanese donors because “twice, we have requested concrete school buildings from our congressman, and twice we failed.”

“I hope our next concrete classrooms will be funded by the Philippine government,” he said.

Kentaro Yamane of the Japanese Embassy in Manila said he hopes that “through the Japanese assistance, children in Mindanao will grow up to become promising and brilliant leaders in various fields and further enhance the friendly bilateral relationship.”

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