The Hard Task On The Ground

An Interview with Bro. Arnel Alcober, CMF

Working in a totally different culture is no easy task. Claretian Bro. Arnel Alcober, who has been working with the Bajau of Basilan, shares his experience and the challenges he encounters as a missionary. Bro. Arnel also sheds light on the culture of the Bajau, an often misunderstood and neglected group of people.

What is your work with the Bajau?
At the moment we focus on community organizing and education because the Bajau are unorganized, their traditional community structure, if there was, is already gone. They are more organized now as clans, but there is no inter-clan structure.

As an outsider, how did you enter into their lives?
By spending more time with them. When I started, I stayed with them on an average of three days a week. I spent time with them. I talked to them about everything under the sun. I first tried to learn the language. I observed that only few people know their language. When I learned their language, they were amused. They feel that I am not so different from them and they become closer to me. They feel that I am not alien to them.

How did you adapt?
I stayed with them. I honestly attempted to understand the context of their situation until I realized that they don’t have the choice like I have. I can choose to have clean clothes everyday. They don’t have that choice. Although they know that it is necessary to be clean, they can’t afford to buy soap and they don’t have water. We make them aware of their health condition by teaching them proper hygiene and introducing basic health care.

Has their economic status changed over the years?
Their staple food is cassava but they usually buy rice for the children if they have money. If they do not have rice, it would mean that life is really hard because they could not afford to feed the children. The older ones look at rice as dessert. If they have rice, they prepare congee and eat it after meals. That means that life is good and they can afford some luxury.

Why are they afraid of the Muslims?
It’s historical. Since time immemorial, the Bajau in the southern Philippines have always been under the control of the dominant Tausug tribe. Because of the feudal relationship, the Bajau looked up to the Tausugs who treat them unjustly. The Bajau live in an environment
surrounded by a dominant Muslim culture. That’s why they always associate or blame threats and abuses on the Muslim community, although it’s mostly only the Tausug or pirates who abused them in the past.

Are you not intervening in their culture with your work?
Definitely. What we are doing are interventions. But whether it is politically correct or incorrect, that’s an open-ended question. What we are doing is help them adapt to the changing society so that they will not always be in the periphery and be marginalized. That’s our basic
thrust.

Are they not hesitant to change?
In the beginning, of course they were. Because what we are doing is outside intervention, there was some form of resistance. It’s part of their culture. But lately, we have observed a lot of indicators
of openness to change.

What have the Claretians done in the community?
In Teheman (in Maluso, Basilan), we had a housing project, livelihood
assistance for them to have boats and we built a footbridge. Then we started a literacy project for children; we have kindergarten classes.
Today, we focus on organizing the community and supporting the education of children. For example, they have now a more positive view of education. They are the ones who are bringing their children to us. They are asking us to help their children enter school.

How do you practice your being a missionary? Were you not accused of preaching or proselytizing?
Definitely it is not our intention to convert them. That we are preaching? In some way, yes. In a different language and categories.
We simply don’t talk about Christ to them, but the way we work for
communion, we work for unity, justice – these are elements of the Christian faith that we call with a lot of other names.

How do the Muslims look at what you are doing?
I haven’t heard of any charges of proselytizing. The most negative
comment that I heard from a few Muslims is, “Why are these Christians
disturbing people who opt to be silent?” In fact, we got more negative comments from Christians than from Muslims. Some Christians expressed certain jealousy with our work with the Bajau. The Muslims tolerate our presence. They don’t look at us as a threat. We are also very careful. For example, we avoid teaching the children Christian songs because it could create wrong impressions. We don’t teach them Christian prayers. We have spontaneous prayers. During meeting with Muslim leaders, we pray with them.

What is still to be done?
Now that the community is slowly being organized and they already
have a semblance of a community structure and the children are in school, the more immediate thing to be done is to provide alternative sources of livelihood. The Bajau still fish in the traditional way even if it is no longer sustainable. If the situation continues, they will not survive only by fishing. We tried to experiment with alternative livelihoods like mussels culture, but we did not pursue it because they are afraid to live near the mangroves. We tried duck-raising but although they love to eat eggs, they don’t like the smell of the ducks.
There is also a need to consolidate the gains in the community through
tangible structures or symbols of development like footbridges, houses
and basic services like health and recreation centers.
There is much to be done.

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