By KEITH BACONGCO
CARMEN, North Cotabato – At 2 a.m. dawn Monday, 14-year old Crislyn Delfin and all other students in Sitio Kalamuhing are already preparing their lunch packs.
They leave their village by foot at 4 a.m. going to the banks of Maridagao River, a long stream of water with a distance of about a kilometer downhill. They are joined by either their fathers or older brothers, who would determine whether they should cross the river or not. The community has only one 15-foot long wooded canoe making it impossible to ferry all the 15 students across the 60-meter wide river.
Sometimes the community banca is not available because some villagers are also using it to catch fish or to go to other villages. Thus, the students have no other choice but to ride on makeshift rafts.
Since the students have to be at school by 7 a.m., the grown-ups assemble a makeshift raft made of three banana stems, which the students use to cross the riverbanks.
Upon reaching the other side of the river, the students have to endure a six-kilometer trek on a rolling trail leading to the center of Barangay Bentangan, a known home of the indigenous peoples belonging to Aromanon Manobo tribe.
Everyday, these are the challenges that the Lumad children endure as they go to school.
As Delfin disembarks from the raft, her pants and a portion of her shirt are already wet after getting soaked in the water.
From the edge of the bank, the children, some of whom are only five years old, start their uphill trek on a 45-degree trail right on the edge of the riverbank.
Delfin admitted that they don’t bring extra clothes because oftentimes, their clothes would just dry up after at least two to three hours of hiking before they could finally reach their school.
“If there are occasions or activities at school that would require certain type of clothes, then that’s the time we would bring extra clothes,” the Grade Nine student said in vernacular.
Meanwhile, Gilbert Solpot, a high school teacher in Bentangan High School for about a decade already, said that some of the students coming from the villages across Maridagao River have already quit.
Solpot believes that some of the children could no longer endure the grueling routine, adding that he had experienced how difficult it was to hike across the mountains going to the remote villages.
“In the past we had a lot of students, but we only had two classrooms. Right now, we have a lot of classrooms, but only a few students were left,” he said in their local dialect.
Solpot, on the other hand, disclosed that whenever a rain is coming, they send their students home ahead especially those who live across the river.
Girlie Villader, the school’s guidance counselor, said that since the students are late on their classes, their academic performance are also affected.
Grade 10 student Shiela Mae Mampurok, 16, broke in tears when she recalled that three other students have already drowned in the river.
Everyday, Mampurok admitted, they are risking their lives crossing the treacherous river. “The trail is slippery, too, especially during rainy days.”
From the riverbank, an open trail cuts through the rolling terrains covered with hip-high cogon grass and cornfields. Some portions are steep that even a horse could hardly make it to the top.
She added that they could not hike on their own pace because they have to look after the younger children.
“There’s a hanging bridge in other sitio, but there is no trail leading there. Besides, it’s about 10 kilometers away if we have to traverse through the mountains,” she lamented.
Hanging bridge, dormitory
Village chief Timuay Dahil Mampurok said that building another hanging bridge linking to Sitio Kalamuhing will not just ease the difficulties of the children going to school but will also ease as the farmer’s burden in transporting their produce.
“We understand that the hanging bridge is very costly. Thus, we are also hoping that a dormitory for the students could somehow reduce their burden because they may go home only at least once a week,” Mampurok said.
However, he believes that the hanging bridge is the ultimate solution saying that even if a dormitory would be built, the children would still face the risk of drowning as they have to cross the river going home.