Randy Halasan. File Photo.
MANILA -- Randy Halasan spends close to seven hours to reach the school in the remote village of Malamba in the southern Philippine city of Davao where he is assigned to teach.
The 32-year-old, who grew up and lives in the city proper, has endured the difficult travel -- first, by a two-hour bus ride; then, by a 30-minute motorcycle ride along rough roads; and finally, a four-hour hike over mountains and through two dangerous rivers -- over the last seven years.
"I was very nervous. It was a nightmare for me because there was no electricity, no cellphone signal, and the distance is very far from the city," Halasan said in recalling his initial reaction in 2007 when he was offered a permanent teaching position at the Pegalongan Elementary School. It was for the same reasons that his family had also objected to his assignment.
Being assigned at a school nestled in a tribal community, that of the Matigsalug, makes the job more challenging "because you have to understand and adopt their culture," he said.
"But I had no choice. The vacant position at that time was only in Pegalongan. So if I wanted to get the item, I had to get assigned in Pegalongan," Halasan, who earned his education degree in 2003, told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
Deeply involved now not just as the principal of the school but also as initiator of various projects in the Matigsalug tribal community, Halasan was recognized as one of the six recipients of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Awards, touted as Asia's Nobel Prize.
According to the Philippine-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Halasan will receive the award for Emergent Leadership for "his purposeful dedication in nurturing his Matigsalug students and their community to transform their lives through quality education and sustainable livelihoods, doing so in ways that respect their uniqueness and preserve their integrity as indigenous peoples in a modernizing Philippines."
The award, which will be conferred on Aug. 31 in the capital Manila, is in honor of former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay who is known for his selfless service, especially to the masses. Magsaysay died in a plane crash in the central Philippines in 1957.
"I interact with the people, (and ask them) what their problems are. (I engage) in interpersonal communication. When he was president, he was the one who went into the communities, and Malacanang (the Presidential Palace) was open to the public," Halasan said when asked what traits of Magsaysay he admires the most and he can identify himself with.
Halasan recalled that when he first arrived at Pegalongan Elementary School, there were only two classrooms, with almost 80 grade school students taking turns in using them. He handles pupils of grades 1 and 2, while another teacher groups grades 3, 4 and 5 students in a single class.
But as friut of his persistent appeals to higher authorities, the school now has nine concrete classrooms, enough to accommodate its 175 grade school and around 50 high school students. The number of teachers has also grown to seven.
Halasan stressed that to preserve the tribe's culture amid the introduction of mainstream education, the school curriculum has been designed such that these indigenous peoples' basic practices and traditions are integrated in the various courses.
Looking ahead, he hopes that a course on agriculture and forestry will be offered to senior high school students so they can make use of and develop their area's natural resources in the future, benefiting their own tribe.
"Honestly, they want to go to the city proper and find jobs there. But I told them, they have this land, and it will be very productive if they develop it. There's a lot of money here," Halasan said of his students.
The same regard for the tribe's rich natural resources prompted Halasan to extend his influence to the community by encouraging them to maximize their land's potential, and also to correct unhealthy and non-sustainable traditional practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture.
"When I focused only on education, I saw that poverty is still there. So even if you are a good teacher in the four corners of the classroom, and yet, when you go outside, you see many hardships in the community, it shows there's a need for improvement beyond the level of education," Halasan said.
He said that on his own initiative, he was able to encourage the tribal leaders to organize in 2011 the Pegalongan Farmers Association, which got the entire community engaged in more productive activities like planting durable crops and other plants such as cacao, coffee, and rubber, maintaining nurseries for these, and allocating portions of their land for Narra tree plantation under the government's national greening program.
The association also owns and runs the community's rice and corn mills.
"My advocacy is to fight poverty there by making their land more productive...Time will come, they will be selling their products, and they can become exporters of cacao and coffee," Halasan said.
To realize this, and to assure the safety of his students and his fellow teachers, as well as himself, Halasan prays that a hanging foot bridge will be constructed each over the dangerous Simod and Davao Rivers where they all cross to get into and out of Pegalongan. He said the bridges will also encourage more children in the nearby mountains to enroll in school.
Halasan also wishes that the community of about 70 families gets solar panels and other innovative technologies to help boost the potentials of the people.
As for their traditions, Halasan said more efforts are needed to persuade the tribe to give up early, arranged marriages. He admits the community was able to accept some of the changes he had introduced over the years because their leaders were convinced of his good intentions.
"At the end of the day, you can't be there permanently because you're not part of the tribe. But the important thing is, you taught them something so they can survive, so they can sustain their education and the values you've contributed," Halasan said.
Uncertain yet on when his assignment in Pegalongan will end, something that is no longer an issue with his family, Halasan discloses his goal is that by the year 2020, "there will be no more hunger" there.
"What I think of is not the awards or recognition, but that, when I leave that place, I'm very happy that they all learned, already prepared, and what we have started there will not go to waste," Halasan said.