Coming from a tribe which has long been isolated in the mountains, Juda Diklay, 25, a member of the Tau’t Bato tribe in Palawan province, found it difficult to keep pace with her classmates when she first started school after being given an opportunity to study in the city.

Juda was the first in her tribe to attend a formal class, so she had no knowledge on how things work in a school. It took her years before she could adapt to her new environment and connect with people whom she is not familiar with. Being away from home also made it difficult for her to adjust to her new life in the lowland.

Juda experienced many challenges in pursuing her studies, but her burning desire to help her family and to learn and discover the world around her has helped her find the motivation to keep going. After years of hard work, Juda’s perseverance paid off. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education, becoming the first member of the Tau’t Bato tribe to finish college.

Life in the mountains

Tau’t Bato or Taa’wt Bato is a group of people from the Palaw’an tribe who live in Singnapan Valley in Rizal, Palawan. The members of the tribe used to live in caves, the reason they are called Tau’t Bato, which literally means “stone people” or “dwellers of the rock.”

Today, the people of Tau’t Bato tribe live in houses made of light, yet sturdy materials such as saplings or slender tree trunks. While they no longer live in caves like before, they still take shelter in caverns during the rainy season when the valley gets flooded.

The Tau’t Bato peoplerarely go down from the mountains. They survive through gathering wild fruits and growing vegetables, hunting, and planting crops and rice. Their community can only be reached via an eight-hour hike from Barangay Ransang. As they are isolated, members of the tribe do not have access to basic services such as health and education, with children being unable to go to school.

May mga pumupunta pong misyonaryo sa amin para pag-aralin ang mga bata sa baba. Pero, tinatanggihan ng mga magulang dahil iniisip nila na baka mamatay o hindi na makabalik yung mga anak nila” (There are missionaries who go to our community to help children go to school in the lowland. But the parents of the children always decline because they fear that their children might die or might not come back home), Juda said.

It was only Juda’s parents who were convinced to send her and her younger brother, Jonathan, to the lowland to study. Juda and Jonathan were able to study in elementary through the Christian missionary group, Youth with a Mission (YWAM). The group has been visiting the tribe even before Juda was born to share gospels and to encourage parents to send their children to school.

“Noong una, ayaw ko naman talagang sumama doon. Si Jonathan ang mas gustong mag-aral pero sabi ng magulang namin, sumama na lang daw kami pareho kahit ako lang talaga yung gusto nilang isama” (At first, I did not really want to come. It was Jonathan who really wanted to study but our parents told us to come together, even though it was only me whom they invited), she said.

Juda was already 10 years old when she studied in Ransang Elementary School with her brother. She was afraid as she knew it would be difficult for a girl from the mountains to begin a new life in the lowland.   

Turning doubts into motivation

Juda was the oldest in their class, so she found it hard, at first, to socialize with her classmates.

Ang gawain ko lang po kasi noon, papasok sa school tapos uuwi na agad sa bahay tapos school lang ulit. Kaya akala ‘ata nung mga kaklase ko ay masungit ako o suplada” (What I used to do back then was to go to school and then go home afterwards. Then, go to school again. That may be the reason my classmates thought I was snobbish), she said.

Juda eventually gained new friends, but she disclosed that she experienced bullying after her classmates learned that she came from the mountains.

May mga nagsasabi sa akin noon na bakit daw ba ako nag-aaral eh taga-bundok lang naman daw ako. Wala naman daw akong silbi” (There were students who questioned me why I was studying when I was just someone from the mountains. They told me I was good for nothing), she said.

Juda was disheartened. She told herself that after graduating from elementary, she would already go home. But despite being a subject of bullying, she diligently attended her classes, submitted her homeworks on time, and studied hard for examinations.

Little did Juda know that her perseverance has paid off, as she was announced as the class valedictorian. This motivated her to continue to study in high school. YWAM sponsored her high school education and sent her to Puerto Princesa City to study.

Studying in high school also proved to be challenging for Juda. Since it was her first time in a big city, it was hard for her to make new friends. There were also many instances that made her doubt herself and tested her determination, such as when a classmate tore down her project.

During difficult times, Juda admitted that the thought of just going home crossed her mind. Everyday, after school, she would pack her things and weigh the thought of going home. She sometimes asked herself, “Masama bang mangarap ang isang taga-bundok?” (Is it bad for someone from the mountain to dream?)

Juda found comfort during tough times from her friends at YWAM, who kept on motivating her. She shared her experiences and heartaches with them, knowing that they would very well understand her.

Juda turned all her doubts into motivation. Soon, she and her brother, Jonathan, finished high school. Jonathan went back home after graduation, but Juda went on with her journey as a student and pursued college. She admitted feeling anxious at first, but she took the challenge as she was eager to experience and learn new things. Juda took up Bachelor of Elementary Education at the Western Philippines University in Puerto Princesa.

Getting additional support

When Juda was in college, YWAM continued supporting her financially. However, her needs in school continued to increase so there were times when she thought of applying for a job to augment her allowance. She also wanted to send money to her family back home.

“Wala po akong mga libro nun. Nagpapa-photocopy lang ako kapag kailangan naming ng libro. Kapag may project, hihintayin kong matapos mga kaklase ko para ako naman ang makagamit ng libro” (I did not have books then; I just photocopied those of my classmates. Whenever there was a project, I would just wait for my classmates to finish with theirs so I could borrow their books), Juda narrated.

It was during that difficult time when Juda became one of the grantees of the Expanded Students’ Grants-in-Aid Program for Poverty Alleviation (ESGP-PA), which provides educational assistance to poor but deserving students giving priority to Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) beneficiaries who are qualified to enroll in selected State, Universities, and Colleges (SUCs). The program is implemented by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) together with the DSWD through 4Ps, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and SUCs.

As a grantee, Juda was given P30,000 for the first semester to cover for her tuition fees and other school fees such as textbooks, and board and lodging. After buying the things she needed in school, Juda sent her remaining money to her family to help them.  

Soon, Juda’s family, along with many others in their community, became a 4Ps beneficiary in 2010. This enabled her parents to send her other siblings to school.      

According to her, “Napakalaki ng pagbabago sa amin sa Tau’t Bato noong dumating ang programa. Nakapag-aral ang mga bata at nakakapagpacheck-up na sila regularly” (There were changes in our community in Tau’t Bato when the program arrived. Children were able to go to school and avail of regular health check-ups).

Juda’s family became very involved in the program. Her father, being the only one who knows how to read and write in their village, became the Barangay Health Worker (BHW) in Tau’t Bato, tasked to monitor the compliance of their community on the health conditionalities. Meanwhile, Jonathan was able to get a job as a Social Welfare Assistant of the Modified Conditional Cash Transfer (MCCT), a component of 4Ps.

4Ps is a human development program of the national government that invests in the health and education of poor households, particularly of children aged 0 to 18 years old, by providing cash grants to beneficiaries provided that they comply with the set of conditions required by the program.

The first from her tribe

On April 11, 2018, Juda was finally able to get her degree. When asked what she would do after, Juda said, “Babalik po ako sa amin at magtuturo ako doon. Ipapakita ko sa kanila kung gaano kahalaga ang edukasyon” (I would go back to our community to teach. I will show our people how important education is).

Juda plans to teach through the Alternative Learning System (ALS) so all people in their village would have a chance to learn. She vows to use what she learned to improve not only her family’s life but also the lives of other people in her community. She no longer want people to belittle them just because they live in the mountains.

Being the first from her tribe to graduate from college, Juda now serves as an inspiration to the people of Tau’t Bato, proving that education is a key to an improved quality of life. ###