By Ellson Quismorio
Capas, Tarlac – “Pinakamatamis ang pagmamahal ninyo sa amin (Your love for us is the sweetest),” an Aeta elder of Sitio Settler here told millennial volunteers of Project Liwanag.
This elder, known only as ‘Apong’ to visitors like this writer, further showed his appreciation by changing into his best clothes–a red and white striped polo shirt and matching plaid shorts–as he bid goodbye and waved endlessly to the project donors who visited his humble community in the mountains.
Speaking of journeying to the mountains, the katutubo also gave his guests the equivalent of a red carpet welcome by slashing the tall grass on either side of the road and removing by hand large rocks that could block the very narrow path to the sitio.
But what exactly is Apong and the rest of the fellow Aetas being thankful for?
Let there be light
They were given light–the kind that adds productivity to their day as well as more meaning to their lives.
On Saturday, Sitio Settler became the seventh Aeta community in this town to be given electricity through a communal off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) system.
In this case, the P320,000 system produces 1.5 kilowatts of power, which is more than enough to power a light bulb at night for each of the 30 households here.
Marlon Pia, 37, founder of non-profit organization Project Liwanag, said that the system is capable of one week autonomy.
“They can still have light for a week in case the sun doesn’t come out much,” he said.
Sustainability is the byword for Project Liwanag, which began its mission to improve the lives of indigenous people only in 2015.
What took place Saturday was a turnover ceremony, meaning the solar panel array and the battery used to store power now belongs to the 131 residents of sitio Settler.
Pia, one of the formators of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Office for Social Concern and Involvement, underscored the importance of instilling a collective sense of ownership to the locals as far as their electricity source is concerned.
“It will be taken for granted (if there’s no sense of ownership). Individual solar panels might be sold for money. We want to empower the indigenous communities by having them form their own rules and regulations,” he said.
The Aetas themselves built a fence around the solar panel array. The keys to the fence are with the chieftain, 46-year-old Alan Sanchez, Apong’s son.
“Nagpapasalamat kami sa Diyos at dumating kayo maski malayo. Yung pangarap ay namin nandito na (We thank God that you came even if our area is so far. Our dream has arrived),” Sanchez said during the turnover rites.
The “anituan” ritual followed, which involved a cleansing dance for the visitors.
Benz Limsenkeng, 23, a Project Liwanag organizer, said Aeta families usually spend R280 a month for kerosene, their main source of light when the sun goes down.
“Now they only have to pay R20 a month for electricity.”
The R260 saved from kerosene expenses can be life-changing for the mountain-dwellers.
“In the summer you will experience a different kind of poverty. Mayroong araw na hindi sila kumakain (There are days when they don’t eat at all),” shared Pia even as young Aeta kids playfully rolled on the soil.
Before gaining electricity, Sitio Settler had potable water, a community center / church, and not much else.
“Nabubuhay lang kami sa pagsasaka (We only live on farming),” Sanchez said. The crops grown here include gabi (taro), kamote (sweet potatoes), ginger, bananas, guyabano, and langka, but summertime is quite tough for them.
“Kung walang kamote, nakatitig na lang sila (If there’s no kamote, then they won’t eat),” Pia said.
With a glowing light bulb over their heads, the Aetas can now take advantage of things that city folk usually take for granted–they can now see each other at night, for one.
“Pwede na po kaming mag-usap na mga opisyal (We officials can now hold meetings at night),” the chieftain said. Apparently, stories of them bumping into each other at night aren’t exaggerated, given that it literally becomes pitch dark in these areas when the sun falls.
But perhaps the most precious thing Project Liwanag gave to the Aetas is the hope of a better education for their children.
“Makakapag-aral na po ang mga bata sa gabi dahil wala nang dilim (Our children will be able to study at night because there is no more darkness),” Sanchez said.
“Bilang mga katutubo kaya po namin gusto makapag-aral ang aming mga anak ay hindi po namin gusto na matulad sila sa amin na ganito ang buhay. Kung may pinag-aralan sila, alam na po nila ang kabuhayan nila (As indigenous people, we want our children to have an education so that they won’t have the kind of life we have. If they have an education, they will know how to live on their own)”.
According to Pia, the electrification projects here were not supposed to be a continuous effort.
In fact, he and his immersion students from Ateneo de Manila University who came up with the idea was supposed to stop back in June 2015 shortly after lighting their first community in Sitio Yangka.
And then, through the words of a young Aeta who approached them afterward, they realized the true meaning of what they did.
“Thank you, nakakapagbasa na po ako sa gabi. Sana huwag niyo kami kalimutan (Thank you, now I can read at night. Please don’t forget about us),” the Project Liwanag founder quoted the girl, named Lara, as saying.
“That’s when it struck us–We can’t turn our backs to these people. That’s when we registered as an organization,” he recalled.
Project Liwanag Program Head Wellington Co Jr., 23, Apong’s “adopted son” in Settler, gave the latter a big hug after the turnover.
“When you come up here, you will never be able to say goodbye to them. When you’re here in the mountains, you don’t just meet them. You connect with them,” Co said of the appreciative Aetas, adding that they’re “not just friends, they are family.”
“They are like us. We all want to dream. [Apong] got his dream, and I got my dream as well–to make him happy and give him opportunities,” he said.