Day in the Life: Working Abroad During the Summer

Jane Cowan recounts her experience working with the Badjao community

Small skiffs set sail into the warm Pacific water. On these skiffs, fathers of the Badjao tribe prepare for a day of fishing. Back home, mothers and children wait patiently for the return of their husbands and fathers. This is the lived experience of the Badjao tribe. Families bolster each other. The individual looks outward, offering their support wherever they can. And this togetherness sustains the community.

This is where I spent two weeks of my summer working. I was privileged enough to be welcomed into the Badjao community in Davao, the Philippines. Here, I worked with children in the school. I worked there with a small charity, EMBRACE Badjao. The charity works with this sea-faring tribe to provide educational and nutritional support, and medical aid. Poverty, subjugation, and adversity are part of the tribe’s lived experience. But they are resilient.

Their optimism is unwavering, and it was wonderful to witness.

Each morning, when I walked into the school, there was always a warm welcome. “Ahap subu!” (Badjao for good morning) were the first words I was greeted with. I got to the school at 8 every morning. After the initial chaos of greeting the children reached a coda, we began with lessons. The classroom was packed with 50 children of varying ages, so teaching was a challenge. The lessons shifted day-to-day; we usually started with some drawing, then onto language learning. At this point the kids would become restless. Nothing a game of Musical Statues or Simon Says couldn’t solve! The universal appeal of these games was brilliant. The atmosphere in the classroom fizzed with exuberance. We quickly learned the necessity for these games when working with young children: they were always delighted to get out of their chairs.

Once the children looked sufficiently exhausted, we returned to teaching. This is when we taught maths. Volunteers split the children into groups based on age. We familiarised younger children with counting and the number line. Older children were taught about addition, subtraction, and multiplication. We had been told that teaching the children to work with money was especially significant. People often take advantage of the tribe, assume they cannot add and subtract money, and give them incorrect change. So, we tried to be pragmatic in our approach to teaching, and prioritised working with numbers.

Towards the end of each day, we taught a different subject. On one particular day that stands out to me, we taught geography. I took out a laptop and showed the children a map of the world. Pointing out the Philippines was such a special moment. The children had never before been shown exactly where they live. Their eyes broadened, and for the first time that day the classroom quietened. It was such a gift to share that moment with them.

The children finished school at noon. At this time, we made sure each child had a lunch to bring home with them; the lunches consisted of meat and rice. After the children left, the other volunteers and I went to get lunch. We painted the school in the afternoons. The school was built by other volunteers at the beginning of 2023, so there is still some work to do on it. One afternoon, I set up a laptop space for the older children. Laptops had been donated to the charity for use in the school. This was such an exciting facility to bring into the community. These laptops can be used for educational work, but also so that the teenagers could relax and listen to music. A social space for the teenagers is a vital resource in the community, one that they were delighted to receive.

In the late afternoon, we left the school and went to our hotel. We showered, had dinner, and rested. Before bed, we planned out lessons for the following day. Each day working in the school was varied, and challenging. Working with so many children is demanding, particularly when we were so determined to make the most of our short time in the community. But planning our lessons each evening was always an enjoyable task. Leaving the school each afternoon, I always felt enthused to plan for the next day. That is the gift of the Badjao children: their energy is unmatched. Their warmth is difficult to articulate. And it was an utter joy to experience.

I have since arrived back in Ireland, and I am still unravelling the complexities of my experience working with the Badjao tribe. I have been most stuck by the connectedness of the tribe. Coming from Ireland, this was unusual to experience.

Here, we often don’t know our neighbours’ names. But for the tribe, connection is ubiquitous.

Family is utmost. From what I saw, this connection fortifies the community. It gives them the strength to withstand the adversity they are faced with every day. But they do more than that. They thrive in so many ways. Their kindness is relentless. I am indebted to their warmth, generosity, and goodness. We tend to lose sight of some of those attributes in Ireland, and I include myself in this. We can become so distracted by trivialities, consumed by our devices, overlooking what truly matters. But seeing the way that connection ameliorates adversity, I cannot help but think that Ireland could benefit from learning from the Badjao tribe – from the way they interact with the world around them. I know I have gained so much more from the tribe than I could have possibly given. My work in the school has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.