KASAMA Vol. 19 No. 3 / July-August-September 2005 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Education For Life, From Life:
Lessons to be learnt from a strong indigenous tribe in the Philippines

The Aytas, the first native settlers in the Philippines were thought to have arrived some 30,000 to 70,000 years ago. They are from 25 ethnolinguistic groups scattered from Luzon to Mindanao. The over 80,000 Aytas who live in Mount Pinatubo have attracted interest because of their preserved cultural identity. Sydney resident, DEBORAH RUIZ WALL who has an interest in indigenous peoples, came to visit the Aytas recently in Zambales.

Greetings Auntie Deborah Wall

‘LIFE–LONG EDUCATION’ was a catchphrase that appealed to me when I was doing my training in education at Sydney Teachers’ College three decades ago. For me, this meant: (1) one never stops learning, and (2) education that has value is one that has life–long application.

It wasn’t until April 2005 that I came to witness how this basic educational philosophy is being used in effect to re–construct the foundation of a society whose ancestry in the Philippines goes back some 30,000 to 70,000 years.* This realization came to me after I visited my indigenous Filipino friends, the Aytas, in Central Luzon. During my visit, they happened to be holding the first Assembly of the Paaralang Bayan ng mga Ayta ng Zambales (PBAZ) or Folk School of the Aytas of Zambales.
‘Self–determination’, another catchphrase, came to life for me when I saw how the Aytas are applying their learning to determine their own future in a fast changing global economy.

I first met Aytas in 1985 as part of an exposure tour with Australian Teachers Federation members visiting the Philippines hosted by the Philippine counterpart union, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers. In 1985, the year before President Marcos’ government was toppled, our group went to Davao, Bataan, Samar, and Botolan. Our tour’s focus was education but we were also given a broad sketch of Philippine society and economy.

It was in Botolan, Zambales where I first came across Aytas. Zambales is a province in Luzon Island north of Manila. We went to a village called Masikap, and stayed in one of the Aytas’ huts. When we arrived, one of my companions had a fainting spell. No one knew what to do because we were far away from ‘civilization’. The tricycle driver had gone and would not be back till the morning. In those days, there were no cell/mobile phones for instant communication.

Anyway, one of the Aytas came and since I was the only Pilipino language speaker, I was asked if the Australians didn’t mind if they used their local healing method to treat our companion, a Principal from Adelaide High School. The husband of the woman asked me if I thought that was all right. I said that it wouldn’t do any harm. So their healer came with a branch or two, chanted and rubbed my companion’s knees and legs, and immediately, colour came back to her face, as though she came back to life. She rose from the wooden bench where she was lying looking half dead, and was herself amazed at her instant recovery.

In the Philippines, people either go to a qualified medical practitioner or to a ‘hilot’ (local healer), or to both. The following morning in town, my companion asked a practitioner trained in Western medicine to look at her knees and leg, but he couldn’t find anything wrong and suggested an x–ray if she was still concerned. “No, thank you,” she replied thoughtfully. We noted the link between health and education as an issue. Apart from this incident, it occurred to us that indigenous people in Botolan had much to share about their healing techniques and their local herbal medicine.

Most interesting was the literacy program for Aytas sponsored by a missionary order. Sister Fe Villanueva gave us a briefing on their program in Masikap Village which was a mirror image of how mainstream schools taught literacy. We were tactfully informed by our guide that another nun up the mountain used a different approach. It was different because the literacy program was taught not only from the Aytas’ cultural and linguistic background but also from a holistic context: which included understanding the socio–economic environment in which they live.

With lowlanders, the Aytas traded their fruit and vegetable produce from the mountains. Their lack of literacy and numeracy meant that they were most often cheated by middlemen and traders. We were exposed to two different education approaches: one distinctly assimilationist; and another which contained the seeds of political and economic awareness and the possibility of self determination. Upon our return to Australia, participant teachers on the tour gave talks around Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide about the result of our exposure.
My re–acquaintance with the Aytas took place in 1999 when three young Aytas came to Australia on a tour to link up with other indigenous groups and share their stories. I was living in Redfern, inner city Sydney at the time doing research about Aboriginal and non–Aboriginal reconciliation in an urban setting as part of my Graduate Diploma in Ministry (Theology) with the Sydney College of Divinity. The three Ayta visitors were: Epang Domulot, Orosco Cabalic and Tubag Jugatan – ages 15, 17, and 19.

During their visit to Australia, they were accompanied by Sister Carmen Balazo of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM). Sister Carmen, known as Sister Menggay, provided support to the Aytas’ commitment to self determination and self reliance through introducing a liberating educational pedagogy. This pedagogy is the Paulo Freire method of teaching literacy and numeracy with a social context. What was fascinating about her approach was: she did not proselytize.

Sister Menggay’s religious order was meant to complete its task with the Aytas in 1992 but Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 and the Aytas had to go down from their mountain home to lowland resettlements. This was very disruptive because this particular Ayta group, who stuck together under their banner of ‘LAKAS’ (an acronym which collectively means ‘strength’), had to deal with government officials, told where to go and what to do and would have had to merge with other Ayta groups who did not have the same holistic orientation in their training.
LAKAS wanted to return to their mountain home after the eruption, but that was impossible. The place was covered with volcanic ashes (lahar). Sister Menggay through her initiative was able to secure adequate funds to purchase a block of land in Bihawo, Botolan to keep the community together. This did not happen without a struggle, but eventually LAKAS made it. They began by planting trees around the bare 7.5 hectares of land and built their huts for the 155 families that live there now. They also began replanting the mountain, no matter how challenging, on 47.5 hectares of land which LAKAS does not legally own but is under their stewardship.

Is this a land rights issue? There was no land title system thousands of years ago. The government recognizes indigenous people’s ‘ancestral domain’ but what this means in terms of land rights and usage is not entirely clear. A land development plan, for example, still needs to be drawn up. Recognition is a first step, and the rest of what this means in practice is a process that needs to be worked out.

Tubag Jugatan dances to welcome the visitor


LAKAS stands for Lubos na Alyansa ng mga Katutubong Ayta ng Sambales or Negrito Peoples Alliance of Zambales. Formed in 1984 with 45 members from 12 sitios of Barangay Villar and Maguisguis, its main activities were: literacy classes, cooperative building, and training on the rights to ancestral domain. It became a Federation in 1985 and was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1987.
It has been six years since the Ayta Youth visit to Australia, and now I was their visitor. The community gave me a welcome under their wall–less public space. There were speeches and dance presentations. It was a delight to watch very young Aytas do emceeing and performing with hardly any inhibition. Such an inspiration, I thought, for our public speaking classes at TAFE colleges.

At night I was taken to a guest house on the coast in the township of Botolan belonging to another supporter of the community. The guest house is a ‘bahay kubo’ – a nipa hut with bamboo floors, very airy and comfortable as it was situated close to the sea. The Australian Aboriginal circled–room layout for gathering is equivalent to the Aytas’ wall–less open space layout. The basic structure for a gathering is open space under a roof, and posts planted in the ground or cement to hold the roof. The place where we had dinner was a long table under a thatched ceiling directly facing the ocean, so whilst I couldn’t see the ocean then because it was a moonless night, I could hear the waves and feel the sea air envelop us as we chatted and ate the fish, rice and chicken adobo.

The following day was a big day for LAKAS. The first General Assembly of Indigenous Leader Graduates of Paaralang Bayan ng mga Ayta ng Zambales (PBAZ/Folk School of the Aytas of Zambales). PBAZ was formed by the graduates of the Education for Life Foundation (ELF). Some Aytas have travelled overseas to compare notes with folk school systems in Denmark, Australia, Canada and the Americas. Some even had the privilege of meeting Paulo Freire in person in Brazil.


Some Aytas obtained top school achievements resulting in mainstream school administrators altering their perception of Aytas. They are beginning to feel respected and racist thinking and behaviour towards them are gradually disappearing. They told me that local mainstream schools are requesting Aytas to teach their folk dances at their school. Non–Ayta farmers now also request Aytas to give them training in organic farming and leadership. Respect and recognition of indigenous skills and knowledge by the wider society help them regain trust and confidence in their ability to deal with lowlanders on an equal footing. Their experience shows that a ‘bottom–up’ approach to training can make an impact.

The morning of the PBAZ Assembly was spent introducing the officers and the guests (including me), and asking groups to give impromptu presentations – to sing or dance. The afternoon was serious business. It was intended to ask the Assembly to make amendments, if required, and approve their Rules and Policies. Since PBAZ began, 123 Aytas had graduated from a six–week leadership training course (four are deceased). The course is a prerequisite for membership of PBAZ. Upon course completion, they can choose to exercise their newly acquired leadership skills through the seven existing committees: culture and literacy; health and sports; negotiation and advocacy; research, documentation and evaluation; education, information and training; livelihood; finance and membership. Folk education is community rather than individual oriented. Graduates become aware of their larger responsibility, and exercise leadership for and with the community.

I spoke to a few of the guests: the Director for Distance Learning Program, May Rendon Cinco and the local mayor, Rogelio Yap. I can see that the aspirations of the Aytas are realized through their own self determination and negotiation for support with NGOs (non government organizations) like the Education for Life Foundation and the LGOs (local government organizations) represented by the Mayor. The Mayor is able to assist with infrastructure building such as provision of day care centres, support for out–of–school youth, irrigation and regeneration with planting 50,000 seedlings. On health issues he is targeting elimination of tuberculosis and malaria. On funding, he seeks joint venture projects with agencies such as Asian Council for People’s Culture (ACPC).

From having hardly any educational opportunities before Sister Menggay’s Paulo Freire literacy program, LAKAS today prides itself with four university graduates, ten continuing university students, and many high school and primary school children all studying. The focus is not on money but on community building. People who finish their degrees have to serve for two years within the community, and when they start to work outside the community they are expected to contribute a proportion of their income to LAKAS. If anyone marries outside the community, they can only continue to live in the community if their spouse believes in its ethos and is prepared to abide by community precepts. Such measures are intended to ensure that the strength of the community is not undermined.

Ben Jugatan, LAKAS elder and leader


Community Governance is what fascinates and impresses me with LAKAS. Everyone from the age of reason is taught to make decisions collectively and to practise leadership and negotiation skills. LAKAS is very particular about moulding minds right from infancy and being community– minded. There are categories of belonging within the community: the very young (e.g. under six years), primary school age, secondary school age, LAKAS youth, men, women, and the aged. Decisions reached are consolidated at the community level.
Back in Manila, I met Edicio de la Torre who used to be a Society of Divine Word (SVD) priest and whose work on liberation theology I read when I was doing my sociology thesis about church–state relations. He is no longer a priest and is currently the President of the Education for Life Foundation (ELF). ELF initially provided LAKAS the 6–week leadership training course. LAKAS responded to the challenge of conducting its own training based on a train–the–trainer system.

Under President Marcos’ dictatorship, Ed was put in gaol for nine years. Many human rights activists suffered the same fate. These long years in gaol gave Ed the opportunity to think things through. Upon his release from prison in 1986, he thought that while the people had overthrown the dictatorship, much more needed to be done. Popular democracy had to be rebuilt from the ground up. There would need to be a new generation of leaders aware of their rights and ready to defend them. They would need negotiation skills to talk to those holding positions of power and influence. To flesh out his vision, he helped establish the Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD). IPD wanted to develop a comprehensive leadership formation program, which would not only change poor people’s quality of life but include everything that underpins sustainable and equitable development.

Ed discovered during a Popular Education Consultation in 1986 that many people shared his vision. As a result of two conferences, a network called Popular Education for People’s Empowerment (PEPE) was formed. In 1987, Ed attended a conference at Hillerod Hojskole, a school in Denmark, and found himself ‘staring at his dream’: the folkehojskole (or folk school). He found that the idea of a folk school was not new — the Danish in the 1830s had a visionary, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig. Grundtvig’s country in 1783 was in a time of change. Political reforms were taking place. Their national identity was eroding, their monarchy was weakening, their self confidence was being undermined by the loss of territory to Germany. Some of the people were becoming extremely rich, but the majority were poor. The boy, Grundtvig was searching for his own identity. Fortunately he was filled with folk tales and songs of his Nordic tradition by his mother and another elderly woman. He knew who he was, what his roots were, and where he belonged. He dreamt then of helping his people remember their roots through establishing an education for the poor majority, the almue (root word: almuegjort or ‘made to be ignorant’). During Grundtvig’s time, the almue were mostly farmers who were excluded from any political decision–making. The folk school he envisioned would be about life and teach purposeful living. Through storytelling, poetry and song, students would learn about their identity and cultural heritage. They would interact with each other as co–learners. It would be an education for the whole of life.

It took 15 years for this vision to materialize. In 1844, The Rodding Hojskole was founded by Christian Flor, a professor of the Danish language at Cologne University. Other folk schools were founded later in different parts of the country, and now, over 100 folk schools exist in Denmark; 128 in Sweden; 93 in Finland and a few others in Iceland and Faroe Islands.

And so it was in 1987 that Ed de la Torre sent word to IPD about the folkehojskole and how such a school could be established in the Philippines. In 1991, Ed was in the Netherlands. He and his partner, Girlie Villariba wondered whether, with the help of the Danish, it was possible to build a folkehojskole in the Philippines. At this time IPD was experimenting with different leadership formation  programs. Ed and Girlie approached a funding agency, and the result was positive. A proposal was put together within a few days which included the result of village consultations with grassroots leaders as well as with NGOs experienced in popular education. An alternative education system was conceived with the twin aims of empowerment and sustainable development rooted in the community. To encourage the folk school project, the Education for Life Foundation was established.

Ed De La Torre

Girlie Villariba and Marichu C. Antonio were ELF’s first staff. With partnerships as their tools and ideas as their materials, the school was built between 1991 and 1992. ELF’s NGO partners were: the Institute for Popular Democracy which developed
the comprehensive leadership training program; the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement’s program for sustainable development and democratization in rural districts; the Cooperatives Foundation of the Philippines, Inc which organizes cooperatives for the poor; the Center for Urban Community Development which applies these concepts for the urban poor; and Popular Education for People Empowerment, a network of popular educators. With these partners, ELF was able to put up a proposal to Danchurchaid. The proposal was approved, and the funding was to come from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).

The next challenge was the process: how to implement this vision in the Philippine context. It was decided to strengthen the local organizations of the poor sections of rural and urban communities by training their leaders. Before the six–week residential formation course was conducted, there had to be a curriculum. Concepts and themes were drawn up through informal discussions and formal workshops with popular educators, development workers and activists including specialists and resource persons. This phase of the program was called pagbibinhi, or selecting seeds and growing seedlings. The water to nourish the seedlings would be the philosophy of ‘education from life and for life’. The seeds were: people’s empowerment, grassroots leadership, Filipino psychology and culture, ethnicity, nationalism, popular economics, tradition and rituals, gender sensitivity, pluralism, coalition, learning to learn, learning to lead, learning from life and for life, and negotiations.
ELF thought that a story–telling workshop where participants share highlights of their lives and stories of their communities, their values, tradition, the problems they face, and their leadership experiences would be a useful preliminary workshop before participants begin the course. This sharing would be documented and would become part of their training material. This is truly ‘education from life’.

And now ELF’s and LAKAS’ effort has borne fruit. Graduates of the ELF six–week training course have now reaped a new harvest and sown yet another seed: the formation of PBAZ — a folk school for Aytas in Zambales in partnership with LAKAS and ELF. Their goal in having their own school is to be able to lift their quality of life and have a peaceful and progressive community.

In formal schools, young indigenous people often face discrimination and are discouraged from attending classes. In 2003, PBAZ conducted a General Leadership and Alternative Learning System course. Topics covered in the leadership training course included: philosophy and process of learning, presentation of self and ideas, communication to small groups, ecosystem, conflict management, leadership and organization, leadership and empowerment, sports, Ayta culture, and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act.


More seeds can be sown from my meeting with Ed de la Torre. Already we can see a sharing of experiences between indigenous peoples in Australia and in the Philippines on life–long education and alternative learning systems. Ed told me about ‘Biyaheng Ayta’ (Aytas’ journey), a theatre group that travels to various Ayta communities covering themes such as history (elders) and youth (land and dance). Ed is interested to learn about the process involved in certifying indigenous skills such as bolo making or basket–weaving and other indigenous arts and craftwork to give recognition to these practical skills and to ensure that they are not lost.

In Australia, we have had some years of experience now in the application of ‘Recognition for Prior learning’. We also have an indigenous education system: Tranby Aboriginal Cooperative College in Sydney and Nungalinya College, an ecumenical theology college in Darwin. EORA Centre, an Aboriginal College, also exists within the Technical and Further Education Commission in Sydney.

I see that indigenous people from Australia can benefit from seeing how the whole–of–life education process and alternative education system are applied by ELF and PBAZ in a rural setting. I see that indigenous people from the Philippines can learn from the challenges experienced in Australia in setting up an independent indigenous–run educational establishment and how skills from prior learning are recognized and certified.

Before becoming President of ELF, Ed held the position of Director of Technical Education and Schools Development Authority (TESDA). TESDA in the Philippines is similar to TAFE in Australia — a government agency providing technical education and skills development programs. It endeavours to work in partnership with local industry and with people who need particular skills to gain entry into the job market. Perhaps another joint venture is in the offing beginning with sharing of experiences that would benefit both communities across the seas.

It all starts from a vision, imagination, a dream. Seeds to be sown from life, for life.


was born in the Philippines. She is currently a member of the Executive Board of the NSW Reconciliation Council whose aim is to propagate reconciliation between Aboriginal and non–Aboriginal Australians


Padma Perez (1999) ELF Story Book: Paaralang Bayan, Paaralang Buhay, Education for Life Foundation: Quezon City, Philippines.
Salinbuhay, from life, for life, August 2003 No 16.

*NOTE: The exact time of the first appearance of Negritos in the islands is a contentious issue, but it is largely accepted that they represent the most ancient prehistoric peopling of Asia going back as much as 70,000 years. (see