Healthcare and beliefs in the Badjao tribe

We would like to extend our thanks to both Venerva and Janice who sat and told each of us their stories throughout our time spent with the Badjao. Venerva and Janice have both given full permission to share their stories here.

By Hannah Coady

In a perfect world, losing a loved one or battling an illness are the most difficult experiences anyone can face. Imagine facing that hardship while struggling to afford basic needs, like food and clean water, on a daily basis. The possibility of being treated for a terminal illness is overshadowed by having to respect the beliefs of your elders or partner for a lot of the Badjao community.
Although many Badjao’s attend regular, mainstream doctors visits, they often return home having been told they’re fine. In cases like that the Badjao perform healing rituals, believing their soul will be their true healer. Due to the lack of nutrients and vitamins within the Badjao diet- as well as the constant risk of high fever from consuming dirty water- the Badjao youth have very low immune systems. If they’re unwell with a headache, a tape called salonpas is applied to the temples and forehead. If the illness is more severe, Pakansumangat will take place. This is when the healing elders visit the patients and perform a ritual that supposedly heals their soul.
If you happen to be a person that believes in modern medicine but can’t afford it, the health centre provides care to the community once a year. Think of all the ups and downs young children go through in a year of life. The Badjao children don’t have the luxury of constant self-care. The best option for them is to hope that their parents can take care of them.
With all that being said, the strength and resilience of the Badjao community is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Behind such a fantastic amount of positivity, they deal with heartbreaking tragedies everyday. That’s one of the many reasons I’m inspired by people like Venerva and Janice, along with every teacher in the Nano Nagle school.
In 2016, Venerva’s life was turned upside down when her daughter, aged 7, was diagnosed with a terminal illness. At first they thought it was a case of tuberculosis but after testing her bone marrow they shortly realised how severe her condition was. Venerva strongly believes in science and modern medicine and of course wanted to do any treatment that would save her little girl. Chemotherapy was suggested by the doctors and they wanted her to start immediately. Of course with such a big decision Venerva discussed everything with her husband and mother so they could decide as a family. Venerva’s husband and mother are very traditional Badjao’s and decided that treatment wasn’t the best thing to do. He didn’t think his daughter should lose her hair, become frail and not look like herself when she passed away.
Venerva had no choice but to respect her husband’s beliefs. For the last 4 months of her life, her daughter lived at home. She constantly asked her; why can’t I go and play with the other children and why can’t I eat the food I like? Venerva decided then to give her daughter everything she wanted. They went to Jollybee and ate as much as they could and went to playgrounds, but all of this was overshadowed by the fact that She was always getting sicker. The healing rituals weren’t working, nothing was. Venerva felt and still feels responsible. She believes, as many Badjao do, that she didn’t struggle enough as a child or teenager. Because she lived a happy life and had a happy marriage, she was being cursed with this heartbreak. After the death of her daughter, Venerva found it difficult to leave the house. Instead of medicating or spiralling into self-hatred, she began helping the other children in the community. She attended seminars on how to deal with the grief, all while feeling like she was to blame.
Venerva says she gets through each day by remembering that she still has so much and so many people that care about her. I’m so proud to say that I’m one of those people. As she told me; if you are lucky enough to feel love then you will always have to feel pain.
Janice is facing a similar struggle with her husband who has stage five cancer. Janice is also a teacher in the community, and one of the most genuinely happy people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. Janice’s husband suffers with diabetes, which is a manageable disease- when you have the means to do so. He needs 2 insulin injections per day in order to live pain free. Having the necessary payments for this is near impossible for their family. Because of this, he was taken into hospital last year and has rarely been out since. He was struggling to breathe and with 2 children under the age of 8, Janice had to send them away from their father’s bedside.
Of course, her children couldn’t understand why Daddy was so sick, all they could do was ask Janice to tell him not to go yet. They weren’t ready to lose him, but how can anyone ever be ready for that? During her daily hospital visits, Janice is also taking her children to school, supporting her husband through his trauma and working to pay the weekly 2,600 peso that is needed to pay for the dialysis he’s undergoing. Every morning at 3am, she wakes up to begin cooking food to sell at her market stall. Janice works there until 6am and goes home to do the household chores and care for her children. She then goes to work in the school until 4pm before going back to the hospital. This may seem like a lot to us, but for Janice it’s nothing new. At 14 after losing her grandparents, Janice began working to provide for her younger sister so she would have the opportunity to finish school. She didn’t second guess sacrificing her own education for the good of her sister, just like she didn’t second guess giving her life to caring for others. Janice decided at the beginning of her husband’s illness that they would make the most of each and every day, because their children need their parents. Having gotten to know her two children, it’s clear how much of their mother is in them as they’re two of the most spectacular kids I’ve ever come across.
I asked Janice how she still remains so positive. She told me that her heart is always heavy, but when she’s at Nano Nagle teaching, she forgets about everything because all she can feel is love and support from her fellow teachers.
Nano Nagle is so much more than a learning centre of a job for Venerva and Janice. It gives everyone that’s involved in it a reason to keep going and find the good in things even in the worst of times. This is all a credit to the amazing staff and students  that spend their time making the Badjao community the place it is today.
This blog was written in 2019 by SERVE volunteer Hannah Coady – who visited members of the Badajo community (Philippines) on the SERVE 2019 Overseas Volunteer Programme. You can follow us on socials & YouTube.