A young girl’s morning journeys on foot

ZAMBOANGA DEL NORTE, Philippines — Nestled in a farming village is a wooden house. Its lights flickered in the midst of the night. Inside, elementary students AJ and her elder sister, Alexa, were already up and about, putting in a small plastic container their soaps and shampoos.

In the kitchen, the aroma of rice and dried fish fried in a pan filled the air. “Girls, hurry up! You’ll be late if you don’t take a bath now,” Melecia, 45, their mother, nags.

Carrying the plastic container, the two girls quickly went out and disappeared in the dark. Their giggly voices, splashes of water, and crickets could be heard. Later that day, Melecia explained that her daughters would take a bath a few steps outside their house because they don’t have space in their house where the girls can bathe in privacy. Spring or rainwater, collected in a square cemented box, is the girls’ source of water for bathing.

A few minutes after, the two girls, wrapped in big, worn-out towels and shivering from the cold morning emerged and went straight up to their house to change into their school uniform. Their breakfast and food were already prepared.

As the girls finished their breakfast, AJ’s eyes wandered to the clock on the wall. Time ticked steadily, beckoning that morning was fast approaching. The first rays of sunlight were already tiptoeing through their windows. After their mother fixed their hair, the girls donned their World Vision backpacks and start their day.

“We walk everyday to school,” AJ, 11, says, as she joined three children, her neighbors, who have been waiting for them. “We all walk to school early because we couldn’t afford to ride a motorcycle.”

The motorcycle, locally known as habal-habal, is the only transportation in the village. Riding one would cost around Php250 ($4), one way. With most families earning meagerly from seasonal farm harvests, such costs would consume the budget intended for food and electric bills. Thus, children and adults would walk to the town center.

Beautiful clouds

“Our walk is not easy, especially on rainy days. We would put our things, including our shoes, inside a plastic bag to avoid them getting wet,” AJ says.

The hills are quite risky. There are paths that became so narrow that a wrong move could end one rolling down the ravine. There were steep paths as well that would require physical flexibility.

But the best path is the one that overlooks the farming village against mountain silhouettes engulfed in passing clouds. “Isn’t it beautiful?” one child exclaims.

AJ adds, “On sunny days, we would see beautiful clouds such as that.”

The path, which the villagers considered a shortcut, is an hour and 30 minutes on foot. The long way, though paved, would take more hours to walk.

Teacher Charon shares that many of the children in AJ’s village would really walk to school due to a lack of public transportation and a family’s means to pay for motorcycle rides. “Sometimes, students would absent themselves because they don’t feel like walking,” Charon says.

Once in her class, AJ removed her white slippers, then wore her socks and black school shoes. She didn’t look like she just made an arduous trek to the hills.

House for my parents

AJ is the youngest of three sisters. The family relies on the small salary that her mother, Melecia, gets from being a part-time government worker.

“I’m earning Php300 [$5] a day. If my children would ride a motorcycle to school, we will not have anything to eat,” Melecia shares. Her husband has been on and off from work lately.

Philippine economic officials shared in 2018 that a family of five would need between Php10,000 ($180) to Php40,000 ($730) a month to have a decent living. AJ’s family earns only Php6,000 a month.

Melecia sees AJ as a responsible daughter even if she’s the youngest. “Most of the time, she cooks our food for breakfast or dinner. She would also help sell eggs.”

The eggs that Melecia refers to was a World Vision livelihood project for families in the village. “Families here do not have much livelihood opportunity. So, the organization thought of providing them with chicken poultry that can give them additional income,” Rose Cabasag, Program Officer in Zamboanga del Norte.

The chicken house produces eggs daily. World Vision-assisted families either sell the eggs or for their consumption.

When there are no classes, AJ would go sell eggs in the neighborhood or keep watch of the store, while her mother does the laundry. When they go home, AJ would study or help clean the house. She would also play with other kids at times.

AJ shares that she dreams of changing their family’s life when she graduates and finds work someday. “Even if our house is far from school and despite walking this far everyday, I still go to school because I want to be a teacher someday,” AJ shares, smiling.

“One day, I’ll build a nice house for my parents,” she says.

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