He was 7 years old when he came to Davao with an uncle who was blind and needed assistance. It became his home for the next 8 years of his life. Shortly after arriving there, a couple took notice of him while sitting in front of the church beside his uncle who was playing an instrument, his means of livelihood. Perhaps feeling sorry for the innocent, young Jeffrey, they offered him to come and live with them. The uncle agreed it was to the boy’s best interest and let him go.
Jeffrey knows them as Atty. Dodong and Len Len Fernandez. They were childless. He fondly calls them Tay and Nay. Watching him talk about those years with them, it’s easy to tell that his foster parents treated him very kindly. They clothed him, fed him well, gave him a room next to theirs, watched him ride his first bike, taught him night after night how to read and write (in Tagalog). He also can’t forget enjoying a jacuzzi with his Nay and Tay (we just presumed it’s a jacuzzi since he described it as “kanang lingin nga nay tubig nga magbula-bula”.) In short, he was treated very well. Almost like a son. A well-loved son.
Everything was going well for the young lad until such plans arose for this couple to move to Manila and Jeffrey, of course, was going with them. Only then did it occur to him that he needed to see his parents first before going any farther. They had no idea where he was all this time. And so, 8 years after he disappeared from Sitio Tibugawan, he made his way back into the mountains. Looking much like a boy from the city, hardly no one recognized him when he finally showed up but that didn’t matter. He was happy to see his parents and siblings again and that night when it was time to settle for bed, he said, he made sure to sleep between his parents.
He was planning to stay for a week at most before heading back to Davao and onto Manila but what he didn’t see coming was that 3 days into his visit, he would be coaxed into marriage. Fixed marriages (buya) is part of the Manobo culture. Children as young as 9 or 10 could be forced into marriage. But the main reason why his parents hurriedly made him do it was they didn’t want to lose him again. They wouldn’t hear him. He was all of 14 years old when the marriage took place of which he couldn’t do anything. To refuse could mean death in his family. He never made it back to Davao. He never made it back to school. To his foster parents who probably waited for days. He was totally crushed. He thought of ending his life several times, of running away and of killing his own father.
He went through hell picking up his life after that fateful day. He had to relearn living the ways of a Manobo lumad — to hunt for food, to sleep without a mattress on very dark nights, to eat camote for days when food is scarce, to walk on foot for hours or days into the jungle or the sentro. He also learned to look out for his life because life, especially in the mountains, could end rather quickly. When at last he finally accepted his fate and was ready to move on, the very first thing he did was visit the Seventh Day Adventist school, Mountain View College, who used to run the mission school in Tibugawan years back and plead with the administrator to open the school again. He did it primarily for his siblings to be able to attend school, albeit a non-formal one. He also began to find ways to earn in order to support not only his immediate family but two more families under his care. Today Jeffrey is a well-adjusted, well-respected, very capable young man in his community. He still thinks of his foster parents every day and what he would have been by now — maybe a student in high-school. Yet he also appreciates the fact that had he not returned, his siblings who mean so much to him, would have all been in a sorry state, married at a tender age. (One of his siblings, a sister died giving birth at age 11) He has since stopped his parents from fixing his siblings into marriage. He has known how hard it is to be married without the desire to or knowing anything of raising a family and doesn’t want any more of his siblings to go through the same. He wants them to be educated and will do everything in his capacity to send them all to school.
Jeffrey is proud of being a Lumad. He has the blood of a fearless Manobo warrior. Yet, he also sees the need for a change to better their lives (starting with education) and that is exactly what he is doing at present.