Bavs Ambas

By Jon Verzosa

Bavs Ambas is a petite teacher who loves to laugh and whose laughter can be heard two miles away once triggered.  She’s got a big voice that can bring a foremost curvature to any durable steel.  In more ways than one, she is just like you and me, except her laughter rang deep in the course of her choices and such was once tested in Tawi Tawi a couple of years back when she volunteered to teach the browbeaten and the impoverished and to build a relationship towards the island and stealthily, towards her own self.  Humour played a multifaceted role in her world of zero-electricity, zero-visibility boat rides towards the islets and perhaps interlaced with varying phobias being far away from home and being in an island known as the nucleus of the Abu Sayyaf.  This, somehow, is when hard laughter becomes a friend and educates us all of its ability to unconsciously defy trials no matter how gruelling.  Or is it merely a leap of faith? Or luck?


This is an interview of a petite young woman whose colossal universe cored on moral compulsion and her insuperable fight to edify the young mind, make it strong enough to combat cruelty and perhaps, to expunge the myth that poverty is an obstacle to good education.


Tell us about Tawi Tawi.


“Tawi-Tawi is located at the southernmost tip of the Philippines. The name of Tawi-Tawi is a projection of the Malay word “jauh” meaning “far.” Antediluvian travellers from the Asian mainland would repeat the word as “jaui-jaui” to mean “far away” because of the distance of the islands from the continent of Asia.


I qualified as U.P. Gurong Pahinungod (a volunteer group of U.P. Tacloban) and was assigned in Panglima Sugala, Tawi-Tawi in 2000 as a Secondary school teacher at Batu-Batu National High school.  I handled

Local transportation boats of Tawi Tawi



computer, MAPEH and Social Studies. It was difficult on my part convincing my family that I was going to the place (Mindanao) where Abu Sayyaf is an everyday-thing, where bombings were normal and kidnapping is an actual habit. It was a year-contract with a scanty 5K allowance.  During my first month, my partner and I had to schedule Thursday as our “wash”day meaning washing of eyes – crying –  to relieve our homesickness.  Imagine there was no electricity, no water supply (people prayed hard for the rain to come ), no movie theater, no restaurantsand sometimes, no proper soap.  Believe me, I even found myself crying over an April Boy Reginosong because since there was no radio, there was no access for any current music to emote with.  At the time, texting was out of mode and a good network connection is as rare as newspaper. I remember going on top of the roof just to get a clear call from my family and when somebody from the other line says “Hello hello hello . . . Bavs? Bavelle?” it was as if I’ve won the lottery.


Bavs Ambas at work


After a while, I felt fortunate enough to have lived with my foster family Governonr Sadikul Sahali, Ma’am Wandy, our principal, their team and Juana M. Sahali who welcomed me in their home and were all very supportive of me. Our island also has lots of Christians so we had the chance to go and hear mass. Muslims and Christians in Tawi-Tawi live peacefully and amicably together,a notion that is quite the opposite from what is being exposed in the media.


My first year in the island made me realize that I can survive outside my comfort zone. I learned to appreciate life more. Puwede pala akong mabuhay ng walangelectric fan, casette player or TV and other things na parang noon malaking problema na kapag hindi ito ma provide sa akin. Pwede pala akong uminom ng tubig ulan na nilagyan ng ice na tubig ulan din. Not only did I learn their very diverse culture but also learned the precise way of eating using only my hand minus the utensils.

Thanks to homesickness, I went back to playing the guitar, something that I neglected doing when I was in college.  I organized a cultural group I called SAHAYA, which in Tausug means rays of the sun.  After the classroom lectures, my students and I would gather to sing songs and dance to them too. Personally, it became a spiritual therapy for me just looking at them embracing their own culture, singing and dancing their own rhythm and melodies.  It wasn’t long until the group was already joining local contests.


However, during these programs, there have been sleepless nights of training students, stretching my neck and wreaking havoc on my vocal chords just to giveinstructions to 500+ students during field demonstrationsand street dancing– obviously the downside of having no electricity was, of course, having no microphone – going to naval base at 5 A.M for vocalization with my students, playing and learning different native musical instruments, teaching my male students to carve  and make their own musical instruments. It was lengthy but it was also gratifying because not only did we teach children how to read and write but also taught them to fancy and respect music, dancing and the arts.  Soon after, I also was alsogiven the opportunity to lead their group indifferent choral competition, both provincial and regional competitionsand madalas, of course, we won.


A student named Tukyl playing the ‘gabbang’ , Tawi Tawi’s local musical instrument



In academics, since I was teaching computer, na walang kuryente mind you, I had a hard time providing my students with hands-on experience since 5pm pa ang ilaw.  Generators in the island is from 5PM to 12 midnight only, so usually, I extend my time para may mga students na makapag hands-on.  Later on, I made matching grant proposals to GEM (Growth With Equity inMindanao, a US Aid organization) to provide our school with an internet connection and other school equipment.  Luckily we were granted.  I remember when my students had their first internet class with me. I surfed the net and showed them Tawi-Tawi. They were amazed!  They realized that their island is known around the world, that there are pictures of Tawi Tawi for the world to see and it looked so beautiful.  I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was able to bring my students to a world apart from their own. That we can build bridges.  I realized na masarap din pa lang kasama kang nangangarap with your students, who were all trying to build their own dreams of looking outside and exploring possibilities outsideTawi-Tawi but at the same time, preserving and enriching their cultural uniqueness.


Teaching became my life and my students became my elemental victuals of inspiration. There were a lot of sad and challenging moments too but my BBNHS family and friends were always there to push me to be strong enough to make my students’ dreams come alive. So, without me being aware of it, my one year contract became eight fruitful years as a volunteer teacher”.



The Pantalan of Batu Batu, Panglima Sugala, in Tawi Tawi



Bavs Ambas is a conventional girl-next-door who adores and collects anything-Snoopy.  She loves music, plays the guitar, loves to laugh and watch slapstick comedy.  She grew up in Manila and Leyte and took up AB Social Science major in Psychology at the University of the Philippines – Visayas Tacloban College.  Her thesis, vehemently tackled on rural violence and the dismal legend of fury in a bucolic commune.  It is, for my part, quite an intriguing link to what she is doing now as a full-blooded adult.


In a rumble of hearty laughter, she said, “I think my childhood, mine was not a perfect one by way,had a lot to do with that. My parents brought me up in a way that freedom played an vital part for me to choose what is right and wrong.  They always allowed me to experience the pain and joy on whatever decision I make and do with my life. They trusted me in a way because probably early on they knew that I was this bratty kid who knows what she wants.  Hahaha.


Bavs Ambas says to parents “Let your children be children. Let them enjoy their childhood to its fullest. Hear them laugh, cry and most importantly, listen to their dreams. When you listen to their stories you’d learn a lot of life’s valuable lessons. Lessons that can, in fact, recreate your own lives.”




As early as 6 years old they have presented to me that the world is harsh, so, I should be prepared, that when I decided to go out and play outside, prepared akong harapin ang nasa labas.  After my parent’s warning, coming home crying and getting an attempt na magpakampi was a big no no.  I was trained to face the consequences of my every action and learn lessons from my own experiences.  Through my ups and downs learning and educating myself with the outside world made me obsessed with people and the differences in people. That each one of us is unique and that being good, as much as being evil, is a choice.  But of course, we need the support that we can get and that starts with family and afterwards with our teachers.  There goes my answer to your question on my thesis. Hahaha.


My parents encouraged me to be of service to others because that’s the only thing I can share with them.  Hindi naman kasi kami mayaman. That’s why I always wanted to share what I have , share my simple joy and happiness, my talents with the young hoping that one day, they too could learn that success is never measured with how much money you have in your pocket  but with the equation that success is how you make other people  happy and inspired.   It is always the relationship that matters.This is why I chose to become a teacher.  Some people may not understand me when I say that this is the best feeling in the world but I have been doing this for years, so, I guess there is, at least, some God out there who is responsible for such sentiment.


Tawi-Tawi is located at the southernmost tip of the Philippines. The name of Tawi-Tawi is a projection of the Malay word “jauh” meaning “far.” Antediluvian travellers from the Asian mainland would repeat the word as “jaui-jaui” to mean “far away” because of the distance of the islands from the continent of Asia.




And I am not even religious!”  Bavs laughed.


“I guess,” she continued, “in the vastness of the heavens, children are the Milky Way of my moral universe.  They don’t only remind me of God but also remind me that I am a child advocate.  I believe that as long as there are children there is still a great hope for our world. So let’s not destroy the life of our children.  We must respect their rights as we would like them to respect ours and let’s all provide a loving home for all of them”.


Admittedly, Bavs associates the origin of minimalism with children.  She said, “Ewan ko, being with children makes life so simple.  Their adoration to little things and their smiles makes my everyday life a bit lighter.  Back in Tawi Tawi, I became specially attached to one girl named Dada, who was five and a deaf-mute.


She’d come to me, down-at-heel and look at me for hours.  One day, I told her to take a bath first before coming over because I was going to give her a special class.  She came back the next day very tidy and sat with me.  It was not easy.  I had to invert my teaching skills and came up with more visuals to be able to transmit messages.  She was energetic and according to her parents, she was trying hard to tell stories every after session with me. Without me knowing it, she was already learning to read my lips. I just taught her how to use pencils and write, draw some figures, told stories and did some colorings. Little did I know, I was already sculpting a child whose flaws she has forgotten because her eyes were opened, simply, by the wonders of life’.


How did your job affect your personal life? Any plans of getting married and having a family of your own?


“For me service to others also means putting your personal life on the second top list.  I guess that’s part of the package. If you’re happy giving services to the community, you tend to forget that days, weeks and years are passing. I have my own personal love life but it still has not reached my “full- blown consciousness”. I still see myself as a run-away- girlfriend, so, I do advice my boyfriend that if he wants this long distance relationship to last, he should not propose marriage because for now it is a mortal sin.  I don’t know how the future as a wife and as a mother is going to be for me.  All I know is that God wants me to be happy and getting married is not a prerequisite to happiness hence, I can stay single and be happy for the rest of my life.


Besides, I still want to visit different tribal groups all over the Philippines and learn their music and dances and given the opportunity, will work and serve special children”.


What is your message to all parents and their children out there?


“Love your parents and your family. Study well because not all are privileged to come to school.  Many children out there, like the ones I taught for eight years in Tawi Tawi, are in dire straits and can barely afford to buy slippers.  Apart from realizing that schooling and education is an opportunity, see to it that you enjoy your childhood as well. Play some more!


For the parents, just let your children be children. Let them enjoy their childhood to its fullest. Hear them laugh, cry and most importantly, listen to their dreams. When you listen to their stories you’d learn a lot of life’s valuable lessons. Lessons that can, in fact, recreate your own lives”.


So how would you want to be remembered?


Bavs once again laughed and said, “Quite simply, Bavelle with the big heart”.

* Floravelle ‘Bavs’ K. Ambas is currently the Pedagogical Head of SOS Children’s VillageinTacloban City, Leyte.



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