Helping the Badjao on Mindanao

A Toothache Sets the Stage for a Life Dedicated to the Badjao

What started as a toothache ended up taking Joseph Zanetti half way around the world to learn what it meant to be saved. His story shows how the experience changed his life as he ministers to the Badjao people on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

Many people ask me why I have decided to dedicate my life to helping the Badjao. The answer is quite simple. God used them to show me what going to church and listening to countless sermons never could. The story behind this short answer is, of course, a bit more complex.

In August of 1983, I asked Jesus into my heart following an evangelistic crusade that visited my hometown of Eden, and for years afterward, I attended various churches that reassured me I was saved.

For many years, I lived a selfish and reckless life, beginning in high school, during my time in the military, and for the years that followed. All this time, I was thinking that if something were to happen to me, that I would be "OK." After all, I had asked Jesus into my heart, right? I was saved, or so I thought. I had done some good for others during my life, but for the most part, it was always about me! That is, until a trip I took half way around the world to the island of Mindanao in 2011.

My primary reason for visiting Mindanao was a simple toothache. I had been talking online with my friend for over a year and had always wanted to visit, but the expense of the trip was too much for my budget. An off-and-on toothache finally forced me to go to the dentist where I learned that I was going to need to get not just one, but two root canals and crowns. One of course for the tooth that was bothering me and also one for a tooth on the opposite side. The cost to do this was going to run about $4,000.

Ironically, the friend I had been talking with was renting a room from a dentist, so naturally I asked about this procedure and was told that it could be done in the Philippines for around $500. Once I heard this, I decided to check airfare and lodging, which would allow me to get the work done there for far less and allow me to meet my friend in one shot, with change to spare.

It was during this visit that I met the Badjao. They are a water-based tribe that lives on the bounties of the sea or on what is left of it. They are an animistic tribe; however, they do have some Islamic influence since they originated in the Muslim areas of Southeast Asia.

Having lost their traditional fishing grounds due to armed conflict, commercial fishing, pirates, and poachers, the Badjao are left with meager means of livelihood. Extreme poverty has forced many of them to resort to begging as a means of survival. The Badjao are by far the most marginalized and poorest of all of the tribes found in Southeast Asia.

Currently, the literacy rate among the Badjao is less than 10 percent, and fewer than 20 percent have any type of formal education. Very few ever make it to the high school level. Education is the key to their being able to break the cycle of poverty that they have found themselves in.

“Get away from me,” I yelled at the three unrelenting Badjao girls, who after I’d given them a few coins, kept following me on the street asking for more. They probably knew only one thing: that their stomachs were empty and the P5 coins I gave each of them were not enough to buy a few grains of rice for their respective families. Commercial rice of decent quality, by the way, costs around P38 per kilo and up (approximately 90 U.S. cents at an exchange rate of 42 pesos to a dollar).

The girls continued to follow me. They were relentless in tugging at my conscience until I gave in and reached for my pocket in search of some decent amount to spare. The problem was, they were tugging at my shirt, too, and kept poking at my arms.

“Get your dirty hands off me!” This time, I had to raise my voice quite loudly. I was very upset at this point. “Go away!”

What happened next caught me off guard. One of girls asked the other two to give her the coins, and she then attempted to return them to me. One of the coins dropped to the ground into a puddle of water, and I reached down to retrieve it. In doing so, my hands got pretty dirty.

The girl then reached out for the hem of her rainbow colored malong, a traditional “tube skirt” pulled up to her waist. The malong may also be used as a blanket, a turban, a hammock, practically anything within the stretch of one’s creativity and necessity. She used the cleanest part of the cloth to meticulously wipe the dirt and grime off my hands. When she was finished, she just looked at me and smiled.

It was at that very instant that I realized that I had been wrong for so many years. Not just wrong for living the way I had up until that point, but wrong for believing I was a saved, Born-Again Christian. At that very moment, it was like there was nothing or anyone else around. I couldn’t even hear the sound of traffic passing by. It was a very powerful and life-changing moment.

I immediately went to the room I was staying in and with tears rolling, I thanked God for preserving my life until I was able to know the truth. I knew immediately that had I died prior to that meeting with the Badjao children, I would have spent eternity in Hell.

Upon returning to the US, I found it hard to sleep at night, thinking about the children I had meet on the streets during my trip to Mindanao. It did not take long before I decided to sell everything I had and move to the island. I started a feeding program. It soon evolved into my sponsoring some of the children in the public school system and eventually starting a learning center that taught reading, writing, and math.

Sadly, on April 4, 2014, there was a fire that destroyed over 2,000 homes, including the entire village of the Badjao as well as the learning center. Fortunately, there were no deaths or serious injuries resulting from the fire.

Following the fire, the Badjao were located to a refugee camp. Due to the crowded conditions and poor sanitation, there was an outbreak of measles. More than two dozen deaths resulted. Most of the victims were under three years of age. I myself contracted measles, despite being vaccinated as a child.

It is amazing how God works sometimes. It took three children from a pagan tribe half way around the world to show me what a lifetime of going to church and countless pastors could not. And while my salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made for all of us, I owe the Badjao for showing me this. It is for that very reason that I have decided to dedicate the remaining years of my life helping them with education, and livelihood projects. Eventually, I hope they too will receive the same gift I have through Jesus Christ.

Badjao Gallery

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