Today I depart for Kuching. I don't have many expectations for the trip, but it is my first time going to East Malaysia and living, for an an extended period of time, in an Orang Asal village. I'll be part of an expedition called 'Impian Sarawak'. Frankly speaking, it is a politically sponsored volunteer program to visit a village and assist in the building of a gravity feed water system while having an opportunity to live amongst the villagers there. I hope to observe and learn about how they live and carry out their respective responsibilities. At the same time, this is a momentous occasion for Malaysian history, insofar as 'change' is concerned. I hope that as ambassadors of a growing movement for change and as fellow Malaysians who are committed to bring about systemic change, we can bring that care and genuine support to the villagers. As we identify with their problems and plight, I hope that I can personally find a common ground on which I can fight alongside them and advocate their cause. This is a side of Malaysia which I'm keen to explore -the diverse and rich cultures which populate the jungles are constantly being neglected and they simply deserve a lot more than what they're receiving now.
In this account of my experience, I also hope to stay away from romanticizing the Orang Asal. As an urbanite, the pace of life and frame of mind may prove to be very different from what I'm accustomed to and I hope to dispel any romantic notions of 'village life', so to speak. So I hope to close that gap between what I perceive to be 'city-living' and what it actually means to live in a rural 'kampung'. As I absorb the various sights and sounds of village life and as I live among them, even for a very brief period, I seek to learn and internalize the many lessons of the Bidayuh.
The flight to Kuching was uneventful, but the descent into Sarawak was breathtaking - majestic rivers, lush and green vegetation, mountainous peaks obscured by thick carpets of cloud and hints of urban sprawl when the plane neared Kuching. The rivers and estuaries snaked through the lands and I spotted robust development along the river banks: ports, planned housing, warehouses and wharves. I was traveling with a group of DAP interns, and we are arriving two days after the initial group of volunteers, who have already entered the village before us. We were picked up by a driver who introduced himself as Joary, a villager from Kampung Sait. We would later learn that he faithfully followed the PKR candidate around during GE-13, and despite the discouraging loss, still continues to fight for change. Joary is a man of few words, and one can sense a steely resolve in him, that he will persist in his advocacy and efforts to do whatever is necessary so that the needs of his Kampung can be met.
Prior to the trip, I haven't done a geographical study on the village and its location, but the Bengoh Dam is south of Kuching, near the Malaysia-Indonesia border. From the dam, we alighted from our vehicle and continued to rest of the journey into the village on foot - there was simply no other way into the village. The Bengoh Dam is another government project constructed to fulfill Kuching's growing demand for water, and the catchment area of this Dam includes the village which we will be visiting. The Dam is not fully operational or flooded yet, and its quite evident that its environmental impact is massive, since many Bidayuh villages were asked to vacate their ancestral lands and move to resettlement schemes. This is the sort of inequity which angers the villagers and their cries are often unheeded. Is this the direction of modernity and so called 'development'? Causing injustice and dislocation to communities who have lived for so many years?
I've read about dams and like other educated intelligentsia from the city, our perception of dams are framed by textbooks, newspaper reports and perhaps the occasional activist conversation. Indeed, the existence of dams seems quite necessary to quench our insatiable demand for water. As I stare at Bengoh Dam and hear the thunderous waves of the river down below, I was ashamed. Ashamed by the idea that my want has stripped many of their needs.
I was an overcast day and there had been a vicious tropical storm right before we started our trek. The air was cool and calm as we strapped up our backpacks and gear before braving the jungle. The launching point at Bengoh Dam was elevated, and the trek was estimated to be two hours. The path is well-trodden, since this is the only access through which villagers interact with the outside world, when they bring their produce to the market to exchange for goods, which they will have to laboriously haul back to their village. The paths were treacherously slippery with eroded soil and mossy stones, and it doesn't help that the terrain is gradient. The flattened bamboo which make up improvised steps glistened with moisture and one must pay close attention to footing and balance. As I tried to make my way along these paths, I grew to admire the dexterity and adept footwork of a villager who walked ahead of me. He was carrying a gallon of fuel, slung across his shoulder, and it was clear that trekking these paths was second nature to him. We both wore a pair of versatile and durable rubber shoes nicknamed 'Kampung Adidas' which had excellent group and well-suited for these paths which are unforgiving to an urbanite like me. I challenged myself to keep up with his pace. This would later prove to be a foolish decision.
The suspended bamboo bridges were the most formidable parts of the entire journey. At a width of two to three bamboo poles and supported by bamboo handrails, these bridges were suspended above the ground, as high as 15 meters, across several rivers and they were secured by two lengths of rope tied to trees at each end of the bridge. These bridges were built by the Bidayuh villages and maintained by its respective representatives each year or whenever repairs have to be made. It has been done since their ancestors and it allows for convenient and speedy passages across the river. Speedy, of course, did not apply to my pace as I crossed one of these bridges for the first time. As I clung onto the handrails for my life and inched ever so slowly across, the villager who was ahead of me walked across the bridge at a breakneck speed without holding on the handrails. The bridge shook and creaked beneath the weight of my body and gear, while the torrential currents of the river reminded me of my fate should I slip and fall of the bridge.
My earlier decision to keep up with the villager meant that I had decided to pull away from the group I was part of. Now that he is nowhere to be seen, I sat at the fork of the road and waited for the rest of my team. However, my impatience got the better of me and before long I met two villagers from Kampung Sait Lama and consulted them for directions to Kg. Sait. I was motivated to complete the journey on my own for two reasons: I wanted to experience walking into a village in solitude and secondly I wanted to enjoy the trek with a peace of mind. I'm glad to say that I accomplished both. I didn't get lost though admittedly I made my teammates worried and I was irresponsible for doing so.
The scenery was beautiful. Along the way, the canopies of dense tropical rainforest gradually opened up to reveal rolling green hills blanketed by fog. Row upon row of plantation crops stood guard on the slopes of these hills, and like specters, watched over the path. I saluted the many trees, all tall and strong, proud guardians of the jungle's ancestral memory. As I attempted to absorb this aesthetic and sensory overload of colours, I started to entertain the notion that the Creator probably spent just a little extra time and attention on this masterpiece which lay before my eyes. Hues of green and splashes of blue provided a stark contrast with the grey skies; indeed, the serene and tranquil character of the hills seemed to whisper its storied past to me, as I traversed the winding pathway onwards to the village.
The prospect of getting lost was always in the back of my mind as I pressed on, but all of this dissipated when I turned a corner and saw the village. What a sight to behold! There was smoke rising in the air and the houses were built on hilly terrain. They were wooden houses, some with colored roofs, each of them built in a unique configuration with some infused creativity but all adhering to a few principles which conformed to the architecture: sloped zinc roofs, spacious verandahs, porches and areas to rear livestock. As I walked into the village, I attracted curious glances from the villagers sitting on their porches. I smiled and waved to them and they reciprocated with a nod and smile. I was greeted by a middle-aged lady with her children.
" Ke mana kamu pergi?"
Her children ran behind her, gazing at me with their big, bright eyes. I didn't really know where I was supposed to go.
" Saya sukarelawan. Nampak tak kawan-kawan saya?"
I figured she would've seen my friends. She threw a few more seeds to the chickens.
" Ada, mereka di rumah hujung sana, naik bukit ini." A young male villager descended the steps and she pointed at him and she told me to follow him. I thanked her and followed him to meet the volunteers. I encountered a group of young to middle aged males all having a drink and some food in the porch. They looked at me intently.
" Selamat petang!"
They smiled and returned my greeting, before asking if I was alone and I replied that my friends were still behind me. I could sense some incredulity or perhaps a glimmer of respect that I chose to complete my journey on my own, or maybe they were being cynical about my foolish decision which could've gotten me lost in the jungle. Having arrived at the home of Kak Keros, who hosted volunteer gatherings in her home, I was introduced to the rest of the volunteers. Later, we were briefed about the scope of the work which we will participate in, which firstly to clean out certain areas of the makeshift dam where reinforced cement bulwarks will be erected and secondly, dig trenches to bury the pipelines which will bring water from the dam upstream into the village. The water feed system is gravity based, with a pressure gauge and multiple valves to control the flow into the village. There has been a water problem in this village, specially during the dry season, where the reservoir will dry up and the villagers will be forced to carry water from the river or do their washing there. Furthermore, the many cases of pipe leakages threatens the constant supply of clean, potable water for these villagers.
We were also brief by a community member, Kak Kibbit, about the current difficulties which they face on a daily basis. These villagers have been simply cheated by the government, who promised them basic amenities and benefits such as a road if they agree to the construction of the Bengoh Dam. These empty promises were not the end of it, the government then asked them to move from their village to a new resettlement scheme, whereby up to 70% of the home's value will be compensated by the government. The villagers had no intention to move and even if they did, how will they even afford to pay 30% of a RM90,000 home? They were evicted from their ancestral land and some 24 families chose to resist this intimidation and built this new kampung: Kampung Sait Muk Ayun. To add insult to injury, they have been ostracized by the villagers who agreed with the relocation and labelled as pembangkang, or the opposition. I believe that pembangkang still has a negative connotation attached to it in this part of the world, so the villagers felt vilified and now they were trying to make the best out of their situation here in the new village. It's quite obvious that the government has failed to provide basic needs, let alone the care and support for the people of Sarawak. It dawned on me gradually that Impian Sarawak very much needed and justified if we are to call Malaysia an equitable, just and representative democracy.
The villagers of Sait Muk Ayun are constantly threatened and intimidated with the prospect of losing their lands and homes by a government intent on clenching on to its corrupt ways here. They oppress and cajole to win votes before disappearing after the elections, only to return again five years later to repeat this vicious cycle. Water and relocation are only two of the many issues which affect the villagers. Education is another source of worry for the village because not only is it difficult for children to travel to their schools, the government has threatened to close down the school if the parents don't acquiesce to the resettlement scheme. Do the members of this Bidayuh community deserve the rule of obstinate and inconsiderate leaders? Absolutely not.
The first day concluded with some further sharing and we met our host family, Pak Rusa and Mak Koloi. Their house was perched on a small cliff at the entrance to the village, and they provided us so graciously with mattresses and pillows in the living area. We were moved by the kindness and warm hospitality shown by them, especially when we are visiting the kampung as outsiders but were received with open arms and unconditional trust.
I'm optimistic that Impian Sarawak will succeed in a grand fashion, but this is contingent upon the honesty and genuine attitudes exemplified by all those who are involved.
We are treated with honesty and genuine care, therefore I strongly believe that we must reciprocate with exactly that.