In explaining to me about a Social Project that my former high school teacher, Mrs Violette Tan, and her small circle of housewives friends started, Mrs Tan casually uttered out a seemingly harmless statement saying: “We are`feeding the hungry’, in contrast to `enhancing the life’ of others…” Little did she realize, a simple sentence like that discomforted me for months because I belong to the latter category she was referring to.
Fascinated by her cause, I sent a list of questions to Mrs Tan about the Penan Project, with the goal of sharing her story on my blog under the category of Cool People (who says teacher can’t be cool?). Mrs Tan obliged, but had not found the chance to respond since, as she was too busy doing the ‘real work’ for her project.
Instead, she invited me to come along to Limbang last week to join her Social visit, where I could witness the answers by myself. I had all my questions answered in that day, with my teacher explaining every detail right beside me (reminiscing the good old days), as we strolled on a few hours drive across the border.
That said, this blog is not about the Q&A we had in the car, as what the examiners always say: Verbal answers don’t count. In life, very rarely do you get the chance to chase your Teachers for homework. When the opportunity arises, never let your teacher off the hook.
If you are reading this, Mrs. Tan, I am following up on your homework through public pressure 😉
This is the stories of the three very special individuals I met in the endeavor:
I met Rosmita and her classmates in our first stop to SMK Medamit School, 40 minutes from Limbang town. A well preserved institution bearing the wrinkles of it’s original construction since possibly the 1960s. What struck me the most about Rosmita was the JIS t-shirt that she proudly put on, despite it being another school’s uniform, and the sense of excitement in her eyes when she met up with ‘Aunty Violette’, which was not unlike the reunion with the long loss mother.
Curious, I took out my iPhone and started recording my conversation with Rosmita. The first thing that surprised me was how tiny and child-like she looked, but she was already 16 years old!
Apparently, Rosmita has never been to JIS in her life before, but has heard incredible stories from her sister, Lonnie, about that place. (Lonnie was in JIS last year to share her testimony in English on her journey of determination in getting into University, before an assembly of students, who speak English as their mother language).
Through Lonnie’s experience, Rosmita spoke of JIS to me with the imagination of Disneyland, one that she could only repeatedly enthuse with the word, ‘Best’ through her limited command of vocabulary. Truth is, if Disneyland was an institution, JIS will not be far behind in comparison.
Before we departed the school, Rosmita raced over, giving each of us a hand written card, thanking us for all the love, care and support. Looking at the card now, it should have been a ‘Thank You’ card from me, for allowing me the privilege to be a part of the work that actually matters, for the first time in a long time.
Lonnie, 19 (Rosmita’s sister)
2nd Year Public Administration Student | University Technology Mara, Kuching
Lonnie was the first in her tribe to have reached tertiary level with her education. Lonnie’s journey did not come easy. When she was studying in secondary school, Lonnie would wake up in the middle of the night, and walked 3 hours through the jungle to get to the main road. So that she can catch a hike from truck drivers to get her to the school for the rest of the semester. Sometimes, Lonnie would have to return the next day, or the day after, simply because no commuters will stop by.
Part of the goals of the ‘Penan Project’ was to secure funding for transportation to make it easier for the Penan children to get to schools. Today, Lonnie’s sister and friends wouldn’t need to walk 3 hours for school, because of my teacher and friends’ thoughtful contributions.
Lonnie’s ambition is to be the first Penan girl to graduate, and be a teacher one day. In doing so, she hope to be an inspiration to her fellow tribe members that they too, are capable of achieving great things.
From the out-set, Yooram carries with him an aura of being distant and shy. But his kind pair of eyes tell a different story. One that conveys the hardship he has endeared at this tender age, one that is eager to reach out, to connect and even to embrace. When I asked him why he seems so happy, Yooram thought for a while, and gave the most genuine answer of all, “Because I am healthy!”
There is a good reason for Yooram to be happy. He has a six inch scar in his tummy, which he displays with pride. Who wouldn’t, after all, he won the battle against Leukemia, a form of cancer that mercilessly take away so many precious young lives. Yooram’s best friend is his sister. At the age of 13, the sister donated her bone marrow to him.
Check out the interview here:
This is a story of thanks giving, hope and courage.
The three extraordinary young warriors may not have much possessions, but are probably some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. There were hundreds of stories like these which Mrs Tan has accumulated in the past 4 years of working with these forgotten heroes of the jungle. I simply can’t wait to discover them one by one.
Before we left their village that evening, Shida, the ‘hot’ volunteer asked me how I felt about this whole experience. Although we came together from different faith (Muslim, Christian & Buddhist), that experience was spiritual for me, and I am sure I speak for all of us. You can’t simply sum up the feeling in a few sentences.
Holding back my tears, I told Shida: I’m just gonna go home, and hug my daughter extra tight that evening. That very night, I had the best sleep I had in a long long time.
Email me, (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to find out more about this project. Our next trip will be in December to deliver Christmas presents to the kids.
I am honoured and consider this a `Privilege’ to be a part of this whole project which started 5-6 years ago by Jacky MaClaren of JIS – `The Power of ONE’! There are many others who have and are still supporting us, without which, we would not have come thus far. We are in partnership with Jerudong International School (JIS) which plays a huge role to support the college going kids. The Upper School Council over the years has raised fund to help Yooram, Erika (KYS, KK) and Lonnie. Not to forget the support given by Peter Flynn and Laury MacPherson.
Huge credit must be given to my team mates, Shida Crichton and Astrid Felius who had worked together with me right from the beginning. Special mention must be given to friends who had jumped onto the band-wagon, like Janet Rigney, Cecilia Chua, Rob DeBree, Edith , Lea, Moira, Colette and Sarah who had offered their help. Our Malaysian counterparts, Tan Boon Foo and Tan Wei Kheng are always there to answer our SOS. Many others whom I can’t list out one by one, but you know who you are.
As I glance through your Q & A, I thought the better to bring you to the whole experience up , close and personal. Now you have all the answers, my assignment is done. Or do I still owe you one? (eating my own medicine).
Shaun, the photo of the crying baby is another of `non-sugar coated’ story I haven\t told you. The young mum was one of our sponsored student in SMK Limbang. Her `ponteng’ rate was so high because she was being `bullied’ there, so we transferred her to SMK Medamit which has a conducive environment and supportive principal, Mr. Christopher Kelabit and their Mentors, Winnie Bari and Cris Wodle. However, Wasty’s old habit of `ponten-ing’ continued and eventually stopped coming to school in the second semester last year. When I found her earlier this year in Rumah Sakai, she had her new-born baby boy, Fenzent Shinoda. He was crying probably was guilty of being the reason his mother stopped school 🙂
Thanks, Shaun for raising awareness of the plight of the Penan, esp. their younger generation, who are the future of the tribe. There is more work to be done and much help and support is needed. These young people will be the first few being educated and we have been privileged to be able to help to make a difference.
Dear Mrs Tan,
There’s no bad teacher, only bad students who do not submit their home work.
DO NOT BE THE FIRST ONE 🙂
Serious note –
Thanks for another valuable lesson of sharing the credit where it’s due.