They’re friends of the Penan
By Sim Kwang Yang
The following is an account written by one of many volunteers working to improve the lot of the Penans. The writer works on his initiative to alleviate the suffering of the Penans in helping to meet their needs for medical care and education.
This week, my column by a guest from this group who consider themselves friends of the Penans.
An early start
Land rights lawyer See Chee How has been working to support the Penan for over two decades. He took part in Ideal’s 1994 and 1995 fact-finding missions into the crimes committed against Penan villagers at logging barricades.
His NGO, Sarawakians’ Access (Saccess), is working together with the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall to set up two new pre-schools in two villages in the middle Baram area.
The middle Baram is home to a dozen Penan settlements, varying in sizes between 30 and 80 families each. The settlements are spread out over vast distances, and children often have to hitch rides on logging vehicles to get to school in some distant village. The recent reports of logging company employees’ sexual abuse of Penan schoolchildren came from this area.
“While efforts are being made to tackle transportation problems faced by the people,” See explained, “there are also urgent and unaddressed problems of schooling. Specifically, the problems of dropping out from school, even at primary level, have been increasing. NGOs working with the communities have long recognised the need to prepare Penan children before they enter primary schools.”
See remarked that Penan children are exposed to their mother tongue, Eastern Penan, but not Malay or English while they were growing up. When they enter primary school and encounter these alien languages, the children are in no position to keep up. They start failing subjects, and then they lose interest. This leads to punishments in school and eventually, isolation in an education system that makes no effort to cater to these students in remote areas.
Sthe antidote article sarawak native logging school children 280409 06everal previous attempts at pre-school education had sputtered out when funding ran out, or NGOs were not around to provide support, See observed. These new pre-schools would be sustainable, See said, because local NGOs and Penan activists were working closely with the communities themselves to plan, implement and monitor the programme, and train qualified local villagers to teach the pre-schoolers.
“One pre-school is planned to be in Long Item. Together with Long Kawi, about 30 minutes’ drive away, there are about 70 families, 250 people. Among these are 60 children aged between four and six, our target age.
The second pre-school will be in Long Pakan, one of the largest Penan communities in middle Baram, and home to around 50 children of pre-school age. Many more pre-schoolers will come to Long Pakan from surrounding villages,” See noted.
the antidote article sarawak native logging school children 280409 01
He laid out a detailed costing of the pre-schools, requiring RM55,000 for the first two years, a sum of RM250 per child annually. The villagers will participate in the pre-schools’ management committees, together with the teachers, and with local and peninsular NGOs.
The villagers will contribute the communal labour needed to renovate under-used buildings for the pre-schools, provide accommodation and care for children from surrounding villages if necessary, and ensure maintenance of the pre-schools and the grounds. The village heads will also establish village education committees to ensure the children stay in school, and solve problems that arise.
Teeth and bones
Other ad-hoc projects are running too. Nurses, doctors and dentists volunteer for a small number of medical visits to Penan villages in middle and upper Baram, funded by local and peninsular NGOs.
“Once, we held a clinic al fresco, in a shed by a logging road,” one volunteer recalls, “so that we wouldn’t have to carry our heavy medicines down to a small village in a valley. It was fantastic. The village chief came up to a dentist after the clinic, held on to his hands, and thanked him, saying they had never been visited by a dental and medical team before. There were tears in his eyes. He’d had a tooth extracted too, but we knew his tears were tears of joy!”
azlanThe remote locations of many of these villages make it nearly impossible to get to Marudi or Miri, the nearest towns, for dental or medical care, the volunteer pointed out. The journey takes several days, and includes hitching rides on logging vehicles or paying up to RM150 one-way to get to town. Since villagers depend on farming rice, fishing in the rivers and hunting in the forests for their survival, they have negligible cash incomes. It often takes years to save up for such a trip.
“There are many small things we can do to support them,” the volunteer continued. “We take some toothbrushes and toothpaste for the kids, some reading glasses for the elderly, books, stationery, even slippers and shoes. And the villagers support us back, keeping us sheltered and safe, guiding us, moving us around in longboats, feeding us and doing their own community health education together with us.
“The simplest things we take for granted just aren’t an option there. On one of our visits, we met a teenager with a terrible infection in his leg. He’d hurt himself in the foot, chopping a coconut or something, and the gash had become infected. He’d already travelled to the nearest clinic, four hours away, but they didn’t have the appropriate antibiotics, and the wound festered on at home.
“We drove him back to Miri and he had an operation and recovered perfectly. But he could easily have suffered an infection of the bone, and lost his leg – or his life.”
Thanks are due to www.malaysiayouth.com.