By : KERUAH USIT
Apik can survive in the rainforest, completely alone, with a parang and some salt. He hunts, dives for fish and makes a bed for himself under the forest canopy.
He climbs trees to harvest honey from wild hives. He picks ferns and bamboo shoots to cook, and finds edible fruit and roots. He collects herbs to heal, and uses ipoh, a tree bark, to prepare poison for blowpipe darts.
He travels to neighbouring villages in a wooden longboat, with an engine modified from a grass-cutting machine. He manoeuvres the longboat through rapids strewn with giant boulders, as expertly as KL folk weave through rush-hour traffic.
If he finds snakes on jungle trails, he picks up them up with twigs and branches, moving them away from the paths, and from other travelers. He makes fishing nets, and mends them, with a dexterity associated with more delicate, less muscle-bound, maidens.
He can remain underwater for an astounding length of time, looking for fish or a missing propeller. He rears puppies, teaching them to hunt for barking deer and wild boar. He can carry a wild boar heavier than himself, on his shoulders, through the forest, for hours.
His real passion, though, is teaching. He teaches pre-school and primary school, in his small, remote Orang Ulu village in Sarawak. His students adore him, trailing after him after classes, pestering him to go swimming with them.
He takes them down to the river, to cool off and indulge in some horseplay. The children mob him, climbing all over him. They beg him to push them around in their makeshift dinghies, made from truck tyres. They perform somersaults, shrieking and splashing into the water, to impress him.
“I like watching the children grow up, watching them grow in knowledge and understanding,” he says. “It’s a wonderful feeling - hard to explain.”
He says kampung students are far easier to teach than urban children. He endured a nightmare, during his training, teaching in an urban school, trying to get students to listen.
When asked why, he ventures, “Maybe it’s because the kampung children get more attention. When the children go to their neighbours, they’re made welcome and cared for, as if they were their neighbours’ children.
“Parents in the ulu talk to their children all the time, even when they are bathing the small children. And then, of course, there’s not much television,” he smiles.
No IC until he was 25
Apik came to his calling late in life, graduating when he was nearly 30. He could not attend teacher training school when he completed secondary school, he says, because he had no identity card until he was 25.
“I didn’t think I could ever get to teachers’ training college,” he remembers. “To tell the truth, I was lucky to get to Form Six. The headmaster in my boarding school encouraged me to stay on, and he turned a blind eye to the fact that I didn’t have an IC.”
Apik was born to farming parents, in a quiet Orang Ulu village. His parents had been born and bred Sarawakians. Apik’s father even had a shotgun licence given him by the British colonial rulers, dating from the 1950s. But they could not obtain ICs for many years.
“My father served as a border scout during the Konfrontasi with Indonesia in 1963,” Apik says.
“He helped keep Sarawak part of Malaysia. Yet he couldn’t get an IC. My parents went to the towns to apply for ICs, many times. The journeys would take a week by boat, down fierce rapids, to the Registration Department.”
Many times, Apik’s parents were told the decision to confirm their Malaysian citizenship and ICs had to come from KL, and the decision took time. When Apik’s parents asked when they should return, they were bestowed the time-honoured advice of the bureaucracy – “just wait”. They waited for the letters from the Registration Department, but the correspondence never came.
Apik’s parents obtained ICs eventually, in the 1990s. The Registration Department had established “mobile units”, traveling to remote communities. Apik says the villagers appreciated these visits, because they could not afford the cost of travel to town. But the visits were rare.
He walked four days to school
“My parents were highly respected in the village,” he says. “They were always good to their neighbours, including the Penan communities who were beginning to settle down near our village.
“They spoke Penan fluently, they helped the Penan with farming techniques, and helped make relationships easier with the rest of the village – many of the people in my village looked down at the Penan.”
Most of Apik’s fellow villagers grew to accept the Penan, thanks to Apik’s family.
Apik went to primary school in the next village, where Penan children formed the majority.
“I learnt a lot from them,” he remembers.
“I learnt to be gentle, to respect my neighbours, and respect the forest. I learnt to value the trees and animals in the forest. The Penan are the best trackers around. They can walk for hours. They share what they have, so I always knew I wouldn’t go hungry when I went hunting with them.
“And they never waste. If they hunt a bear, and the dead animal’s young is left behind, they take the cub in and care for it.”
Apik went on countless hunting trips with Penan friends.
“Every time I went into the forest, the first few days were hard. I was tired all the time. But when my body settled into the routine of walking, I began to appreciate the beauty of the forest. The streams, the waterfalls, the animals, the trees, the wildflowers… he stillness.”
After primary school, Apik moved on to the nearest secondary school. Children in Apik’s part of Malaysia often walk for several days to reach school.
“I walked to the Sekolah Menengah, Form One to Three, when I was 13 until I was 15. Twenty of us, schoolchildren, walked four days, carrying our food rations, sleeping in the jungle.
“Some parents asked me to look after their young daughters, so I ended up carrying their books, food, clothes, even packets of sanitary pads… I ended up carrying 30 kilos,” he laughs.
Teachers ‘parachuted’ into rural schools
Many rural children suffer far worse than walking for days to get to school. Children are bullied by fellow boarders and even by teachers.
Penan children, especially, are shy and unfamiliar with shouting and aggression. They often leave school because of bullying and loneliness, and sometimes because their parents take them away to help in the harvest.
apik penan love of learning story 210409 02But Penan children do well if they stay on, according to Apik. Many become top students, both in the classroom and on the sports field.
Apik gives chilling accounts of teachers beating and bullying rural children.
“Children from my home village tell me how one teacher in their secondary school lost control of himself, and chased them with a parang.
“Another teacher threatened them with a shotgun. The headmaster knew, but took no action. The school has received many complaints from parents, but nothing has improved,” Apik says bitterly.
Few teachers volunteer to work in rural schools, and there are few trained local teachers. Apik himself has been posted to an urban school in the past, even after he had requested to teach in a rural school near his village.
Teachers “parachuted” into the rural schools experience culture shock. Many of them are poorly motivated and ignorant. They receive little support from the education authorities in the towns.
Apik likes to tell the story of a teacher from Peninsular Malaysia, posted to a remote primary school. The young teacher had never heard of the place, and did not know the school is nine hours’ drive and three hours’ boat ride from the nearest large town.
The teacher arrived at the airport, climbed into a taxi, and asked the taxi driver to take him to the school, Apik relates with a smile.
Contractors profit, children suffer
The schools Apik teaches in are dilapidated, without adequate electricity supply, treated water or clean dormitories.
apik penan love of learning story 210409 05The children bathe in the nearby river, downstream from the rest of the village. Scabies, head lice and worms are routine (left).
One rural primary school had toilets installed and closed down the same day, because of the contractor’s sub-standard work. The children used the bushes for months, until the toilets were repaired.
During lunch hour in another school, the children’s usual meal is rice, tinned food and cabbage. The schoolteachers say the food supply contracts are determined and awarded “centrally” by the Education Department.
Vegetables and fish supplied from the towns are often rotting, so that well-connected urban food suppliers can make their hefty profits. The teachers would prefer to buy chickens and fresh vegetables for the children from the villagers, but are not allowed to.
Many children in these schools have no shoes. Their families struggle to buy them stationery and uniforms. Poor rural children are meant to have an allocation for these items, and are exempted from paying school fees.
Yet many children are still forced to pay fees in rural schools, according to headmen and parents in remote villages. Why? the parents ask. Incompetence, overzealous bureaucracy, or most likely, corruption.
One headmaster in a rural school provides an analogy: “The allocation provided by the Education Department starts out in the towns, loaded onto the transport.
“But the amount gets smaller and smaller as it makes its way upriver. By the time it arrives, it’s a tiny amount. Most of it has fallen off the transport, on the way to the ulu.”
Long walk, with a helping hand
Poor rural children throughout Malaysia face the same hardship. Some overcome astonishing obstacles in getting to school.
A rural indigenous girl used to walk for days to school in Sabah. She left school after Form Three, to work as a domestic helper for an urban Chinese family. Her employers knew about her family’s poverty, and decided to pay for her to complete her schooling, while she was helping in the employers’ household.
Her results were good enough to go to medical school. Her employers helped her through university, for five lonely, trying years in Peninsular Malaysia. She works as a doctor now, and supports her family and community.
Some rural folk, doctors like this young Sabahan, and teachers like Apik, seek education, so that they can contribute to their poor communities. They support their neglected communities as best they can, in their labour of love.
How many of us, the other Malaysians – educated Malaysians – do the same?
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia. His attempt to allow the voices of marginalised people to be heard all over Malaysia. The writer can be contacted at email@example.com.