Monday, 17 April 2017

Bario and Me

“Should I go? Maybe I should stay home.”

One night before our Bario trip, I was battling with a very difficult decision - to go or not to go. I had gotten a bad throat infection (tonsillitis) three days before the trip and my condition was getting worse. I called Rhon (our mama boss) to get her advice - she encouraged me to go and gave assurance that there is a clinic available in Bario if I needed more medical attention and most importantly, the 10-day experience would be unforgettable.

So I went, and yes, Bario, was amazing.

In 10 days, I met so many new people, forged great friendships with my batchmates and the Tepuqs (respected elders), learnt about the Kelabit culture, understood the problems associated with traditional paddy farming and ultimately, experienced the village life in Bario which has changed my perspective towards life.

There are too many things to say and write about Bario. For this post, I’ll cover my five favorite memories and takeaways:

1. Mountains, Clouds, Land, Breeze - Nature’s Wonder
Bario evening scenary_.jpg
The evening sky on our first day in Bario

It was our first day in Bario and I was already blown away by the beauty of this place. Because I was not in my best condition, I had to opt out on many farming activities that my batchmates were doing and rest at the homestay. In other words, for a few days, I was spending my mornings and afternoons staring at the sky. Yup, just staring and staring and staring... Until someone shouts, “Jien Yue, we’re back!”.

BUT HEY, the view was absolutely breathtaking. I loved the alone time spent looking at God’s wonder - it gave me so much peace, helped me think about life from different perspectives. How nice it would be if I could wake up every morning to such a beautiful sight!

2. A Heart of Gratitude  
Living in the city, many times we take things for granted. Many of us do not even know where our food is produced or how difficult it is to grow them; we just eat. Sometimes we even complain that the food we have doesn't taste good and stop eating them.

What surprised me in Bario was how everyone in the village was grateful for the food placed on the table. I remember when we arrived, Tepuq Sinah Rang (our homestay host) had all of us hold hands to say grace, giving thanks to God for the food. A few days in, she taught us to sing the song - “Aku Mengucapkan Syukur” (in English it means “I Give Thanks”) it was really catchy and all of us sang it happily before most of our meals.

Blowing fire (1 of 1).jpg
Tepuq Sinah Rang roasting wild boar for dinner

The simple act of giving thanks before our food reminded me to always be appreciative and grateful of what we have - our food, our health, our family, our friends, our homes and our lives.

3. Fully Engaging in the Present  
There was no internet connection where we stayed; hence, my batchmates and I had to live without Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp for 10 days (difficult for a millennial). The beauty of disconnecting from technology was the bond formed while connecting with one another, face-to-face.

During our free time, all of us would sit down for hours talking, jamming, singing songs, exchanging experiences and lessons learnt on the field. It was amazing how much we have grown to be closer and comfortable with each other through the time spent together. We have also bonded immensely with the Tepuqs by working alongside them in their respective paddy fields and listening to their interesting life stories during meal times.

Having breakfast with Tepuqs on our second last day in Bario (Photo credits: Project WHEE)

There was so much happiness when we were fully engaged in conversations and jokes without distractions from technology. It dawned upon me that the key to happiness isn’t in wealth or material things; it is in having great relationships with people you care about through spending quality time together.

4. Always Better to Give than to Receive
In the business world, nothing comes free. When we give, we are taught to expect something in return. I came from a finance background and the concept of having good “return on investment” is a key requirement for any decisions - often times, helping someone comes with an ulterior motive. In Bario, people are so genuine with one another and there isn’t anything like this.

I was amazed by how the villagers helped one another in so many ways. For example, when someone in the long house catches a wild boar, the owner would share the meat so everyone gets a piece of the catch. When farming, they would help one another with planting or harvesting so the pace of getting things done is faster.

Receiving souvenirs from Tepuq Bulan Radu on cultural night (Photo credits: Project WHEE)

On our final night, we had a time of appreciation where us volunteers presented small tokens from KL to our respective Tepuqs. Instead, it was the Tepuqs who were blessing us generously with the fruits of their hard labour. We went home with bags of rice, salt, pineapples, pineapple jams, and a beautiful piece of Kelabit necklace known as “Kaboq”. They gave without reservations and Tepuq Bulan Radu told me she found great joy in doing so.

5. Love and be Loved
I remember during the introductory meet-and-greet session on our first night, Tepuq Sinah Rang gave a welcome speech saying how grateful she was to have nine of us from KL visiting and helping them with farming activities. She said, we aren’t just volunteers; we are like grandchildren sent from Heaven. Instantly, the Bario Asal (the long house we stayed in) community took us in like family and showered us with so much love and care.

With Tepuq Sinah Rang in her traditional Kelabit head gear

When Daniel, our Project Coordinator, told the Tepuqs I wasn’t in my best shape, instantly, Tepuq Bulan Radu took me to the clinic for a checkup - she made sure I had proper medical attention and was always hydrated. Tepuq Sinah Rang cooked porridge for me so my throat could heal faster and Tepuq Ratu made lemon water for me to make me feel better. They cared for me like their very own child and I was truly touched by their love.

A picture with the Tepuqs on cultural night (Photo credits: Project WHEE)

When we were leaving Bario, many tears were shed and I believe it is because of the bond formed through love over 10 days. There was a feeling of sadness leaving the place but a greater joy of getting to know these amazing, genuine and loving Tepuqs. When I hugged them goodbye, I know one day I’ll be back to visit again.  

Words could only express so much, the rest are left to be experienced personally. If you are thinking whether you should sign up for the upcoming project, do it! Trust me, you will gain so much more than you expect. Bario has left a mark on me and will always have a place in my heart.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Fundraising your way to a WHEE project

When embarking on a trip, whether for holiday, a volunteering program, or for studies, one thing that must be considered is the cost. The terms 'expensive' and 'cheap' are relative and vary according to one's financial status. However, from what I have observed as a WHEE coordinator, I notice that parents are more inclined to have their kids fund the programmes they sign up for themselves to encourage them to be more responsible monetarily. This is apparent even if the parents can afford to just fork out the money.

Fundraising, the voluntary method of gathering financial contributions, has been a common method for many WHEE participants to fund their costs in the WHEE projects. WHEE highly encourages this methodology as it is an opportunity for the participants to inform their peers about the cause and community they wish to serve in.

Furthermore, things have been made easier for participants of the Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project, as our partnering organization, 1Malaysia for Youth (1M4U) has partially waived the cost for the 10-day project, bringing it down to RM 800. Fundraising may sound daunting at first, but it is achievable so long as you have a strong desire and are willing to put in the effort needed to achieve your goal. 

The Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project is partially waived by 1M4U 

If you can afford to pay for a WHEE project through your personal funds, that's great! However, if you are more likely to attempt fundraising, here is a compilation of some fundraising tips from the previous WHEE participants who successfully fundraised for their WHEE projects.

1. Organise a sale
You cannot go wrong with a classic sale. If you have a decent amount of friends living nearby and neighbours who you can call on, there is a high chance they will buy something affordable from you to contribute to your cause. If you can bake or cook, whip up something in the kitchen. If you are artistic and good at handicrafts, make something. There have been WHEE participants who made dream catchers, bookmarks, pineapple tarts, and other baked goods for sale. Besides selling them to gather the funds, your funders will also view these items as a token of  your sincerity in the cause you are involved in. Hence, they are more likely to contribute to you as compared to if you were to just ask for donations. 

A good example is Shannon Tan, a WHEEan from Batch 7 (August 2015). While studying in the UK, she hosted a house dinner party for her friends to fundraise. Upon returning home to Kuching , Sarawak during her summer break, she continued her fundraising efforts by organising a bake sale, selling a variety of baked goods such as pineapple tarts, prune cake, apple pie, banana muffin, and chilled cheesecake. 

Have a read about her fundraising initiative here.

Shannon Tan made productive efforts with her bake sale to fund her journey to Bario

2. Turn a skill into a service
If you have a skill or hobby that you are good at, find a way to turn it into a service. One WHEE alumnus, Parthiban Perisamy, picked up his massaging skills from his late grandmother. Upon acceptance into Batch 5 (January 2015), he decided to put his skills to work by doing freelance ayurvedic massages to fund his costs for the project.  He still continues this service until today and does freelance massages in between his studies.

Parthiban got a much deserved massage from the Bario ladies after (literally) massaging his way there

3. Work together with your batch members
If you sign up early enough, you can collaborate with the rest of your batch members to fundraise together. Examples include the Batch 1 (May 2014) participants who busked around their college for a week, Batch 5 (January 2015) participants who organised car washes in the neighbourhood of Taman Tun for three days, and also Batch 6 (May 2015) participants who sold snacks and drinks at a food fair together. Working together does mean that you have to share the pie of funds raised. Nevertheless, it remains a great way to kickstart things and build up your momentum to fundraise. It is also an effective way to get to know your batch members who you will be working with closely in Bario.

Batch 5 participants taking part in the car wash fundraiser

4. Use online crowd funding platforms
For those who have friends and relatives who live around the world, an online crowd funding platform is a good way to engage them to donate to your cause. There are various online platforms available which allow you to set up an individual fundraising account. You can also share your stories and videos explaining the cause that you are involved in on your individual profiles on these platforms.

Please be aware that all online crowd funding platforms will take a percentage of your funds raised for their operational costs, so do your research on the terms and conditions of each platform before deciding which platform to use.

5. Seek funds from relevant organizations
Participants who are associated with certain companies, NGOs, societies or scholarships can seek funding from these organisations. This effort is especially successful when WHEE's vision and project goals are in line with the organisations' social missions or objectives. This incentivises the organisation to fund the individual for the cause he is involved with.

One example is Choo Khai Kern, a General Electrics (GE) scholar who was funded by GE to participate in the January batch of the Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project. As volunteerism is a vibrant part of GE's culture, it was a win-win situation for all parties involved as Khai Kern was able to participate in the project while representing GE and the mission of both organisations were  achieved. 

Choo Khai Kern represented General Electrics as a volunteer for the Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project

There are other fundraising methods used by other WHEEans to fund their way to Bario. Feel free to contact the team if you have any questions or wish to explore other fundraising ideas. WHEE also provides an official covering letter to accepted WHEE participants to certify their fundraising initiatives.

With the right amount of hard work fueled by enthusiasm, your fundraising initiative can be a success and your target is not an impossible feat. Do not let fundraising stop you from applying for this eye-opening experience. Sign up now!

Monday, 6 March 2017

Understanding Through Dialogue

"The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly."
– The first of the ten commandments of dialogue by Prof. Leonard Swidler.

These words are especially important for an initiative such as WHEE, where the core of achieving our social mission is through community understanding by means of people-to-people engagement. For this reason, we decided that it was appropriate and timely to launch a ‘Talk Series’ as a part of the side activities in the 'Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture' project last January.

Many of WHEE's projects often entail the formation of close relationships between the participants and the local beneficiaries whilst working together. This also leads to the raising of many questions, opinions and revelations, often discussed internally. As a coordinator (and non-Kelabit), I am careful with the words I use when answering questions about the Kelabit community on behalf of them. This constantly keeps me on my toes and encourages me to learn, fact check and be up to date with community developments and issues.

However, there are some questions which I feel are better left to be discussed together with the locals themselves, as that enhances the credibility and clarity of the answers received by the participants. A few examples of the questions which fall into this category include, 'What will happen when this generation of Kelabits leaves?', 'Why were certain practices given up when the Kelabits embraced Christianity? Is that a good or bad thing?' This is also one of the main rationales behind the birth of the Talk Series.

The Talk Series is an opportunity for the Bario community and WHEE participants to dialogue and exchange knowledge on various topics centered around the factors that have made Bario special as an agricultural, tourism and cultural heritage destination. In January, this series consisted of three separate panel discussions in the Bario Asal village. Each panel featured two speakers and each was given 15 minutes each to share. This was followed by a Q&A session with the participants. The speakers were community members experienced and knowledgeable in their respective areas, and all were briefed with the discussion points prior to their sessions.

The session report is as follows:

Session 1: Topic: The History of farming in Bario

Speakers: Tepuq Ratu Aran, Tepuq Gerawat Nulun
Date: Sunday, 15th Jan
Time: 4.20pm - 5.30pm

Discussion points:
Gerawat Nulun
-  Origins of Adan rice
-  How Bario rice became a brand of its own
-  Rice farming cycle (nursery, planting, harvesting, clearing, storage etc)
-  Issues faced by farmers

Tepuq Ratu Aran
- Progression of the farming culture within Bario
- Gender roles within farm activities 
- Generational perspectives on continuing farming practices
- Traditional vs mechanized farming practices

Tepuq Ratu Aran (left) and Tepuq Gerawat Nulun (right)

Tepuq Gerawat and Tepuq Ratu Aran, a huband and wife duo, are experienced farmers who returned to Bario after many years in the city to maintain their farms. They chose to practise traditional farming as they still have the willpower, physical strength and passion to farm in this manner.

Their informative session was deemed ‘eye-opening’ for the participants as it provided context to the current challenges faced by local farmers, the general farming processes and the differences between traditional and mechanized farming in Bario. It was a good verbal introduction to rice farming as this session took place a day before the participants step foot into the paddy fields.

Session 2: Youth in Rural Areas

Speakers: Charismata Nawar, Paul Anis
Date: Tuesday, 17th Jan
Time: 3.30pm - 4.30pm

Discussion points:
- Life as a young permanent resident in Bario
- Job availabilities/Business opportunities
- Cultural preservation
- Tackling depopulation in rural areas
- Developments in Bario
- Cultural preservation within Malaysian races
- National Education system
-      Individual academic progressions/opportunities
-      Vernacular and government schooling
- Schooling systems that promote cultural preservation
- Differences between urban and rural lifestyles

Paul (left) and Chris (right) with myself moderating the session

This session was a two-way dialogue between the speakers and the participants on the points stated above. 

Chris and Paul, both permanent residents working in Bario mainly discussed how similar rural and urban youths are in terms of aspirations and hobbies. The only difference setting the two groups apart are the social, environmental and cultural settings which dictate the type of jobs and activities available to each of them. The conversation also shifted to the subject of education, on how our education settings could be the baseline of how we view and value our own culture, gain exposure to other races and provide opportunities for success. 

As the format of the 'Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture' project does not involve much interaction with youth, this session was a great way to expose the participants to the local younger generation's perspective on cultural preservation, rural vs urban youth aspirations, as well as rural development.

Session 3: Exploring History, Culture and Religion

Speakers: Dato’ Robert Lian, Tepuq Panai Lawa
Date: Tuesday, 17th Jan
Time: 8.45pm - 10.30pm

Discussion points:
Dato’ Robert Lian
- Kelabit way of living before Christianity
- Belief systems
- Adat Kelabit (Kelabit Customs)
- Major Confrontations
- Introduction of Christianity to Bario

Tepuq Panai Lawa
- Changes in cultural practices as a result of the change in religious beliefs
-  Practices which remained and practices which were given up
- Importance of cultural preservation
- Current efforts by the community to preserve their culture

Dato’ Robert, a former Director of Immigration of the state of Sarawak and a historian, gave a timeline of the historical events that Kelabit community went through, shared about the major events that facilitated societal changes, and explained the past and present community practices in detail. As for Tepuq Panai who is a former teacher, shared about the specific cultural changes as the Kelabits moved from animism to Christianity and how a balance is struck between preserving traditional practices and adapting to modernization.

This discussion helped the participants understand the progression of the Kelabit society within Bario and gave them a historical context to the major changes in the cultural and lifestyle practices, notably on how religion has become a major part in the community's culture. The Q&A session focused mainly on the changes in specific practices and whether they were continued or given up for religious or modernization reasons.  

Overall, the Talk Series was an effective method to gather facts and opinions about Bario from the locals themselves. Bringing it back to the ultimate project goal, WHEE certainly learnt that exploring the preservation of traditional farming does not only entail the familiarisation of oneself with agricultural knowledge, but also with history, culture and the spirituality of the community, all of which must be understood and respected before a embarking on a journey towards sustainable change.

Monday, 27 February 2017

My Rural Trail

My rural trail started from Kampong Speu (Cambodia), and through to Dulan (Taiwan), Jerantut (Pahang), and Bario (Sarawak) up until now. This trail may have been by chance or could have also been actually scripted. Geographically, these places are far from each other. Yet, as I travel and gain new experiences, I keep noticing some similar relationships among these places. This is very interesting and I am always amazed with every trip I embark upon.

Bario, being another rural area in my trail, was a unique experience. This unique feeling can only be experienced when you participate and interact with the locals mentally and physically. One of my friends asked me, ‘Is there any difference between Bario and other rural areas?’ 

Yes, they are different. However, certain aspects of their lifestyles are similar. For instance, agriculture is extremely important for the residents in all these rural areas to sustain their lives.

Out of the four rural areas I have visited, Dulan and Bario are well known for their indigenous cultures. Interestingly, the Amis in Dulan and Kelabits in Bario share some of similarities. For example, their traditional attires are similar. Both wear plain black shirts decorated with colourful beads and necklaces. Regardless of whether both ethnicities are actually related or this similarity may just be coincidental, this is still an interesting brand new discovery for me.

Tepuqs in the traditional Kelabit attire during Cultural Night in Bario Asal
Another characteristic the people in these rural areas share is their simplicity and peacefulness. This is a significant reason why I love Bario so much. The locals were friendly to us; it was nice to be always greeted by the local Kelabits.

My assigned farmer, Tepuq Lun Anid lives next door to our homestay (Tepuq Sinah Rang’s Homestay). This was a benefit for me as I could spend more time with her family, something I really enjoyed. They accepted me like one of their family members and this feeling of inclusiveness in their family was priceless. 

Tepuq always introduced me as her ‘cucu’ (grandchild) to others and addressed me with my Kelabit name, Supang, when we met people on the way to her paddy field in the morning. There was also one Sunday morning before attending church service, Tepuq passed a Kelabit necklace to me and asked me to wear it to the church. When I saw everyone of their family had one on their neck, I felt really touched and grateful.

Tepuq Lun Anid’s family and I
Interacting with the locals and especially with Tepuq reminded me of my times in Jerantut when my group mate and I were in a focus group discussion and interview session with the locals. That experience actually improved my language and communication skills, and this was a great advantage for me when I was conducting my data collection task under the Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project in Bario. 

Somebody once said, 'For every step you take, some traces will remain,' Reflecting upon my accumulated experiences, I realise the truth of that statement, seeing how every trip and experience counts. 

Undoubtedly, I will continue with my rural trail as much as I can.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Rice: A Whole New Meaning

Today, I heard on the radio, “If you would like to travel in Malaysia, there are only two major questions that you need to ask: Where to go? What to eat?” This shows how important food is to us as Malaysians, because to us, FOOD IS LOVE. FOOD IS LIFE. FOOD IS ALL YOU NEED.  

Going to Bario under Project WHEE and as a General Electric (GE) volunteer was an eye opening experience. To begin with, there was a unique taste to Bario food. As a student who used to study in a boarding school, Kari Nanas (pineapple curry) was a dish that I used to enjoy and ate all the time in KL. To many of us, rice is just rice, no matter where we go, no matter how we cook it. It is still rice. Now that I am back from Bario, I am here to say that it is not the same.

General Electric, my sponsor for the trip, without whom all these would not be possible
Every meal that we had in Bario, we were intrigued and amazed by the different tastes of food. Food in Bario has this unique taste to it, it is truly something that I can never find in KL. Each meal came as a surprise, and each meal was tasty in its own way. The cooking style there is very different, where they use local flavoring and local produce. Besides, they produce and consume a lot of pineapples here. Back home, I usually do not eat pineapples due to certain past unpleasant experiences. However, as the local pineapples were served, I took a bite, and I fell in love. Every subsequent meal after that could not and would not be complete without pineapple. Pineapple in any form, be it sliced, made into jam, or even curry. Besides, the pineapple curry here was way sweeter and nicer than the one I used to have in KL. 

My first meal in the field: Nuba Tu'ah, Chicken curry, Crushed Daun Keladi and Buah Kabar

Our first meal in Tepuq Sina Rang's homestay: nuba' laya', wild boar, imported chicken, buah kabar and midin!

Food is amazing, but have you ever wondered how much goes into the process of getting food on our table? Along with the thrust of our batch that is “Growing food, sustaining culture” we managed to explore what really happens in the background, and why we should treasure food even more.

Throughout the project, I was paired with Tepuq Supang, who stayed in Arur Dalan village. She is very friendly and was very nice to me. She guided me through the process of harvesting rice, and allowed me to join her in doing it. The best part of my experience, is that she allowed me to try the full process of harvesting, from cutting the paddy with the Eyo (sickle), to threshing, winnowing, drying, as well as carrying the grains from the paddy field to her house. The experience was tiring, but totally worth it.

Throughout the day while we were in the farm, she would work quietly, without complaint and without much rest. She was really caring too, as she always asked if I had enough water out in the field, or if I was tired, knowing that we “city kids” do not usually do such intense work. Similar to the experience of Kylie with Tepuq Supang in the previous batch, I think I told her once about how much I liked the pineapples from her farm, and the pineapples kept coming in. While resting, she would quietly walk over to her pineapple farm behind the shack, and come back with pineapples for me to eat.

Me and Tepuq Supang, a true Survivor (pun intended!)

Truth be told, farming is not simple, and it is something that really requires passion, long hours under the sun, real perseverance, and it is really tiring. Tepuq has a huge farm, and she used to work on it on her own, just like a true survivor. 

As we worked on the farm and while I collected data for our research on traditional vs mechanised farming, she would tell me stories of her passion for farming, and the activities her family used to do in the paddy field. Thankfully, her son, Bobby and his wife Celia also joined in on harvesting, and they have also inherited the passion for farming.  
Me and Bobby working in the field
So now one may ask... what has this experience taught you? 

This is what the experience taught me: when your mama tells you to finish your rice so that your future girlfriend does not have pimples, it is not really about that. It is because some Tepuq (or farmer) out there has spent hours in the paddy fields to ensure that we get to enjoy rice. Every grain of it. 

The sweat, pain, and passion put into producing food is something that I never realized until now, I will cherish and enjoy my rice, knowing how much has been put into that small plate of rice. Through this project, I found the new meaning to rice, and why achieving the UN Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDG) of food security is so important.

Will I go back to plant or harvest paddy? Sure. Why wouldn't I?