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?

Friday, 10 February 2017

The People, Always.

My Happy Tepuq Club; the people I worked with on the farm. 

What makes Bario so special, for me, would always be the people.

The Kelabits have a unique tradition of changing their names when they have their first child and first grand child. For me, the changing of names represents how one's life is transformed just by having another person in his/her life. The tepuqs i worked with gave me a Kelabit name just after a couple of days in Bario, and I believe that this is symbolic of how through this one encounter with the people of Bario, my life has changed.

I came to Bario expecting to grow - but i never imagined being able to build such strong relationships with the people around me, and I never expected that I'd end up being so attached to the tepuqs. On our first night in Bario, we had a meet and greet session which consisted of a series of ice breaking games that allowed for all the participants and tepuqs to introduce themselves. When it was Tepuq Sinah Rang's turn, she gave a mini-speech and said something along the lines of how she was immensely grateful for us, and how we were sent from up above to help them out. During her speech, I remember feeling a tad bit touched, but mostly,I felt surprised at how warm and loving she was - when she barely even knew us.

The people and community of Bario have this special way of emanating warmth. There was never a single second during my stay in Bario where I felt like an outsider, and for someone who has lived her whole life in the city, this was new, and strange, and lovely. Everywhere I went, people would wave or say hi, or smile at me, but it wasn't the kind of acknowledgment and attention that made you feel like you were a famous superstar. It was the kind of welcome that made you feel like you were coming home.

Aside from that, the people of Bario were extremely genuine in everything that they did. My mom has always taught me that things are never free in life, and that if people were to gift you gifts outside of special occasions, that one should always return the favour. However, in Bario, the tepuqs never had any ulterior motives and never wanted anything from me. They legitimately just wanted to give me things or help out, and this baffled me for a bit. But the people in Bario have the culture of sharing, and its something that's hard to come across in the city. I mean, it isn't even easy for me to give a nugget away despite having 20 pieces of nuggets, and these tepuqs are just giving their rice and pineapples away, left, right, and centre.

The people of Bario have left an impact on me, and I'll always hold in my heart the little things that I love so much about the people there. I'll always miss the way Tepuq Ulo whistles while we work in the field to call for the wind, the way Tepuq Sinah Ribed has the cutest way of saying "takpe lah" whenever something happens, and how Tepuq Maga came to the airport to see us before we flew, and so much more.

The contrast between how I felt when Tepuq Sinah Rang gave a speech on our first night versus how I felt when Tepuq Maga gave a speech during breakfast on our final day in Bario was immense, and if it weren't for the sudden attack of sneezes on my part, I probably would've bawled my eyes out.

I believe that its the people who make the place, and for me, the people of Bario have definitely made it one of the loveliest places to be.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Not about the money

RM 3500. 585 GBP. 1167 SGD. That’s a lot of money! When I first read through the requirements asked of a Project WHEE! participant, I was genuinely taken aback by the amount of fundraising one had to do. One can do a lot with RM3500, even after the drastic depreciation of the ringgit. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. So I set off on my fundraising journey with a chest full of optimism and faith, whilst being grounded by practical fundraising ideas.

One of my first fundraising efforts began in the UK after exam season. Given the strength of the sterling and my presumably generous friends, I hosted a small dinner party. Lucky enough to have help from a few flat-mates, I decided to cater for 30 friends. It was my first attempt at feeding such a big group (without the help of my mother of course) and as nervous as I was, the night went smoothly. Cooking garlic chicken pesto pasta in masses was tiring but nonetheless fun, as I managed to raise around £120 in profits that night.

A decent attempt for someone who never takes flat lay photos.

However, the bulk of my fundraising took place at home, in Kuching after I returned for my summer holidays. I knew that I couldn’t just flatly ask for sponsorship from family and friends so I decided to utilize my house helpers’ baking skills to the fullest. With a menu of prune cake, banana muffins, apple pie, chilled cheesecake and most importantly, pineapple tarts (ong lai ko in Hokkien), my house turned into a bakery overnight. For a month, I had the luxury of waking up to the scent of freshly baked pastries and cakes every morning. With the help of social media, publicizing and promoting my bake sale was a piece of cake (lame pun intended). It was not difficult to get the ball rolling as my mother is popular amongst her friends and mine for her cakes and pastries, but as the orders started flowing in, we were constantly in need of more baking ingredients and containers! It is true that the way to anyone’s heart is through their stomach (granted that he/she is a true Malaysian) as I had aunties ordering RM400 worth of pineapple tarts (ong lai ko) for their extended family members as well!

Mum's blueberry cheesecake is still my personal favourite.

Some may argue that fundraising is extremely challenging, and that the idea of raising RM3500 is daunting. However, speaking from experience, it is absolutely achievable. One of my batch-mates raised funds by performing in wedding gigs as a drummer; another took up odd jobs in Kuala Lumpur alongside her part-time waitressing job. Sikit-sikit, lama-lama menjadi bukit. Personally, I would advise anyone to raise funds through doing what he or she loves, be it drumming, or baking, or even fitness. Heck, you could even do a RM2 per push-up facebook challenge! That way, your Bario journey is kick started joyfully and meaningfully. Being blessed with supportive parents and talented house helpers, all I had to do was constantly restock the baking materials, manage orders and deliver them. Lucky me, I know.

Flor, Mum and Rainmoi who were the true MVPs behind my entire fundraising bonanza!

My Bario trip was truly eye-opening and unique, and I would not have traded it for anything in the world. For all those reading this that are doubting their fundraising capabilities, remember that living a life of ‘oh well’s is better than one full of ‘what if’s. And trust me, you would not want to run through the next batch’s photos wondering how it would’ve been like if you had managed to get on board. So, put your best foot forward and as Nike always says, just do it.

Shannon. Batch 7