Monday, 8 May 2017

Bario, a different type of ‘kampung’

What comes to your mind when the word ‘kampung’ (village) is mentioned? For me, my impression of a ‘kampung’ was based on my grandma’s house in Batu Pahat, Johor. There are water and electricity supplies, telecommunication and adequate road access. With the inevitable urbanization, shophouses, McDonald's, and 7-11 are set up nearby. What I understood from the word ‘kampung’ was a place with fewer cars, lower Internet speed, and lots of trees.

My time in Bario was really an eye-opener. It was my first time witnessing the abundance of the Borneo rainforests. I could see the transition in development through the topography. There are more shophouses and buildings erected in Miri. As the plane slowly approached inland, the terrain changed from flat land to mountains, and along with it the settlements and buildings decreased. I also witnessed the green lung in Borneo and the vast areas of rainforests was seriously no joke. 

The view from the MASwings plane on the way to Bario
Upon arriving in Bario, there was no highway, no tarred roads or road lines. There were just cemented road, and some of the roads were mud road approximately 3 meters wide. Although it appeared as if there was no strict enforcement of road regulations, all the road users, pedestrians and motorists alike, paid attention to each other and used the roads in a harmonious manner. 

One of the cement roads in Bario
Although the designs of each unit of the longhouse varied and do not follow a standard design, nevertheless the residents live in an orderly manner. They rely on each other if anything happens. I could also see the trust among the community members, something uncommon today.

Not to forget, there is a practice among the Bario community which is to wave at each other. I was assigned with Tepuq Lun Anid and her paddy field was walking distance from our homestay, I always walked to the paddy field with her in the mornings and back to our homestay alone during lunch break. Even during the times when I walked alone, the locals would always wave at me. Although they could have been greeting me out of courtesy or tradition, I enjoyed the feeling. It felt inclusive and I felt as though I was treated as another local from Bario. 

Daily walks with Tepuq to her paddy field
As I was tasked with collecting data and information on the paddy farming systems in Bario during my time in the Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project, I had to work with Tepuq in the paddy fields. I spent five days in the paddy field helping her to harvest the ripen paddy grains while carrying out my task. Working in the paddy field requires a lot of bending. However, every time when I looked up, I kept getting surprised by the landscape and scenery. The vast blue skies and clouds surrounding the mountains were like a gift from heaven. 

Tepuq Lun Anid’s paddy field, with her little hut!

A different type of ‘kampung’ has been added to my knowledge after spending time in Bario. Bario is unique; it shares some similarities with other villages yet the Kelabits preserve and maintain their culture in a good condition. One lesson to myself is to always minimalise my impact to a community. Regardless of being a tourist or a volunteer in a community, I believe we should preserve the authenticity of a community's culture. 

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.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Skies of Bario

Growing up in a city like Kuala Lumpur and pursuing my higher education at Sydney, I've always been in a fast-paced environment. Everything and everyday passed by so quickly that I do not even have the time to stop and think. It was like I am constantly on auto pilot mode.

Hence, I made the decision to participate in WHEE's Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture volunteering program in Bario for 10 days. I wanted a change and to experience the lifestyles of the Kelabits and to understand their ways of living. Furthermore, this would be my first time flying to Sarawak.

                                                    Tepuq Do Ayu (Photo credit: WHEE) 

Participants were paired with a farmer, or as we fondly address them, Tepuq (a Kelabit term to address the elders). Mine was Tepuq Do Ayu. I had to walk a good 15 minutes to her home in Arur Dalan Village. I was fully prepared with my boots, hat, sunblock and gloves. I still remembered how she laughed at me when I wore 2 layers of socks while she was barefoot in the paddy field, what a joke.

The first day was tiring and intense for me. We started at 8am under the scorching hot sun and I remembered being really restless and anxious about the time, all I could think of was ' Am I done yet?'. But since both of us did not have a watch, the only 'watch' we had was the sun. I found myself searching for the 12pm sun very often.

As the days went by, I tried to understand my Tepuq's lifestyle. I noticed how carefree and contented she was with her life. She was always ready to harvest rice despite rain or shine, she is a hardworking farmer indeed. I started to stop my thoughts and immerse myself with the current situation. I slowly realised how quiet and peaceful the environment was. I did not even notice that her paddy field was only surrounded by mountains, what a beautiful sight it was. Slowly I learned to appreciate the silence with her, it made me feel very calm and the only distraction for us was the noise of her chickens/dogs.

I still looked up very often, but this time not to search for the 12pm sun; it was to admire the skies of Bario. It was something about the skies there that made me feel tranquil. Maybe it was the clouds, or maybe it was God overlooking the village from above. During break time, I would look up to Prayer Mountain from the paddy fields and I would pray a small prayer for my Tepuq as well. That 15 minutes walk to her village was a morning joy for me too.

On the last day, I gave a new pair of socks to my Tepuq, her face beamed with joy. I never once thought that a simple pair of socks made someone feel so special and happy. In return, she gave me 2 large pineapples, a bag of Bario rice, pineapple jam and a beautiful necklace handmade by her. I was speechless, she treated me like her daughter and she will always have a special place in my heart.

                                           Giving my Tepuq new pair of socks (Photo credit: WHEE) 

I thank WHEE for this opportunity, I feel very lucky to be able to experience this journey with Tepuq Do Ayu. Despite coming back to the hustle and bustle city life, I've learn to appreciate the little things and the people around me. I've learn to stop and admire the skies more often as it brings back good memories that I've once had at this place. Till next time, Bario.