A Space in Time
Planting paddy in the field while teaching an elderly Kelabit woman English, picking wild vegetables in the jungle for lunch, sharing stories while beading necklaces for the entire afternoon; these are some common activities done by a youth volunteer in Bario under Project WHEE!
Secluded from the rest of the world by a range of mountains, Bario is a remote settlement located on the east of Sarawak in Borneo, bordering Kalimantan, Indonesia. Its thirteen villages are primarily resided by Kelabits, one of the smallest tribes in Malaysia. The Kelabits were heavily involved in headhunting practices over a century ago. However, they are now well-known for their friendliness and unique culture, allowing Bario to be affectionately known as the ‘Land of a Hundred Handshakes’.
Agriculture plays a big part in Bario’s economy. Vast plots of paddy fields here produce Bario rice, cultivated using traditional methods and grown without chemicals. Bario is also known to produce high-potash salt and tasty pineapples.
Development in Bario is slow due to its geographical barriers. Access to Internet is limited and electricity is only supplied for a few hours in the evening by a mini hydro dam for one of the villages. The only airport that connects to Bario is Miri, a city which is 55 minutes’ plane ride away. There are at most only three flights to Bario each day. Contacting someone in Bario can be done through phone calls to several villages but the connection is unreliable. Medical personnel and facilities are limited; there is a hospital that only treats common maladies and anyone severely ill will have to fly out of Bario to the hospital in Miri.
Many Kelabits have migrated to cities for better education and job opportunities, leaving behind the elderly and the young children. As a result, some elderly women continue to farm despite their old age. Their physical limitations also prevent them from conducting ‘gotong-royong’ (a tradition of helping each other and the community) to set-up basic logistics at the community level to receive eco-tourists.
In order to revive the community, various initiatives have been taken to develop Bario to create more job opportunities and lure back the diaspora. One of them is to boost the ecotourism industry here by extending homestay and tour guiding activities which are now concentrated in a few central villages to the outlaying villages.
Between 2010-2013, eHomemakers, a Malaysian non-profit social enterprise, initiated two training projects for women in three villages, Bario Asal, Ulong Palang and Arur Dalan – ecotourism and computer-based office work, thanks to a seed fund from PEMANDU (a unit under the Prime Mininster’s Department in Malaysia) for 15 months to upskill the women in ecotourism and produce higher value agricultural products.
In 2014, with a seed fund from Dana Belia 1Malaysia, it mobilised voluntary resources and corporate barter exchanges to initiate Project WHEE! (PW!), a youth project to continue the rural community development in Bario. Youth volunteers from all over Malaysia are sent to Bario for two weeks to help the Kelabit women with their command of spoken English, so to become better homestay hosts and community guides. Each volunteer is be assigned to a lady and shadows her for the entire duration of the project. While helping her in her daily work, he/she will also improve the women’s English through conversations. From time to time, community services are conducted according to the needs of the community.
Bario’s solitude is a double-edged sword to its inhabitants. It impedes development but at the same time, preserves the simplicity of their lifestyle. They find joy in routine activities as they appreciate every moment and live life full of sincerity. They may not be the wealthiest monetarily but they are definitely rich with wisdom and in many other ways. The volunteers, fondly known as WHEE-ans return from Bario changed with different perceptions on life.
To recognize and honour the contributions of the women in Bario ‘to the family and the community, especially in cases where they are left behind by migrating adults or as a result of other socio-economic factors,’ a Facebook campaign was kick started on Oct 1 2014 in conjunction with International Day of Rural Women which falls on October 15.
This new international day was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its resolution 62/136. It was first observed in 2008, to recognize ‘the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty’,
The campaign features stories of the women, written by the volunteers themselves. They range from each woman’s contribution in agriculture or to the community, to how she has inspired the youth volunteer. Beginning 1 October 2014 to the actual day of observation, a photo of one of these women captioned with her story is posted on PW!’s Facebook page daily.
Project WHEE! has shown the youth organizing teams and the youth participants that the definition of success needs to be redefined. Many are occupied with chasing success and happiness, are these materialistic pursuits worth it? Does ‘success’ mean being financially able and to have authority over people? Perhaps, it is good to take a step back from this mad chase and return to the basics – a rudiment lifestyle and we will probably find our answer through rural people throughout the world, especially the resilient, strong determined women in Bario, Sarawak, Malaysia.
By LEE RUI CI