Monday, January 31, 2011

Penan Pre-Schools

Such a simple wish... Educational toys and posters and spelling books...

Hornbill Unleashed @ 12:02 AM
Keruah Usit

“Many of the children honestly love to learn. They’re the ones who keep pushing me to teach them, I’m not the one trying to push them to learn,” said Amelia Balan, the teacher in the brand new pre-school in the small Penan settlement of Long Item.

“Some of them learnt their ‘A to Z’ and ’1 to 10′ within a week of starting pre-school. They like playing with the books with their friends. They’re comfortable in the new pre-school, especially the little boys, who enjoy teasing the girls,” she went on with a smile.

Amelia is only 19, a recent Form Five graduate. But she is confident, and affectionate, with the small children in her care. Her pre-school has been open barely a month, and she has 23 children attending classes Mondays to Fridays, aged between four and six.

“Attendance has been very good throughout January,” she says with some pride.

“The children are used to calling me Cikgu (teacher) now. I teach them discipline too, but that’s not difficult, a few of them are a bit stubborn, but mostly they’re good. When I did my training in town, it was really hard to get the children there to listen!” she laughs.

Language barrier

Cikgu and her young wards talk to one another in Penan and Malay, and she teaches them using books, posters, simple toys and games.

She hopes to overcome the handicaps faced by most new Penan children entering Primary One – a language barrier, and a lack of basic literacy. These handicaps usually mean they are left behind their classmates from Day One, and many give up.

The pre-schools also serve to get the children accustomed to being in classes.

This may later lessen the children’s crippling sense of homesickness, once they leave home to enroll in primary schools in Long Kevok, Long Luteng or Long Lama. The boarding schools are all hours away by bumpy four-wheel-drive rides, or days away on foot.

Mina Jivai, the mother of two children in a boarding secondary school in Long Lama, nearly four hours’ drive away, welcomes the new pre-school in Long Item.

Penan children are often blamed for leaving school, she explains, but the twin obstacles of transportation and the high cost of sending the children to school are the main reasons children stay away.

Amelia and Mina’s home village, Long Item, has 15 boys and girls enrolled in the pre-school, while Long Liwok has four, Long Kabeng has three and Long Kawi has one. The children from the other villages stay with relatives or family friends in Long Item.

Long Item is a neat village of 80 families, nestled along the curve of a shallow river. The river, studded with smooth boulders and lined by ancient rainforests, is where the children bathe, and where their mothers wash clothes and draw water for the kitchens.

Amelia, her sister and her girlfriends are obviously close to the children. They walk hand in hand, laughing together and leaning on one another, as they skip across the rocks, beside the river.

Building bridges

Two new pre-schools in Long Item and Long Pakan have won over children and parents alike in these settlements, as well as from surrounding villages. The pre-schools have been entirely funded by contributions from well-wishers all over Malaysia.

The KL and Selangor Chinese Assembly Halls have spearheaded a fund-raising drive to keep the two pre-schools going for at least two years, with high hopes of making the effort sustainable.

“This is ‘building bridges’, in the truest sense, between different parts of the country, between different ethnic groups… people support (these pre-schools) because they want to do something about the neglect and injustice faced by the Penans,” one volunteer educationist told Malaysiakini.

Both Long Pakan and Long Item have established Village Education Committees to oversee the running of the pre-schools.

Handeru Selamat Di (right), 19, is Amelia’s cousin, and her counterpart in the new pre-school in Long Pakan. He has taken in 20 pre-schoolers, and is seeking to build up the library and posters for the children.

“I still need more reading and spelling books, and also some badminton racquets and a net,” Handeru says.

“The children could also use some educational toys, like simple jigsaw puzzles with letters of the alphabet on them.”

Isolated and neglected

Long Item was at the epicentre of a sex abuse scandal that burst across the pages of the national newspapers over the past 14 months.

According to reports from the government ministry of women’s development, as well as NGO coalition the Penan Support Group (PSG), loggers have taken advantage of their access to isolated and neglected Penan villages, to rape young schoolgirls hitching rides on timber company vehicles.

The PSG has said that state support empowers these logging companies and subjugates the Penans. Local Penan villagers say the loggers are taking away the Penans’ forests and their land – and sometimes even their daughters, by abducting young girls to timber camps and sexually abusing them.

State ministers have poured scorn on the Penans’ complaints to the press and the national women’s ministry. The government has taken no action to withdraw loggers from these lucrative timber concessions, and the police have failed to indict a single rapist.

Calls from civil society to the state government to address the skewed balance of power have been fruitless. The PSG has failed to persuade the authorities to provide free transport to and from boarding schools.

Instead, the logging companies haverefused Penan villagers rides on their logging vehicles. Local headmen say this move is a form of retaliation against the villagers for drawing the world’s attention to the reports of rape.

But a promising start is evident in Long Item and Long Pakan.

“We want to keep the pre-schools going,” Amelia said. “The younger children, even those only around four years old, can learn their alphabet fast… but they tend to forget their lessons when they aren’t at pre-school. We keep hoping we’ll be even more successful in the future.”

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