An Openness and A Willingness To Learn

An Openness and A Willingness To Learn

There was a time a few years back when I followed my grandmother into her little backdoor kebun. Bones crackling, she was holding a basket with as many vegetables in it as she had years in her life. Fast forward and I’m in Bario, seeing my assigned lady knee deep in sawah padi water. As we worked together, we chatted about random things. Sometimes, I would slip in some English words we had already learnt and we would repeat it together a few times.
One thing that never ceased to amaze me was how human and personal these people we were working with were. They could have simply shut us off but they instead chose to open up their lives to us. They were no longer just people from a distant land that I could have easily been detached from. They were people I truly came to care for. Faces as real as my own grandmothers’. Their culture and lives may have differed from ours but in the end, they were still people.
On the first day I spent with Tepu’ Uloh, my assigned lady, she brought me to sit with her below the longhouse to ‘buat kerja raut-raut’, which basically means doing something for the fun of it.  She poured out a bunch of rocks that she told me her ‘cucuk’ had collected from the hydroelectric dam. We proceeded to hammering them into tiny pieces. Sounds silly but it’s a pretty therapeutic activity. It’s definitely something to keep your hands busy over a conversation.
It being our first day, I figured that it would be better for us to speak in BM and get to know each other before actually teaching anything. To my surprise, she started teaching me Kelabit words and then asking me how to say things in English. I taught her ‘stone’ and joked that if you ever want to call anyone “kepala batu”, just point to their head and say “stone”. When we had the pleasant surprise of Dan joining us, I pointed to his head and asked “Tepu’, ini apa?”. He seemed understandably confused when we both burst into laughter after she answered “Stone! Stone!”.
That’s how our lessons often went from then on. I would tell her a word and make a joke about it. We’d laugh and repeat the words to each other. Sometimes, we’d even bring the joke back up days later to laugh at it again. To be honest, I was a poor learner compared to her. There were plenty of Kelabit words she taught me that I couldn’t get a grasp of.

Me, Tepu’ Uloh and Jess in Bario Airport

That didn’t matter though. It didn’t matter that we sometimes forgot the words we learnt. It didn’t matter that we weren’t picking up all that many words a day. In the end, we wanted to learn. We wanted to share. We would remind each other and we would talk. That’s what I believe was the most important thing. That willingness to learn.

It wouldn’t have worked at all if I had assumed the role of the ‘teacher’ and only ever wanted to teach her English, as if English was any better than Kelabit. It wouldn’t have worked if she had refused to learn. 

Tepu Sinah Rang, Tepu Uloh and me

When we started out on this project, we came with a goal to teach but I’ve realized that can’t be all. Don’t just teach because that’s not all you have to offer. If you walk in with a ready set plan or a curriculum, you won’t get the best of it. I found out by pure coincidence that the best way to teach this woman was through humor and a light on life. From there, I was blessed with a relationship that grew so deep, she told me she would be more ‘senang hati’ knowing I went home with someone who ‘doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and takes care of’ me. She really cared for me like her own granddaughter.
For the future batches, I know it seems like a ‘level up’ when you get your ‘Kelabit name’ or if you get loads of Kelabit jewellery. It was pretty cool when Tepu Uloh gave me her own name and I didn’t want to let go of her after she gave me my first Kelabit bead necklace but really, it’s the bond between us that really matters.When she told me to sit and rest after seeing me coughing the whole day. When she asked me how to say “I Love You” in Mandarin so she could say it to me. When she playfully pulled me into a dance during cultural night. Those were the things that really stayed on with me. 


Me, Tepu Uloh and Jess on Cultural Night

Uncertainty Is Where Things Happen

Uncertainty Is Where Things Happen

Too many times, I’ve fallen into the trap of the future and all the uncertainty that comes with it. My friends used to tell me that I’m a worrier and worrying was exactly what I did on the morning we had to leave KL for this mysterious place I had never heard of up till this project– Bario.
My mind was on a mad chase. I was worrying about all the things I was leaving behind (shampoo, assignments, debate, etc.) and the things I was about to face. (possible relationship breakdowns, arguments, failures etc.) I was clearly a lot more troubled by the coming adversities than I was of the past. There’s something quite terrifying and vaguely disconcerting about the unknown but in retrospect, that day I left was brimming with possibilities, not worries.
Forgive our city selfies and Starbucks cups, we’re new here!
Maybe I should have remembered what I read a long time ago from Oliver Burkeman that uncertainty is where things happen. “It’s where the opportunities–for success, for happiness, for really living–are waiting”. From the moment we took off, we had the luck of being thrown from one great opportunity into another without ever really knowing what to expect. Uncertainty became a sort of driving force as we hurtled through the days.
It’s strange how we became so set in that time paradox of Bario. So many unexpected things could happen in a day despite it being as routine as the humungous wooden bell that wakes everyone in the longhouse up at 5 am sharp. The days always seemed so long and yet ended so fast. I would be hammering stones and chatting away with Tepu’ Uloh for hours on end and suddenly, the six o’clock sky would turn to dark night.
I can easily pick out an example that happened to me less than 24 hours into being in Bario. We all joked around saying that I had managed to “scare off” my Tepu all the way to Miri but it was a situation that left me a little depressed at first.
The night I met her, Tepu Uloh and I managed to hit it off relatively well. She’s a wonderful woman and we chatted so much, she was holding my hand by the end of the night. We talked about our families and life in the kampung compared to KL. She even showed me pictures of her and her grandchildren.
Holding hands 
Now, imagine me cheerfully walking up to her the next day to ask for a broom and she, with equal cheer, tells me “Okay.  Just make sure it’s there when I get back from Miri next week.”
Wait, what?
All of a sudden, I was left with completely no idea what to do but watch her walk off. She walks pretty fast for an old lady so when I came to my senses, I had to run barefoot to catch her. It was a scene worthy of a Bollywood drama. I said my goodbyes and gave her the present I had bought her from KL. She immediately pulled me in for a long hug and said goodbye. I swear, it was completely unscripted.
Slightly disheartened but ready to suck it up, I had to follow Xara with her assigned lady, Sina Tagung, the next day. It felt a bit like I was intruding and it never felt right, but I tried my best. At one point, we managed to lose Sina Tagung while we were busy washing dishes and had to walk around the longhouse calling out for her. Xara turned to me and says “Nobody likes you, ar? They all run away from you.”
It was an unexpected turn of events, but that was when I started to realize that life in Bario was so laid back, these kinds of things are pretty trivial. Take things as best as you can and eventually, it’ll turn out fine.
Call it a gift from the universe or an answer to a prayer but Tepu’ Uloh came back from Miri several days early. Why? Apparently, it was because she knew there was someone back home waiting for her. Pretty cool, huh?
Speaking of surprise gifts from the universe though, I realize there were plenty of them. It was always the slight (and sometimes, drastic) deviations from our plans that turned out to be the best of times. I remember Rhon spontaneously bringing me out of the longhouse to look at the stars and her saying “Now you know why I love Bario”. I remember jokingly saying to Tepu Uloh that the only word you need to know in any language is ‘discount’ and how that ended up being her favourite word. I remember Tepu’ Sinah Rang teaching us how to dance poco-poco after our Beauty Session. All these little things that were never planned out gave me a higher appreciation towards life in Bario. That it’s all okay. Do’ Ina. Tak apa.
Photo: Walking to pasar riah with Ganit & Kijan :) -Ruran- #kelabitnames
Uncertainty seems pretty insignificant when you’ve got mountains backing you up

Honestly, it was brilliant living in that time paradox where I was comfortable not knowing how things would be in the next minute. I started out constantly checking how high up the sun was but the the light in Bario lies. Time hardly mattered anymore. The mountains may have been crumbling but it was taking such a long time to us. Sometimes, we would sit quietly on Tepu Sina Rang’s veranda, eating kuachi and drinking tea. I just think that to those mountains that surrounded us, our days must seem like milliseconds. The same how, upon returning, we’ve changed a thousand times over but to KL and all the people in it, it was just another two weeks.

I guess time is just so relative and there are just too many ways to look at life. I’ve been so torn between mourning the past and worrying about the future, I let that uncertainty take over. In light of all that’s happened in Bario, I think I’m ready to take on whatever uncertainty lies ahead. I may be back in this strange place called KL, but I’ve got these Kelabit beads all the people I love have given me and that kind of anchors me. It reminds me that things always works out, somehow. That I’ve got a place I can call home somewhere out there. That I’ve got mountains behind me and the winds of destiny pushing me forward on my way.

-Felice Mujan-

MARIAM SPECIALS: Why I Love The Bario Mountains?

MARIAM SPECIALS: Why I Love The Bario Mountains?

deep thoughts

If you see me when I’m at home at Tepu’ Sinah Rang’s place, I’m always chilling by the white verandah. It’s either during the morning when the toilet gets crazy clogged (13 people brushing teeth & doing other morning rituals can take hours before the toilet clears), after breakfast before work, after work till lunch time, pre-dinner tea time, after dinner…

Yup, you can tell that my time in Bario is mostly spent on the white verandah. It’s my little solace from the craziness of the day and also what made my trip feels more at home (our homestay host ,Tepu’ Sinah Rang’s delicious food sure helped too).

Day 1 & 2 of my arrival was such a culture shock for me. I went from commuting in my personal X-trail to walking everywhere. The luxury of a washing machine is now replaced with hand-washing my clothes. Hot water is “forbidden” because we were told that it was off limits — cold water showers everyday.

I felt absolutely miserable for my first few days in Bario. My comfortable life is now super basic! Basic is not a bad thing (nor is it a good thing either), it’s just a really simple lifestyle — a lifestyle that I was not used to. Heck, I did not even know how to hand wash my clothes!

So, my seat by the white verandah was the escape from all this “basic” hell. It was a safe zone that I could run away from all the icy cold showers & hand-washing turmoils. It allowed me to just stare into the sky & mountains to get lost in it somehow. Munching on my Kuachi seems was also my form of escapism.

The kuachis were the only thing I knew of kampung living. Trust me, it was the sit-down-and-do-nothing that made me a little panicky. Also, seeing how others could cope wih the slower-paced life made me feel inferior, almost.

Yes, the kuachis I would eat even though I just had dinner. Perhaps it’s the sweet sunflower seed or the crackling that made the white verandah more lovely.

It took me some time before I figured that a little hot water won’t hurt anyone, and also found a detergent soap that really foamed like mad. So, all it takes is just a little perseverance (and a few packs of kuachi or two) to pull through.

I would say even on the flight back to KL, I was still adjusting to my life in Bario. All the bugs at night, the mud, the sometimes calm,  quiet corner of the house when other parts are buzzing with chatter.

For future WHEE participants (or even “city people” about to live a more basic lifestyle), it’s okay to feel alien in a different culture. It’s normal to have to adjust to the “new” norm of your home community. Sure, some people may adjust more than others (some become at home). But, remember that it’s totally okay to take your time at it.

There’s no point forcing yourself into a foreign culture, know what I mean? Just always be open & polite (about what you may find disturbing/ offensive, etc) when dealing with others.

Take it one day at a time, my friend. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll receive when you’re ready to open your heart.

When pen meets paper
(and when inspiration comes from after cutting grass)

Author’s Note: “Why I  love the Bario Mountains” is Part 1 of a 3-part series of MARIAM SPECIALS. In case you’re wondering “who’s Mariam?”, well, it’s the author’s Kelabit name! Fun fact: that’s also her assigned lady’s first name. #nameception
The Start of Something New

The Start of Something New

Hello world! My name is Daniel and I’m the other project coordinator for
Project WHEE!
After completing my A-Levels in
HELP Academy, I opted to take a gap year instead of going straight to
university. I didn’t do this to “find myself’’ or “discover my life’s destiny’’.
I simply wanted to do what a ‘regular’ young student would not have the time to
do. Two things in particular I wanted to do before university was to travel and
teach. For a good 6 months, I spent time travelling the world, meeting new
people and experiencing different cultures (a very ‘’finding myself” thing to
do) after which I decided to settle down and do something consistent which was
in line with teaching, or some form of it.
Good cop Bad cop, guess who is which?
Out came a job vacancy from a Ms Rhonwyn Hagedorn from eHomemakers who was
looking for someone to help her get going a project she just initiated, called
Project WHEE! in which she successfully won a grant from 1Malaysia Dana Belia
to fund it. What caught my attention immediately was the project offerred more than I hoped for – travelling to Bario, a place in our own country which
some (or most) Malaysians have never even heard of, English teaching for women
to become eco-tourism community guides, carrying out community service work to
further help and improve the society as well as working with 30 ambitious youth.
After much consideration, I finally decided to come on board as an
intern in eHomemakers, working with Rhonwyn to start this project from scratch with
the supervision and guidance of the Executive Director of eHomemakers, Ms Chong
Sheau Ching. Though the excitement and thrill of working in Bario has always
been there, the planning process has been a lot less glamorous. I knew what I
was getting myself into – it was February and we intended to send off our
first batch of youth volunteers in just 2 to 3 months. I accepted the challenge as I knew this
would be a major learning curve for me and more importantly, it was for a good
Presentation at Taylor’s Lakeside
As expected, I immediately had a giant list of things to do within a
short period of time (which I’m still ticking off slowly). Pre-planning has
been tedious, as it involves a lot of paperwork which needs to be done right
without any mistakes, hence editing the same document over and over again has
become a common occurrence. Progress has been at times slow, as millions of
things that needed to be done depended on a single decision which made it
frustrating. What helped was that Rhonwyn and I clicked. Though at times we
feel like pulling each others hair out (or just my beard), we do have a solid understanding
when it comes to work.   
Presentation at Beaconhouse Sri Inai 
  Besides going to Bario, my main job was recruitment of youth, which has
been the best part of the planning process. Besides using social media to
recruit students, Rhonwyn and I went to schools, colleges and universities to
present the project to potential applicants. It was always interesting observing
youth from a presenters point of view as you notice those who are paying
attention, you can see faces light up at the idea of going to Bario and you can
tell when some don’t seem very bothered by it.
Things slowly picked up and soon enough, we received more applications then spots available.Screening applicants and conducting interviews was by
far the most interesting aspect of student recruitment as we met so many
different students, not much younger or older to us, who came from all over
Malaysia with different backgrounds and upbringings but all of whom had similar
aspirations, goals and had a desire for community outreach. These young people
could have spent their holidays and semester breaks relaxing or studying but
they chose to apply for this project voluntarily. It
was incredibly refreshing meeting youth of Malaysia who were not only
adventurous, but had a genuine passion to serve their community. This made
selection all the more harder, but it had to be done.               

#projectmanagement (oh the joy)
The anticipation and the actual thought of 30 youth helping to improve
the community of Bario makes all the work worthwhile. It pushes us and drives us to work harder to make this project a success. As Ms Chong once said to me, “This
project is how big you want it to be”. Things may not go the way we want, but we are adaptable and no matter how we do it, I believe we can make a
difference in Bario. 
– Daniel MOD – 
How Did We Get WHEE! ?

How Did We Get WHEE! ?

WHEE! was named what it is today, there was a long and tedious process to find
the perfect name for it. It had to be something memorable, yet something easy
to remember.
And here
is WHEE!’s story.
applying to Dana Belia, so what are you going to name your project?” said my
then partner-in-crime in eHomemakers, Jin. Unfortunately, Jin was not really
helping the process of naming the project, as we were constantly ‘at war’ in
the office… throwing paper and wires (and responsibilities) at each other.  I took a big sigh… how was I supposed to answer
a question that I was trying to find the answer to myself?
As I sat
there looking at the words I listed out, Jin looked at the clock. It was nearly
lunch-time.  “Subway for lunch?” he asked.
And I answered “WHEE!”.
The first logo. 

One tuna
sandwich later, ‘WHEE!’ could not leave my head. What a great name for a
project that would be! It was youthful, and easy to remember. Now it was just a
matter of figuring out what ‘WHEE!’ would stand for. During the application
process, I must admit that I never had much ambition for this project. It would
be a one-off project, and that would be the end of it; so using WHEE!’s main
objective from the Dana Belia grant, it stood for ‘West (Malaysians) Helps East (Malaysians) in English’.

Right now
as you read this, what WHEE! stood for then probably sounded really weird. I
think so too, but in that moment, it was perfect. We would only need to search
around West Malaysia for youth to participate in the project, and that was
that. This would have been the end of the story… but it’s not.
for the project started arriving, and one of them so happened to be Curtin University,
Sarawak. There was no way WHEE! could be WEST
Helps EAST anymore, as East
Malaysians would now be joining in. So once again, it has to be renamed.

If you
thought ‘West Helps East’ was weird, I renamed Project WHEE! to ‘ProjecTweb’. Just
like the first one, it used the main objective from the Dana Belia grant, and
it stood for ‘Project Teaching Women English in Bario’. At this point I was already tired with project naming, especially since this would have been a one-off project like I thought it would
be. (If you search on Urban Dictionary, ‘tweb’ are apparently the strings that
hold helium balloons).   
What on earth were we thinking…?

To cut a
long story short, once Daniel joined the project, it was decided ProjecTweb was
way too weird, and we switched back to Project WHEE!. With our combined forces,
we came up with the poem that Project WHEE! stands for today. The high5 I gave
him was probably one of the most satisfying ones I ever had in my life, because
we really accomplished something, and I was more than proud of it.

My best
friend and ex-intern in eHomemakers, Yasmin Shah, is the brain behind our logo.
After Dana Belia approved our project, she took on the grueling task to come up
with the design. I must say that I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It’s
simple, but it’s recognizable and fun. (and I like blue!)
I never
thought we would get such an overwhelming response for Project WHEE!. In fact,
our final 30 applicants are from all over Malaysia, there is even talk now
about Project WHEE! having a second life after this year, and there is also possibility
of branching out to other sites and missions besides Bario. So much for ‘West
Helps East in English’ and ‘Teaching Women English in Bario’!.
WHEE! is now going to be bigger and better than I ever expected. Somehow it
makes me nervous but I look forward to the future and what’s in store.
WHEE! was put together by youth who all had the same mission; to help serve the
community. So a big shout-out THANK YOU
to Jin, Yasmin and of course, Daniel whom without these three, Project WHEE!
would have never been where it is today!
We the
those in need.

The Start (And How It Started)

The Start (And How It Started)

Hello! My
name is Rhonwyn, and I’m the founder and 2014 youth coordinator of Project
Two years
ago, I never thought that I would one day be the founder of a youth project.
The thought of it seemed impossible as I was only an 18 year old after-SPM
intern when I applied to Dana Belia. I never thought my idea would ever be considered,
let alone I would win the Dana Belia grant itself!
An inside look of the day in the life of Rhonwyn.
This planner is my life and soul. 

The company
I intern for, eHomemakers (eH) has had a project in Bario for almost 6 years,
and as an intern I had the chance of a lifetime fly to Bario and assist in the
project. The last leg of the eH Bario project was to teach the women English,
as we are trying to get them to be community guides. The questions that were running
through our minds were endless. Where could we possibly find people who would
want to volunteer their time for Bario? I was then asked by the Executive Director of eH, Ms Chong Sheau Ching, to apply for the Dana Belia grant.

I sat at my
desk picking at my brain for hours. How will this work? What will the project
be called? Who will be the volunteers? When will it be? ….. So many questions
were going through my head; my hair must have turned white. After finally
completing the application form and defending my project in front of the Dana
Belia selection committee, Project WHEE! was born, and my hair went back to its
normal brunette colour.
As this is
the first year of Project WHEE!, there are a lot of logistics to plan. I
couldn’t possibly handle everything myself (and even if I could, I wouldn’t want
to anyway). So along came my partner-in-crime Daniel, and ever since then it’s been
utter chaos in our office. Accounting, reports, endless documents that Daniel
and I edit over and over again (thank you Google Docs!), to endless meetings.
It seems that everything we accomplish, another two things pop out that demand
our attention! We’re constantly on the job and busy!
If you were
to ask me what the best thing about being a project coordinator is so far, I
would say that excluding Bario trips, it would have to be the interviewing
process. Daniel and I have interviewed so many different youth similar to our
age, each with his/her own special set of skills and talents. It was impossible
to find two of a kind. Sitting at the interviewer’s side of the table, I can
honestly say I have learned quite a bit about how to behave and what to say during
an interview. There was something to learn from every youth that walked through
our office door.
Interviewing applicants from Taylors Lakeside.

Although it’s
all good fun, there is also an element of bad. That’s just how life works. No
one said being the project coordinator was going to be an easy job, especially
since this is the first year of Project WHEE!. Daniel and I have had long
discussions about many different project concerns. I have had my share of
sleepless nights thinking about the project. There are also times I felt like
giving up, how maybe starting Project WHEE! was all a big mistake. I could have
been in college now, with my biggest concern being mid-terms or finals, not
having to worry about sponsors, accounts and schedules!

But then I
take a deep breath. In every bad thing, there is also an element of good.
Again, that’s just how life works. I think of the smiling faces of all the tepu-tepu
(grandaunties/grandmothers) in Bario and the 30 youth who will be embarking on
this journey. Both parties are completely different people in terms of age and
upbringing, but both are so excited to meet one another.
I WANT this
to be a successful project, I WANT to see strong relationships being built among
the youth and the Kelabits. I WANT to do something for the mountainous
community of Bario that won over my heart several years ago. All these thoughts
are what keep me going during my lowest and most stressful times of project
Working hardly, or hardly working?

We are less
than a month away from bringing our first batch of youth to Bario in May, and I’m
very excited. Finally Daniel and I’s work will be put to the test! Will
everything we planned go accordingly?

Probably… Probably

But either
way, each step of project coordination will and has been a huge learning process
for me, and I’m still not done learning!