Saturday, March 5, 2016

Selamat Pagi! from Malaysia

Good morning to you all!  This past week, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Malaysia for the first time and to experience a side of Malaysia that many likely miss.  I traveled to Sabah, which is on the island of Borneo, to serve as interpreter for one of my colleagues (English to Cambodian Sign Language, and occasionally Khmer when our Cambodian collaborators decided I needed to practice my Khmer).  The meeting was sponsored by Macquarie University in Australia and hosted by PACOS Trust, an outstanding community-led NGO.  We stayed in a homestay in one of the indigenous communities in Kipouvo (the picture above is the view from the porch).

Our host organization formed following a historic land grab in the early 1990s by the Malay government to build the Babagon dam.  I will admit complete ignorance to this situation before my visit, and want to prevent you all from that same ignorance :)  The basics of the story are that the government decided they were going to build a dam and did not consult with the local communities, including the community that would be forcible relocated - abandoning all their ancestral lands and burial grounds (these are sacred spaces within their culture).  By the time the community learned of this plan, and began to organize, they could not prevent the building of the dam (that serves as water catchment to a completely different area, not even providing benefit to those that were evicted from their land).  Some compensation was give to the families but when all your fruit trees and crops must be planted anew, and your entire way of life reconsidered, monetary compensation does little.  Additionally, the houses that were provided were in sufficient or not culturally appropriate, one example being that each house had only two small rooms while traditionally boys, girls, and parents each occupied a separate room.  To this day, some individuals have still not received even the meager compensation that was promised. 
Water release stream (no that is not the technical term) for when the dam is too full.  Fortunately, an alarm system has now been installed to warn of a flash flood but that was not originally a part of the plan.

This community (in the relocated site) warmly welcomed us to share their story, their traditional food, drinks, dance, and music.

We also learned about this amazing natural resource preservation approach that many of the indigenous communities in the area practice called Tagal.  As explained to us, the river is divided into different zones (red, yellow, green).  As you may be able to deduce, green zones are places you can fish at any time your heart desires.  Yellow zones are places that you can only fish if you are a pregnant woman in need of food (if you deduced that, you have amazing powers of perception).  And, red zones are governed by a committee made up of community members.  This committee decides when fishing is allowed, often one day per year.  However, contrary to a free for all, pinata smashing, fastest takes all approach, the community divides the spoils evenly among all who participate in fishing on that designated day.  We were able to visit and see a number of the red zones and even help to feed the fish (there is a trick to keeping fish in one place).  As a very tactile person, I drew great pleasure from holding the fish food in my hand and being swarmed by the fish who lovingly suckled the kibble from my fingers.  Images of a random piranha launching from the water to maim me, leaving me incapable of fulfilling my interpreting duties definitely flashed through my head a couple of times...

While in the homestay, some of the community members also shared a traditional blessing with us.  They called all our ancestors' spirits to come join our circle and bring peace, happiness, and community to us all, creating a new family of all those gathered.  It was a very beautiful ceremony to join.  It is also the first time I have been a part of a ceremony that involved sacrificing a chicken.  The blood was then dabbed on each of our hands connecting us as one family (and the chicken was prepared into porridge for lunch, along with the eggs, rice, and other offerings).  I had a very fascinating conversation with one of the group leaders about how the traditional religion has or has not mingled with Islam and Catholicism (both of which seemed very prominent in the region) but I will spare you the details of the hour long explanation.
Sorry, no chicken photos but here is a lovely picture of the road by the Catholic church...

We also went on a bush walk to see where the water for our homestay originated.  There was a water catchment about 15 minutes walk (over trails that would not pass US safety standards and often looked more like landslides) up in the jungle.  It is a gravity based system so the water goes through the piping to a large plastic water tank just up the hill from the homestay.  Apparently, this is a common system used in many of the communities.  The average system costs about $2,300 to install (if I did my mental-math right) and is either purchased through community members sharing the expense or an outside funder sponsoring the system.  One young man is employed to scamper up the trails each week to ensure no leaves or things are obstructing the pipe, cutting off the water to the homestay. 
My co-worker, Narith, who is responsible for all the photos that include me featured in this blog.  We kept seeing tour groups at the airport that had matching clothes so I told him next time, he and I would have to get matching outfits for traveling.  His response was "very funny."  Then, we managed to match even without a plan.  The water barrel even got the memo to wear blue.

Whether it is the chickens, water system, or the many bugs that will sing you to sleep each night (or try to suck out all your blood), whenever I am in rural settings, it astounds me how much, in our daily culture, we have lost that concept of our connection with the earth.  I am truly thankful for those who provided us with the opportunity to reconnect with mother nature through their cultural lense.  Hugs and bugs to you all!

*Please note all the information provided in this blog represents my opinion and take on the situation, as I remember it, so any misinformation is my own.  When interpreting, the goal is to get the information in one side and out the other in the quickest, most coherent way possible, so it doesn't always have time to absorb.  :) 

Photo courtesy of Leangchhoung (one of my fellow collaborators)


  1. Another splendid glimpse into your days. Thank you for posting! Also, thank you for being there and for the work that you do.

  2. Loved reading this and hearing about yet another amazing adventure! But the bugs!!!