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Monday September 30, 2013 MYT 2:56:00 PM
Monday September 30, 2013 MYT 2:59:22 PM
by sandra low
The children of Kampung Pos Musoh can barely conceal their excitement when volunteers of Mari Kita Membaca, turn up at their village.
Mari Kita Membaca goes all out to introduce rural kids to the wonderful world of books.
PEALS of laughter rang through the community learning centre in Kampung Punjut, an orang asli village in Johor. An interactive reading and craft session was in progress, and the children were obviously having lots of fun.
It left a little girl bewildered. After class, she approached her volunteer teacher, Rusaslina Idrus.
“In our school library, we cannot make noise like what we did today,” said the little girl in wide-eyed amazement.
Rusaslina smiled and reassured her young student that she is correct; one must be quiet inside a school library, but at this community learning centre which resembles a library, one can learn and play at the same time.
“I think they just realised that learning doesn’t have to be all serious business. One can have a lot of fun while reading and learning,” says KL-born Rusaslina, the founder of Mari Kita Membaca.
This is precisely what the volunteers of Mari Kita Membaca hope to achieve – to make reading fun and get the children hooked!
Mari Kita Membaca (Let’s Read) came to fruition after Rusaslina, 40, went to Kampung Buayan in Sabah in 2010, as a social scientist on a research trip. It was her second trip to Sabah. Her first trip was in 1997, when she was working with a conservation NGO on community projects.
Rusaslina wanted to find a way to thank the villagers for hosting her. She learnt that they had just set up a community learning centre but did not have any reading materials.
After asking the centre’s teachers what they needed, Rusaslina and a fellow researcher dug into their pockets and bought a box of books that became the starter kit for the centre.
“We learnt that English books were foreign to them, so we bought some simple Malay and English children’s storybooks that were fun and easy to read,” she says.
Rusaslina started the Mari Kita Membaca project in 2010 with a tight team of volunteers. Their aim is to bring books to children in rural and under-served areas in the country, and instil in these children a love for reading and learning.
“Kids are reading less these days which is unfortunate. You gain knowledge and ideas from reading, you use your imagination, and it makes you a better writer,” says Rusaslina, who read a lot of her father’s Reader’s Digest when she was young.
She remembers asking her father for a subscription to Gila-Gila magazine (the local version of MAD magazine), thinking her father wouldn’t allow it, but he surprised her and obliged, saying “as long as you are reading!”
The encouragement to appreciate books opened up a world of knowledge and embedded a love for learning in Rusaslina. She spent two decades overseas, pursuing further studies and teaching at some of the most prestigious universities in the United States and Singapore.
Rusaslina holds a PhD in Social Anthropology and a Master of Arts (Anthropology) from Harvard University, a Master of Environmental Science (Social Ecology and Community Development) from Yale University, a Bachelor of Science (Natural Resource Management) from Cornell University, and has lectured in these universities as well as at the National University of Singapore.
Rusaslina returned to Malaysia in April 2012, and now lectures at Universiti Malaya.
Mari Kita Membaca’s core team of volunteers comprises students, young professionals and academics in Malaysia and Singapore, whom Rusaslina met through a forum.
“Mari Kita Membaca is about supporting education initiatives and promoting volunteerism. There is only so much we can do, so we try to network and connect people and needs. In fact, we are like a clearing house of sorts!” she laughs.
Aside from providing books, they equipped one village with solar lamps so that the children can read at night. At another village, they sent funds for buying chairs after a volunteer noticed the children sitting on biscuit tins as their chairs were broken.
“Another village needed a new school, so we connected them to a foundation which helped in funding the building,” she adds.
“Because we are a small organisation, we provide resources to those who have an existing structure to receive and use books, so we are not building a library from scratch,” Rusaslina explains.
Mari Kita Membaca works with Partners of Community Organisations (PACOS) in Sabah, and SPNS, an orang asli grassroot organisation based in Perak, by supporting their network of community learning centres and preschools.
As all volunteers have full-time jobs, Rusaslina says they try to do an annual fund-raiser or book donation drive when there is a need from any of the villages.
In Singapore, Mari Kita Membaca approached the National Library of Singapore for some Malay books, and they obliged by donating over 400 books and conducted a workshop on storytelling techniques for the volunteers.
“Once a month, we conduct English classes at Kampung Tekir in Negri Sembilan. Using themes, we create fun learning experiences in which the children learn to speak, write, draw, do art and craft, and sing,” she explains.
Some of the villages are located in remote areas. Rusaslina recalls a trip to Pos Musoh where they encountered snakes along the way, and had to clear undergrowth to access the remote village in Perak.
“But when you arrive at the village and see the children’s excitement when they receive new books, you know it’s worth all the effort. These villagers have so little, yet they try to educate their children, and the teachers work so hard to get the children to learn,” she says.
“Knowledge and literacy empower a person. It’s very gratifying to be a part of the children’s learning process,” says Rusaslina, an avid reader who enjoys fiction and historicals.
So far, Mari Kita Membaca has sent Library Boxes (80 to 100 books packed in a plastic box) to 30 villages in Negri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak, Johor, Kelantan and Sabah.
The beneficiaries include two Jakun villages in Johor (Kampung Peta, a remote orang asli settlement in Endau Rompin, and Kampung Punjut in Kluang); Kampung Tekir in Labu, Negri Sembilan; and Kampung Pos Musoh, a village high up in the mountains near the Perak-Pahang border.
Over in urban areas, Mari Kita Membaca has recently contributed a Library Box to Mentari Project in Sunway, to serve a low-cost housing community in Petaling Jaya.
Rusaslina believes many people have an early memory of the excitement that reading has brought them, and they want to share this joy with others.
“Anyone can help by sponsoring these Library Boxes, so please contact us,” she says.
“It’s inspiring when people who don’t know us but have heard about our work, send us a cheque or want to help. There’s a great sense of humanity when people unite in this way and this really keeps me going,” adds Rusaslina.
Volunteer Hwa Shi-Hsia, 30, remembers being taught by her parents to read when she was fairly young and growing up in a home covered with wall-to-wall bookshelves.
“My father made a rubber stamp with the words ‘Perpustakaan Hwa’ (Hwa library) and some of my friends thought it was a joke as they didn’t realise that our house really looked like a library!” Hwa says in an e-mail interview from Singapore.
Hwa, a Malaysian, works as a scientist in a vaccine development company based in Singapore.
She met Rusaslina through a friend. Both realised that quite a lot of Malaysians working in Singapore, want to do something to help folks back home.
As treasurer for Mari Kita Membaca, Hwa handles the funds from donations and book sales (from donated books that are not suitable for the community libraries) and disburses cash donations to communities for projects such as preschool furniture or stationery.
Hwa has been involved in volunteer work since her university days when she tutored children in English and Mathematics. Now that she is based in Singapore, Hwa visits villages in Johor where Mari Kita Membaca volunteers deliver books and conduct English classes for children.
One such village is Kampung Punjut, a Jakun village near Kahang.
“We were introduced to these villagers by one of our volunteers who was affiliated with the Persatuan Sathya Sai group in Johor Baru. They had done a project to create a reading room for Kampung Punjut,” she says.
“These villagers are mostly smallholders who grow oil palm and other crops, and their children are primary schoolers. Most of the teenagers have left the village for boarding school or work.”
“The Sai Baba volunteers had done up the reading room very nicely but it was mostly empty. The adult resident who was in charge didn’t allow the children access to the room regularly. We brought more books along and encouraged the person in charge to open the room every day after school so that the kids can access the books,” Hua explains.
“These children are so eager to learn and seem to enjoy our visits. We conduct games, art and craft activities, and hold storytelling sessions.
“It’s difficult to reach the village from Singapore without transport, so we hope to get a Kluang-based organisation to help these kids and grow their community library,” says Hwa.
Besides her involvement with Mari Kita Membaca, she also mentors primary schoolchildren and teaches adult ESL (English as a Second Language) learners in Singapore.
To help improve the level of literacy in the country, Hwa says lower primary teachers should be encouraged to read stories aloud to young students more often. “I believe the heavily exam-based system forces children to study too much and leaves them with no time for personal development.” Also, public libraries in Malaysia tend to be located at very inconvenient places. In Singapore, they put branch libraries in shopping centres which are well frequented. That’s brilliant as it offers easy access.”
People can talk all day about education problems and the urban-rural divide, but Hwa says that through Mari Kita Membaca, at least they are doing something about it.
Hwa says they are in the process of recruiting volunteers from a university in Singapore; the students’ energy and enthusiasm will certainly help their cause.
“With a small organisation like ours, it’s important to stay focused and try to accomplish bite-sized tasks. Sometimes it feels like what we’re doing is a drop in the bucket, but every time we visit a village and interact with the children, it reminds me that we’re really helping real people, and that matters,” she adds.
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Lifestyle, Lifestyle, Mari Kita Membaca, volunteer story, Rusaslina Idrus, Hwa Shi-Hsia
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