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Published: Monday December 23, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday December 23, 2013 MYT 9:47:39 AM

Jungle jingle bells

What's Christmas without presents? -- The Star/Ann Marie Chandy

What's Christmas without presents? -- The Star/Ann Marie Chandy

The spirit of giving took on new meaning thanks to a seasonal celebration with an orang asli community.

CHRISTMAS has always been a time of giving. As a child, I remember waiting for the holiday season because it meant gathering with all my cousins at my late granduncle’s house in Klang, where we would eat, pray and share our love for each other year after year. The best part, of course, was when the presents would be parcelled out to every child.

This Christmas my church decided to embark on a very different kind of project of giving. We celebrated early with an orang asli (OA) kampung located in the jungles of Perak.

The junior hockey team — the sticks were carved out from wood!

There were about 150 adults and children in the Semai-speaking community and they are mostly hunter-gatherers. The Semai here are a simple people, with no electricity or piped water. The children do not go to school and the adults earn a small sum by collecting palm oil kernels for the plantation owners right next to where they live.

Our group has sort of “adopted” the kampung and have a five-year programme mapped out in which we are trying to instill a love for learning among the children so they will attend schools as well as to empower the community leaders and elders to know their rights and take proper measures to keep their community medically sound. These community development initiatives started with the formation of a local OA community committee, and it is always great to see the committee members turn up for meetings, eager to contribute ideas.

The writer with Momek, one of her favourites among the little ones.

Last weekend, after two months of planning and meeting with the OA community to brainstorm, we had a Semai-style Christmas celebration.

It was a first for me. And it was a glorious, albeit wet, Saturday that I will always remember.

Where in the past I have been trained by my mother to give generously when it comes to charity and have always tried to do so during the Christmas season, this time my eyes were opened to a giving of a different sort, and at the same time to receive gracefully from the community. This made us equals, all of us interdependent.

Spurred by community worker Jasmine Adaickalam, my church group was told to change our mindsets of giving. Our mission was to concentrate on the community’s skills and hard work, and to restore their dignity and self-worth. Making the community mere recipients of services was a clear no-no. We were to think in terms of empowering these humble folk to put up their own version of a Christmas.

So no party hats and poppers. No angel wings or royal cloaks.

Semai style: The children put up a Nativity play and, to indicate the different characters, wore differently-shaped headgear that they had woven out of palm fronds. -- Photos by ANN MARIE CHANDY/The Star
The children put up a nativity play.

Age old story

The little orang asli children – aged between six and 12 – put up their version of the Nativity play, directed by community mobiliser Ibu Amoi, a member of a nearby Semai community who is not just literate but trilingual (and such a blessing to us all!).

The kids were great – they were dressed in their usual clothes but their headgear, woven from palm leaves, defined their roles, whether they were shepherds or Magi. And they sang their hearts out when it came to the carols – ever heard Angels We Have Heard On High in Semai? Now I have.

What’s more is that the community made percussion instruments from bamboo sticks to accompany the kids’ singing. I have sat through many a Nativity play in my 45 years and I can safely say that this is one I will remember for a long time. The shepherds (bless each one of them) were all dressed in football jerseys, which seem to be in abundant supply from donors of all walks of life.

A Semai style Christmas tree!

The orang asli built bamboo benches for the “orang bandar” to sit on, and a makeshift tent was constructed to keep the rain out. There was a Semai style Christmas tree, with little woven ornaments (birds!) and the guests (who arrived by bus from Kuala Lumpur) were all given little headdresses to wear.

The orang asli had made baskets out of newspaper for sale, and were also selling coconuts, petai, pucuk paku and cili padi to earn a few ringgit. Here, our aim is to slowly and steadily initiate a budding business community.

The orang bandar brought face paints and ice cream and organised a hockey match (the hockey sticks were carved out in advance by the orang asli) and Kentucky Fried Chicken donated lunch for all.

But it was more than just fun and games, more than presents and carols. It was faces filled with joy and confidence; adults in the community who had spent months planning and preparing for the event; children who have never performed for an audience, confidently acting and singing, and earning well-deserved applause; youth who have never interacted with outside folk much, inviting us into their village, making us feel welcome, and sharing with us what was theirs.

The beautiful — and strong! — baskets the orang asli crafted out of old newspapers.

This Christmas, I believe we assisted in enabling this community to host their very own Christmas celebration for the first time; we helped support their dignity, and enhance their sense of worth.

And that was amazing to be a part of. I hope we continue on a path that will eventually see them tell us we are not needed any more, that they have it all mapped out on their own. That will be a Christmas present worth its weight in gold (frankincense and myrrh)!

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Christmas, Orang Asli

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