EVERY time I meet the members of Barefoot Mercy, I’m struck by their enthusiasm and energy for the work they do to bring basic amenities to Sarawak’s rural communities.
Founded in 2011 by a small group of concerned citizens, Barefoot Mercy provides practical assistance to remote villages in partnership with urban dwellers and like-minded organisations.
It started out by distributing water tanks to villages with no piped supply before moving on to micro-hydro projects, which harness the power of streams to generate electricity for off-grid communities.
To date, Barefoot Mercy has installed nine micro-hydro systems in the Lawas highlands and Lubok Antu. It has held three “Light-Up” celebrations to mark the completion of the projects and also provide an opportunity for interested city folk and groups to join the Barefoot Mercy team in visiting rural communities and exploring potential collaborations.
During a chat about the latest light-up ceremony, I was impressed not only by how whole-heartedly committed the Barefoot Mercy members were about what they do, but how they were able to transmit their enthusiasm and vision to others.
The team which went on this particular trip to the Lun Bawang villages of Long Resina, Long Lidung and Long Beluyu included representatives from the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre social entrepreneurship unit (MaGIC SE) and Singapore-based Rucksack Group, who are now looking at venturing into social enterprise with Barefoot Mercy and the villagers.
There were also a couple of “random strangers”, in the words of founding member Anna Wee, who found out about the trip on Facebook and asked if they could go along.
Despite coming from different backgrounds and, in some cases, not knowing anyone else, the 12-member team got along really well and became like family during the trip, Wee said.
They ended up brainstorming all kinds of ideas to help the villagers improve their livelihood now that they have electricity supply, from setting up a homestay to promoting indigenous products like handmade baskets, natural salt, semah fish and vanilla grown in the highlands.
Along the way, team members like Rucksack’s Samantha Chan and Suzana Tukang, one of the Facebook strangers, found themselves inspired by Barefoot Mercy’s work as well as the villagers’ hospitality and the opportunities for collaboration.
“It was an eye-opening and heartening trip for me,” Suzana said. “I was surprised that Barefoot Mercy was just a small organisation with only a few people. What Barefoot Mercy does is connecting villagers and urbanites.
“It’s a good platform for those of us with a desire to help but don’t know how to. Personally, from this trip I learnt that you don’t need so many hands to do things for people, it’s the heart that’s important.”
She added that if there was something she could contribute to Barefoot Mercy’s work, she would like to explore it.
Chan, who is looking at starting a homestay programme in collaboration with the villagers, said she was very touched by the hospitality of the Lun Bawang people.
“One area we can contribute is the hospitality business. How our organisation can come in is to give the Lun Bawang people a sense of livelihood.
“In exchange they teach urbanites what is real humility. Urbanites are rich in material things but poor in spirit. The villagers are poor in material things but rich in spirit. It’s a good exchange.
“We want to come in with our expertise. The homestay should be authentic but with some comforts in place.”
Chan said the homestay programme would be a social enterprise with the villagers, who could perhaps take turns to host urban visitors.
“This is true ecotourism, it’s preserving the culture. All this stems from the micro-hydro providing a basic amenity for the villagers,” she said.
Surveying the new ideas and potential collaborations, Wee said she never thought Barefoot Mercy would come this far when it first started.
“Now we’ve gone further and touched more lives, including two random strangers who contacted us through Facebook and two volunteers from MaGIC SE.
“Out of this trip, we have great collaboration and we’re brainstorming ideas on starting a line of Barefoot Mercy products,” she said.
These are exciting times for Barefoot Mercy. It goes to show how far a small organisation can go towards uplifting the livelihood of rural communities through passion, commitment and cooperation.
What they do is truly heartwarming and inspiring. I’ll definitely cheer them on to keep up the good work.