Bilkuin Jimmysali, Enidah Mulsid and Shima Manan are barely out of their teens but they have been vested with the responsibility to provide basic education to the children of their Bajau Laut community in Pulau Omadal, a remote island on the waters off Semporna, Sabah.
Tagged as mastal arikik, which in the Bajau dialect means ‘little teacher’, the trio is doing what they can to teach the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) to the children because they know the mastery of these basic skills will eventually help them to have a better quality of life.
Bilquin,18, Enidah,19, and Shima,16, have not had formal schooling themselves but they have learned the three Rs and are adequately skilled to teach children.
Pulau Omadal has a makeshift school, named Iskul Sama Dilaut Omadal and supported by various charitable institutions, where the three mastal arikik and two other volunteers (and trained) teachers teach 33 "pupils” aged between six and 15 to read, write and do simple mathematics.
In a Zoom interview with Bernama recently, Bilquin said that when he told his relatives and friends about his intention to teach two years ago, they discouraged him.
"They said there was no point in me becoming a teacher as I was just a Bajau Laut youth who has no (formal) education. But I was determined to teach the children from my community as I want more of them to master the three Rs so that they are not easily duped by others who look down on our community,” he said.
Mission to remove the stigma
Bilkuin was among the first batch of pupils to attend classes at the school in Pulau Omadal when it opened in 2015. Describing basic education as the right of all children and not exclusive to only certain people, he said he and his peers will strive to give their best to the children who come to their school.
He said most of the Bajau Laut people are fishermen and lead nomadic lives; as such, they have poor access to services such as education and healthcare.
Then, there is also the perceived stigma attached to their community: That they are oppressed and prone to social ills.
"I do admit that one of the social ills facing a large number of our people here is glue sniffing. This is why I feel it’s important for youths like me to do what we can to help unearth the potential of our children here. How long can we go on being uneducated and bullied and cheated by others?” Bilkuin said.
He added that many Bajau Laut children are also being exploited by irresponsible people and forced to work in Semporna.
"At their age, they shouldn’t be working... but the lack of education and poverty are driving others to take advantage of our people.”
At the school, Bilkuin and his colleagues teach the children Bahasa Melayu, mathematics, art and culture.
They also hold sessions outside the classroom as they believe that outdoor classes will create awareness about the environment. Among the subjects they are taught outdoors are life sciences, agriculture and even marine science.
Classes are held between 8am and noon. Before the session begins each day, the pupils are taught self-hygiene skills like how to keep themselves clean and brush their teeth. They are also given breakfast which they eat while reading a book.
"During our Bahasa Melayu class, we teach them the basic skills like recognising letters, spelling and writing. During mathematics class, they are taught to recognise numbers and to count,” Bilkuin said.
Since their school is located on an island, the teachers have also taken on the task of teaching their pupils basic aspects of marine science to educate them on the importance of conserving the ocean.
"Our objective is to guide them to take care of the sea and their surroundings,” he added.
Their school is about 237 square metres big and has four classrooms. As it is built on stilts over the water, the pupils can only play games such as football on the school grounds when the seawater has completely receded.
The school is also involved in a hydroponic agricultural project - complete with a pump powered by solar energy - carried out in collaboration with Universiti Putra Malaysia’s University Community Transformation Centre and Faculty of Agriculture as well as Maybank.
Jefry Musa, 28, who is one of the trained volunteer teachers at the school and is from Kuantan, Pahang, said through the project, the local community in Pulau Omadal is taught hydroponic cultivation of vegetables such as sawi, kangkong and spinach.
"I’m hoping that our school here can teach more subjects to enable our pupils to gain new skills and knowledge. We want to expose them to computers and Internet technology as the Bajau Laut community has had no exposure to such things,” he said.
Far away and neglected
Jefry said the school also runs a mini-clinic where the pupils and local community can have access to medicines for non-critical illnesses such as headache, cough and skin problems.
He said the common skin conditions afflicting the Bajau Laut children are scabies and impetigo, caused by their unhygienic living conditions and lack of access to clean water.
"Previously, their nearest clinic was in Pulau Bum-Bum which is a 20-minute boat ride from Pulau Omadal, or Semporna which is 30 minutes away.
"We decided to open our own mini-clinic so that the local community here can get basic medicines without having to go far. Imagine how easy it is for most Malaysians to get hold of Panadol or antibiotics but for these people here, it’s so difficult to get even these simple medications,” he said.
Asked what kind of hopes the Bajau Laut children had in conjunction with the National Day celebrations on Aug 31, Jefry said nothing can make them happier than getting the opportunity to enjoy formal schooling and having access to basic amenities like healthcare and clean water.
He said currently the school is striving to provide each family in Pulau Omadal with a 100-gallon tank to collect rainwater.
"But it’s not sufficient because they can collect clean water only when it rains,” he said.
He said when they were in the midst of opening the school seven years ago with the help of various organisations, they encountered several problems and did not even have a proper place to teach the children.
"We used to conduct classes beside their homes or under a tree. But finally, we succeeded in providing them with a proper school where they have quite a comfortable environment to learn.
"However, it’s still not enough. We hope more people will come forward to give us the funds and expertise to improve the Bajau Laut people’s access to healthcare and medicines. We also dream of bridging the education gap not only in Pulau Omadal but also the other islands in the surrounding area because the communities here desperately need a more inclusive schooling system,” he said.
Pointing out that the independence enjoyed by Malaysians is the result of the struggles their forefathers went through, Jefry added that it is the duty of this nation’s present generation to liberate the less-privileged communities from the shackles of illiteracy and poverty so that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the nation’s progress and prosperity. - Bernama