Imagine you are sent far away from your home to eat, sleep, work and live with a group of strangers in a foreign environment for several weeks.
Imagine that this is a less-developed environment – possibly with no electricity, no piped water and/or no mobile phone reception – and the group of strangers you are with are from a number of different countries and cultures.
Imagine that you not only volunteered for this, but paid and/or raised funds for the entire experience yourself.
Raleigh expeditions can be quite an intense, life-changing experience for those who go on them, not to mention the communities they volunteer in.
Founded by Britain’s Prince Charles and Colonel John Blashford-Snell 40 years ago as Operation Drake, the idea was to bring together young people from around the world to participate in scientific exploration, community project and adventure, while developing their self-confidence and leadership skills.
While this initially took the form of sea voyages with land-based expeditions, Operation Raleigh – which succeeded Operation Drake in 1984 – switched completely over to land-based expeditions in 1988.
It was eventually renamed Raleigh International in 1992 to reflect the growing diversity of its expedition volunteers.
Not only that, the international sustainable development charity also set up permanent offices in other countries, including in Malaysia 31 years ago.
Says Raleigh Borneo country operations manager Alistair Logan: “Raleigh first came to Malaysian Borneo in 1987 and partnered with the conservation area authorities on environmental and scientific projects.
“Since then, our work has diversified to focus on providing communities with access to safe water and sanitation, building resilience in communities, and contributing to conservation, protection and research in one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.
“All of our programmes directly align with and contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
For example, the last few months saw expeditions of volunteers aged 17 to 24 years old, along with older volunteer managers, helping to construct a suspension bridge and track animals through camera traps in the Danum Valley, restore an area of illegally deforested palm oil land by planting trees at the Merisuli Virgin Jungle Reserve, conduct biodiversity surveys and plant trees at the Bengkoka Forest Reserve, and conduct community Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects in two rural villages in Sabah.
One of these projects was in Kampung Mempakad Darat, Pitas – a village of 38 houses and about 300 people around 30 minutes’ drive from Kota Marudu, in the Kudat division of Sabah.
It is located, along with a number of other villages, on a hilly area not far from the sea.
Ironically, the villagers – mostly small landowners growing rubber, palm oil and pepper – suffer the lack of a steady and reliable water supply.
Although the village is supplied with electricity, there is no piped water.
Village community leader Sudin Bangiusau explains that their main water source is a river located about 1km away from the village – a rather difficult walk up and down hills, especially when carrying heavy water containers.
“And when it is the dry season, the water dries up,” he says, which was what the Raleigh expedition members experienced themselves.
Volunteer manager Norhayatie Ann Markus shares that when they first came to reconnoitre the village, there was fairly regular rain.
“I thought we could go every day to the river to bathe, but by the time the first expedition arrived, the weather became dry and the river dried up.”
The Raleigh volunteers from Britain, Australia, Germany, China, and Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, who came in three groups for three weeks each, had first-hand experience of the villagers’ water difficulties.
British engineering student Hanna Berry, a member of the last group, says that they were forced to become very conservative with water, for example, using the three-bowl system for washing their eating utensils (wash with soap, rinse, disinfect with bleach water) and taking bucket showers once every three days.
“It made us a lot more conscious of the amount of water we waste and how much time the lack of running water costs,” she says.
Like the villagers, the expedition members had to buy water for their basic needs.
Sudin explains that people from other villages with a steady water supply from their river, usually come around and sell water during the dry season.
“We have to buy water – 525 litres for RM20. So, for washing clothes and bathing, we use less; it’s more for drinking,” he says.
The lack of a regular water supply also means that there are no proper toilets in the village.
“We have what we call ‘tandas terbang’ (flying toilet) – when we pass motion (empty the bowels), we put it into a plastic bag and just throw it away,” Sudin explains, adding that sometimes, the villagers will dig holes for their “business”.
As can be expected, the lack of hygienic practices does cause the villagers to fall sick rather often with infectious diseases.
Pipes, toilets and hygiene
Therefore, the aim of the Raleigh expedition was twofold: firstly, to provide the villagers with a reliable, convenient source of water, and secondly, to provide them with sanitation facilities and impart healthy hygiene practices.
Norhayatie explains that each group of volunteers had their own tasks, which combined both aims.
“The first phase (group) did the planning, including surveying the villagers for their needs, and built the dam and the first toilet.
“The second phase laid the pipes to the houses and built the second toilet, as well as did activities to increase the villagers’ awareness of hygiene.
“The third phase also had activities to increase the villagers’ awareness of hygiene and connected the pipes, as well as built the third toilet,” she shares.
The pipes, which connect to all 38 houses in the village, are part of a gravity-fed water system that originates with a natural spring about 3km from the village, which was dammed up.
The pipes also supply the three toilets – each one has a self-contained septic system that treats the waste and releases harmless residue to the ground.
The toilets, which are located at the village’s community hall, church and informal volleyball court, also have tippy taps next to them.
Tippy taps are water containers that tip over to let water out when someone steps on the stick tied to it.
This simple device helps promote hygiene as the person washing his hands need not touch the water container at all.
Norhayatie adds that the expedition also held a workshop to train the villagers how to maintain their new water and sanitation facilities, and helped them form a committee to be in charge of those facilities.
Unusually for a volunteer manager, Norhayatie stayed throughout the entire nine weeks of the project – Raleigh volunteer managers usually stay the same duration of time as the group they go in with.
“I was suppose to stay for two phases, then go to the Danum Valley, but I wanted to stay on and finish it.
“The feeling you get when you finish such a project and see the impact it has, is indescribable,” she says with a smile.
The project was supported by Sabahan community-based organisation Pacos Trust and funded by Coca-Cola Malaysia under their Water Stewardship programme, which aims to return the equivalent amount of water the company uses in their business back to nature and the community by 2020.
There was a more than usual feeling of closure and completion among the Raleigh Borneo team at the end of the project early this month.
This was because it was the last expedition before the office closes down at the end of next month.
Says Logan: “The difficult, but necessary, decision to close operations was taken after a detailed assessment for the justification of our presence in an international development context.
“Malaysia is a high Human Development Index (HDI) country – the highest of any of the countries we currently work in (which are Nepal, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Tanzania).
“In our strategy for 2017-2020, we made a commitment to support young people in low and medium HDI countries to drive sustainable development as partner and leaders in their countries, and to increase our impact and contribution to the SDGs.”
However, he adds that this is not the end of Raleigh’s presence in Malaysia.
The work of the Raleigh team will be continued by the two Raleigh alumni societies in Malaysia, Raleigh Sabah Society and Raleigh International Kuala Lumpur, which will now be collectively known as Raleigh Malaysia.
He notes that the three groups have been working closely over the past year to ensure that the transition is smooth.
One of these efforts includes having leaders of the alumni societies take part in the latest expeditions as volunteer managers in order to familiarise themselves with how Raleigh Borneo works.
Norhayatie is one of them, being the advisor to the Raleigh Sabah Society.
“Usually, Raleigh Sabah organises three-day expeditions, so I joined the Raleigh Borneo expedition to learn how to run longer expeditions,” she explains.
Says Logan: “They will continue to engage young people as partners and leaders in the design and delivery of projects and expeditions, aimed at bringing lasting change to the communities and natural environments of Malaysia.
“The two societies have pledged to join forces and undertake a series of collaborative expeditions across both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak.
“Their shared vision includes carrying out volunteer projects with the same level of impact and standard of operational safety that Raleigh programmes deliver across the globe.”