BOLSTERED by a desire to address the stark urban and rural divide in Sarawak, three women – Anna Wee, Doreen Ho and Elaine Chan – started Barefoot Mercy (BFM) in 2011 to do two things: rural electrification and building community education centres.
“I remember a passion so intense that the three of us plunged into it without resources or experience. But we have different skill sets and we learned to lean on each other’s strengths,” says Wee in an email interview.
Rural electrification, or the Gift of Light, has been BFM’s focus since then. Flowing rivers and heavy rainfall are plentiful in Sarawak and are harnessed into sustainable, clean energy.
“Village by village, we installed micro-hydro systems and to date, we have completed 11 of such projects in Lawas Highlands and Lubok Antu.”
In 2016, BFM spearheaded the task of building a community school for Penan preschoolers. Tadika Pawah, as it was named, was temporarily located in a pastor’s house and BFM was approached to assist when they had to return the house.
In 2017, BFM carried out a kindergarten project, this time in the jungle of Ulu Baram.
“That was by far the biggest and most challenging project undertaken by us. We began constructing the main community school building in June and completed it in December.”
Penan men were hired as woodcutters and construction workers, with wood sourced from the jungle.
“We bought mats weaved by Penan women for the school floor, allowing them the taste of cash economy and as a way of integrating them into mainstream society,” Wee says.
She says the first phase comprised a community school hall and the second was the adjoining boarding facilities, residents dining hall, kitchen and pantry, children’s communal sink area, new toilets and shower cubicles for preschoolers. There is also a room for a visiting principal from Kuching.
The Penan tribe is a nomadic community of about 16,000, deep in the Sarawak forest.
“Our desire is to provide the Penan children at least a baseline education, an environment to encourage learning and in the longer term, to raise a better-educated Penan generation,” Wee says.
That same year in 2017, BFM won the Star Golden Hearts Award (SGHA) for its efforts to help those in remote Sarawak.
“We thank The Star and Yayasan Gamuda for shining a light on local NGOs who try to uplift the lives of the marginalised,” says Wee.
On top of the SGHA, it also bagged the Gamuda Inspiration Award.
“The entire jungle preschool construction cost RM300,000 and the biggest chunk was from the SGHA prize money.
“In 2019, Star Foundation (the charitable arm of Star Media Group which supports SGHA) contacted us with an additional donation of RM50,000 towards the project, which enabled us to complete the second phase,” Wee adds.
But work doesn’t stop for BFM. In June this year, it went to Long Lamam to evaluate the construction of a boardwalk and jetty, similar to the one it built in Long Segah in 2022.
“We also want to find an affordable incinerator to address waste disposal in remote Sarawak and are considering activities for Penan preschoolers to reinforce ancient tribal skills, including jungle survival skills, knowledge of jungle medicinal plants, beading and weaving. This requires engaging the village elders to share their knowledge with the young,” she says.
Wee says the biggest challenge for all rural projects is logistics.
“In Long Lamam, where it’s very remote, transportation is extremely expensive. Building materials had to be ordered from Miri, transported on numerous trips in 4WDs on timber track roads for about six to seven hours to Long Segah, then another 40 minutes onward on long boats shooting the rapids,” Wee says.
She adds that there’s a limit to what NGOs can do.
“We all start big on passion but scarce on resources and we know we cannot meet all needs and solve all problems.”
Nonetheless, Wee says it is gratifying to learn that the Sarawak Alternative Rural Electrification Scheme (SARES) had began building micro-hydro systems in all outlying villages and PETRONAS is now building kindergartens for Penan communities.
“In the larger scheme of things, I think we have, in some ways, served as a catalyst for a better future for the people of rural Sarawak,” she concludes.
This story is part of a series of articles featuring past Star Golden Hearts Award winners. Nominations are now open for this year’s award. Uplift your heroes by nominating them at www.sgha.com.my before July 31, 2023.