BARAM: The happy faces of the Penan children lining up near the jetty at Sekolah Kebangsaan Long Lamei instantly cheered up the visitors after a 10-hour journey from Miri.
“Welcome!” they shouted in excitement to greet the 42 participants and organisers of the Outreach Programme.
The programme was organised by the Special Education Division of the Education Ministry at this remote school.
It was quite an arduous journey for the participants who had to traverse undulating terrain before getting into boats to face strong currents and rapids.
“This is the longest journey that I had gone through,” said programme co-ordinator Suhaimi Sapari, who had been involved in several outreach programmes in other states.
As for the participants who are from the Education Ministry, Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) and several government departments, the programme not only provided them an opportunity to visit the Penan villages and the natural surroundings in Sarawak’s Baram district but also to evaluate the community’s achievement in education.
According to the initial findings of the group, there are 1,366 Penan children in six primary schools in the Baram district.
Of the six, SK Long Lamei was picked for the study based on the high absentee and dropout rates.
No student achieved full passes in last year’s Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR).
There were various assumptions for the sad state of affairs.
Among them are that the school was in an isolated location, there is no awareness on education, students have no proper identification details and are lacking exposure to the outside world, besides socio-economic woes.
“We are here to get a first-hand look at the situation,” Suhaimi explained.
He said the first outreach programme in Baram took place in 2006 at three other Penan settlements — Long Bedian, Long Kevok and Long Lama.
“The findings of the 2006 programme resulted in the setting up of the K9 Comprehensive Special Model School (SMKK9) in Long Bedian that enables Penan students to study from pre-school to Form Three at the same school,” he added.
A subsequent review of the project indicated that the dropout rate at the three settlements reduced drastically, while their UPSR achievement improved.
“We are confident that similar success can be attained at Long Lamai if we are able to get accurate information from the community and bring their problems to higher authorities,” he said.
On the first morning of the outreach visit, participants were woken up by the racket at SK Long Lamei as early as 4am.
The 70 Penan children in the hostel were getting ready for school.
But their hostel has no bathroom, thus in the cold hours of the morning they were led by a teacher to the river some 100m from the hostel to have their bath.
As for the visitors, they had to fetch the rain water collected in a big tank and bring it to the pre-school block where they were staying, because the water supply there was erratic.
Suhakam education and promotions division assistant secretary Hasmah Abdul Manaf pointed out that it was not appropriate to expose children to the dangers of strong river current.
“I find it strange that the hostel plan failed to include bathrooms, and this should be noted by the Education Ministry,” she said.
The outreach participants also scrutinised the diet of the Penan children at SK Long Lamei.
Hasmah said the children had complained that they had not been getting nutritious meals. It is understood that the food is brought from Miri.
“The school authorities should buy vegetables and fish from the locals and this will also provide them extra income,” she added.
Touching on sex education, Hasmah is of the opinion that the awareness is very low.
“There is no need to waste time in training teachers in this aspect, the available teachers can be enlisted to assist,” she said.
“Through the sessions with the children, they will learn what is ‘safe touch’ and what is not acceptable,” she said.
Among the other proposal is that the school conducts a background check on the individuals in charge of transporting the children.
Hasmah added that the Education Ministry should also stop depending on logging firms in the district to provide transport and should instead allocate funds to appoint a trustworthy local transport service.
The visitors were befriended by a villager from nearby Kampung Long Lamai, Gayut Lim.
The 32-year-old had stopped schooling after Standard Six due to circumstances, but now has the opportunity to express his talent in art by drawing murals for SK Long Lamei and at schools as far as Sabah.
“When I have the time, I teach art on a voluntary basis to the schoolchildren here who come to see me,” he said.
Asked about development in his village, Lim lamented that they only have a road that connects Long Lamai with Long Banga, another remote village. However, he said, there were medical facilities and an airstrip that catered for small aircraft.
“But we have to walk for two hours to reach Long Banga. If you want to go faster, take the boat and you can reach in one hour but it goes through dangerous rapids,” he said.
Another villager, Jerry Bulo, 46, related how the school came about. The farmer experienced the nomadic life as a boy, until his father decided to settle permanently at Long Lamai with several other Penan families.
Their decision to settle in a permanent location was openly welcomed by the authorities who in turn established SK Long Lamei. And through the efforts of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), Kampung Long Lamai started enjoying telephone service and Internet facilities.
Bulo’s 22-year-old daughter is studying photography at Unimas.
On the final night of the three-day stay, the group was entertained by the schoolchildren and the local community even as many of the visitors were still busy looking for more information and data.
They also pooled RM700 to start a fund to help SK Long Lamei’s excellent students. — Bernama