Giving young Penans a head start

Generating more income: Wee (seated right front) meeting Penan villagers to discuss ways to improve their livelihoods in the new kindergarten building.

Generating more income: Wee (seated right front) meeting Penan villagers to discuss ways to improve their livelihoods in the new kindergarten building.

KUCHING: It was sheer joy for Barefoot Mercy co-founder Anna Wee when she set eyes on Penan kindergarten Tadika Pawah’s completed building for the first time.

This was a project the Sarawak-based vo­­lunteer organisation had been working on for the past year in collaboration with Persatuan Perkembangan Pendidikan Orang Pribumi, which runs the kindergarten in Long Lamam, a remote Penan village in the Baram district.

The new building provides a permanent home for the kindergarten, which was pre­viously housed in temporary premises.

“We were rushing to complete the building by December because we wanted it ready for the start of the new school year. In March, we went to the village with the Barefoot Mercy team, including the architects and foreman who helped with the project.

“Seeing the completed building for the first time is like giving birth. I had conceptualised the project from the beginning and it was a long process to get it built, so it really felt like having a baby,” Wee said.

During the trip, she also got to meet the Penan workers who helped to build the kindergarten and the craftswomen who wove rattan mats for the floor.

For their work on the kindergarten and other projects to improve the quality of life in Sarawak’s rural communities, Barefoot Mercy was selected as one of 10 winners of The Star Golden Hearts Awards last year.

It also received the Star-Gamuda Inspiration Award which came with an extra RM50,000.

Wee said winning the award came as a surprise and was a validation of Barefoot Mercy’s work.

“It helped us as well. The RM50,000 went mainly to the kindy project, which we have been concentrating on since undertaking it. Our funds are limited so we made this our priority,” she said.

Barefoot Mercy aims to start Phase Two of the kindergarten project in July, which involves tur­ning the former preschool building into boar­ding facilities for the children and teachers.

This will enable the children to continue attending school when their parents go into the forest to search for produce.

“We will try to make the boarding house as eco-friendly as possible and aim to finish it in three months,” Wee said.

After the project is fully completed, Wee said Barefoot Mercy would like to continue providing education support for rural communities.

At the same time, Barefoot Mercy is still working with rural communities to improve their livelihoods by providing electricity supply and sourcing artisanal local produce from them.

In July, the organisation will participate in the second pineapple fest at Puneng Trusan, one of nine villages where Barefoot Mercy has installed micro-hydro systems.

“We found out that the Puneng Trusan villagers grow a lot of pineapple, so we conducted workshops on making pineapple chutney and jam and dehydrated pineapple.

“The first pineapple fest was held last year and we will make it an annual affair. In this year’s fest, we will have a cooking competition of pineapple dishes,” Wee said.