Inspiring response to the Pitas Road

Netizens and organisations are supporting the project with both prayers and cash, but the official response so far has been underwhelming.

WOMEN who are married to powerful men in Sabah’s Pitas district should cross their legs if they are concerned about the plight of pregnant women who risk their lives travelling in a boat to give birth in a government clinic.

Two Saturdays ago, I was in the poverty-stricken Kampung Dowokon in Pitas district.

Villagers told me that heavily pregnant women from six villages had to trek several kilometres to Kampung Pinapak so they could travel for at least 12km by boat on Sungai Bengkoka to a government clinic in Kampung Dandun.

Since the 1980s, six villagers have given birth – including one in a boat – on their way to delivery. Eight villagers have died on the way to seek medical treatment for venomous snakebite or stomach-ache.

I got the “cross legs” idea after returning from the bittersweet trip to Kampung Dowo­kon. Back in Kota Kinabalu, about 185km south of Pitas town, I saw the July edition of Reader’s Digest in my wife’s house.

There was an article similar to the plight of the people in Pitas district, which is one of the poorest and most undeveloped areas in Malaysia.

The Malaysian flag, flying in Kampung Dowokon, Pitas, says it all. - Pix by Risma Robin.

In Colombia, a 57km road linking the isolated village of Barbacoas to the outside world was so bad that it took half a day to reach the nearest town.

Many deaths were linked to the road. Despite years of protest, hunger strikes and unfulfilled promises, nobody bothered to fix it.

Women hit the streets in June 2011 after a woman and her unborn child died in an ambulance after it got stuck on the road and couldn’t reach a hospital in time.

Their protest was called “the crossed legs movement”.

It was a modern twist to the Greek Lysistrata tale, in which women withheld sex from their men to force an end to the Peloponnesian War.

“We are being deprived of our most human rights and as women we can’t allow that to happen … Why bring children into this world when they can just die without medical attention and we can’t even offer them the most basic rights?” said Ruby Quinonez, one of the leaders of the “crossed legs movement”, as reported by

“We decided to stop having sex and stop having children until the state fulfils its pre­vious promises.”

About 300 women took part in denying their partners sex.

The “crossed legs” strike ended nearly four months later, after Colombia Transport Minister German Cardona pledged to invest US$21mil (RM68mil) to pave the first 27km of the 57km road.

What happened when the strike ended?

“That night, we devoted ourselves to our husbands. The desire was great and we took advantage of it,” Luz Marina Castillo, a leader of the protest, told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

Back to Kampung Dowokon, which some call the “Lost World” as not many people have visited it, as it is inaccessible by road.

I visited the village as I heard an amazing story about poor villagers building a 7.4km timber road, as they could not wait for the road the Government had promised in 1999.

Using parangs, two chainsaws and an excavator, they started building the road on June 23.

So far, the timber road, which is a 47- minute drive on a four-wheel drive vehicle with “a top speed of 10kph”, has reached Kampung Dowokon.

If it rains, the road is inaccessible. However, for the villagers, the timber road is better than nothing.

Throughout the years, Sungai Bengkoka has become shallow from land-clearing activities upstream.

When the water level is low, the 12km boat ride from Kampung Pinapak to Kampung Dandun will take two hours, that is, double the time.

Boatmen and passengers have to pull the boat, as the water level is about 30cm.

Once completed, the timber road will connect six villages – Kg Dowokon, Kg Mandamai, Kg Kobon, Kg Perupok, Kg Maliau Pusat and Kg Maliau Layung – to Pitas town.

It will benefit about 3,000 villagers whose ethnicity is Dusun Sonsogon, Dusun Kimara­gang and Dusun Sandayo.

Most of the adults are subsistence farmers earning between RM150 and RM200 a month.

After my article on the road project was published last Saturday, many – including organisations such as Institut Onn Ja’afar and Impian Sabah – have come forward to offer help to the villagers.

One of the most touching letters I read on the Pitas Road Project Facebook page was co-written by a 12-year-old girl with her six-year-old sister and her two-year-old bro­ther.

“Dear friends in Kg Mandamai, Kg Kobon, Kg Perupok, Kg Dowokon, Kg Maliau Pusat and Kg Maliau Layung, Pitas Sabah.

“We are sorry to hear you have no road access to your villagers,” the three Sabahans wrote.

“We pray that there will be a nice road for you soon. So you don’t have to walk four hours to school daily. We are sending our love and help for #PitasRoad.”

They donated to #PitasRoad. The 12-year-old girl gave money she had saved for a Geronimo Stilton book and the six-year-old girl gifted cash she had made that day selling looms bands.

The response to the Pitas road project has been inspiring, according to the team involved in promoting it.

If our Facebook page (Pitas Road Project #PitasRoad) could be an indicator, the response was great, said Justin Sunam-Wong, a 42- year-old urbanite who is a farmer from Beau­fort in Sabah.

“Considering the page was only up in the evening of Monday.

“Malaysians are really rallying behind this campaign and I’m inspired to note that other movements – motivated by the show of support by netizens – are organising their own events (to support the project),” Sunam-Wong Whatsapp-ed on Thursday.

“The response in my opinion, is far better than expected considering that #PitasRoad is relatively unknown until only in recent weeks.”

Disappointing is the muted response from powerful men in Pitas on the road project. Perhaps their wives or lovers should cross their legs to warm them up to the project.

Related story:

The last leg to the ‘Lost World’

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Opinion , Philip Golingai


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