While Crocodile Dundee might be able to track any kind of croc, he still won’t be able to get Internet coverage in a quaint town in Sabah.
WHEN teacher Edmond Goyong needs internet access, he drives a 4WD for six kilometres to a hill. That sounds ridiculous, but not when you’re in a remote school in the east coast of Sabah.
Up until early this year, the school in Beluran district had Internet connection from a dish antenna linked to a satellite. But the speed was super slow – 1 Mbps (megabits per second).
Now, there’s no signal in Sekolah Kebangsaan Lubang Buaya, which is 85km north of Pitas town and 200km south of Beluran town.
“There is some signal near the school, but you need to climb a tree, ” said 32-year-old Dusun Tindal, who teaches English, design and technology, physical education and moral studies.
But the intermittent and weak signal is only sufficient for getting sporadic WhatsApp messages. There’s a water tank tower on which teachers can climb to get a slightly better connection.
Data-intensive services such as video meetings are out of the question. For a video call with the Beluran education office, the teachers require a stable connection from a location on higher ground.
Edmond and fellow teacher Frederic Sanan must drive for 30 minutes through a muddy road with tricky stretches through a palm oil estate to get to a hill where there’s two bars of 4G connectivity.
During the movement control order (MCO), teachers didn’t attend face-to-face meetings, so hooking up to the world wide web was always going to be essential.
Sekolah Kebangsaan Lubang Buaya is in Kampung Lubang Buaya located along Sungai Paitan. The village is named “crocodile hole” because of a reptile pit upstream of the 6m-wide river. According to legend, a huge crocodile affectionately named Black, lives in the river.
In his six years living in the teacher’s quarters in the village, Edmond, who’s from Kota Belud in Sabah’s west coast, has only twice seen crocodiles in the river.
Recalling a hair-raising moment of one of the encounters, he said, “The big crocodile was about three metres long. I was on the boat and I was afraid. Luckily, the boat engine didn’t develop any problems. The boatman was acting like it was a normal sight.”.
About 95% of the 68 primary school students of Sekolah Kebangsaan Lubang Buaya come from the village the school is named after. The Sungai villagers are mostly vegetable farmers and estate workers earning about RM250 to RM400 a month.
(Fun fact: The most famous personality from the Sungai community is Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin. His parliamentary constituency is next to the Beluran MP seat.)
There’s neither electricity nor water supply in the village. For water, the villagers rely on the rain and the river. They bathe in Sungai Paitan during the off season when crocodiles go downstream of the crocodile hole.
“It’s a challenge for the kids to do e-learning during MCO. Firstly, there is no stable internet connection in the village. Secondly, many of their parents can’t afford to own a phone, ” said Edmonds.
“Thirdly, even if they have a phone, there is no electricity for them to charge it, especially since the device needs to be used constantly for e-learning.”
During the MCO, teachers were forced to stay home, so they couldn’t be with their students for face-to-face schooling.
“The teachers had a brainstorming session on how to teach the kids during MCO. We could not go to their village to give hard copies of schoolwork because of restrictions on our movement, ” Edmond said.
The 11 teachers – including the headmasters – decided to set up a WhatsApp group for parents who possessed a phone. They posted schoolwork on the messaging app and asked parents to pass it to their children who don’t have phones.
However, in March and April, not many students could get a hard copy of the homework through WhatsApp messages because the villagers don’t have printers. The teachers told parents to advise their children to study from textbooks.
In May, during the conditional MCO, the teachers sought permission from the authorities to travel to Kampung Lubang Buaya to hand students hard copies of the schoolwork.
“The kids terlepas (left out) from e-learning during the MCO. They lost about three months of studies, ” Edmond said.
The digital divide confronting Sekolah Kebangsaan Lubang Buaya is a way of life for many in Sabah. About 52% of the students in the state, according to the Sabah Education Department director Dr Mistirine Radin, don’t have Internet access and smartphones.
To help students plug the gap, Beyond Pitas (a group that highlights the plight of the underprivileged) and social activists like Angie Chin-Tan, who’s with HanaFundMe, have kickstarted a crowdfunding campaign using the hashtags - #DigitalForAll and #DigitalUntukSemua. Those wishing to support the campaign can go to https://bit.ly/2NmFBnK.
“The digital divide doesn’t only hamper our children in learning online. Teachers are affected in the same way, too, ” said Beyond Pitas co-founder Justin Sunam-Wong.
“Being digitally divided doesn’t merely mean not having strong coverage. Some children or their parents can’t even afford gadgets. So, they are left behind by the ‘digital train’.”
As preposterous as this sounds, it’s easier to spot a crocodile in Kampung Lubang Buaya than get an Internet signal.
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