Penans Seek Education for Their Young

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July 18, 2010 | The Borneo Post | By Jane Moh |

Some mothers in this remote community are walking the extra mile to ensure their children do not go through life unable to read and write.

A Penan mother of five left her closely knit longhouse family in Kapit to ensure her children do not end up living in a world of illiteracy.

With a daughter now in pre-school, Bawang Igoh from Rumah Puso is ready to make sacrifices to provide an education for her other children.

Her longhouse is about five hours by boat from SK Nanga Encheremin in Kapit where three of her children are studying.

Bawang carries a 14kg gas cylinder all by herself when she accompanies her children to the school – a burden she feels is only temporary.

Also with her nine-month-old baby cradled in a piece of cloth slung over her shoulders, she walks through a graveled road to the jetty for the river trip to the school with three young ones in tow.

Travelling between the longhouse and the school everyday is not something she can afford. So she has decided to put up in a flimsy shelter for herself and her children at the compound of SK Nanga Encheremin until all her brood are old enough to qualify for boarding school.

What the family calls home is smaller than a bedroom without any windows but only a door at the edge of the room for ventilation.

“I would not have done this if not because of my children but I’m all right with it – I can get used to it,” she said.

She knows she cannot return to the longhouse every week because fuel is very expensive. Another Penan mother, Ganggung, 46, also from Rumah Puso has been through the same ordeal.

“I will only go back during the long school holidays. Sometimes, if there are people from the same longhouse who want to go back, I will follow them,” she said.

Like Bawang, she now has a daughter in pre-school.

Her temporary home near the school is slightly smaller than Bawang’s and can only accommodate one mattress she shares with her daughter.

Bawang and Ganggung are not alone – 12 other families who live too far away from the school, are in the same boat. Unable to afford transportation, they have resorted to building temporary shelters at the school compound, calling them Rumah Arau – which means temporary homes.

Building temporary shelters at the school compound is the only option for most of the Penan parents because their children are too young to enter boarding school, hence ineligible to stay in the school hostel.

Last March, the school and the 14 families involved had a windfall when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak launched a programme under Yayasan 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) to repair old Rumah Arau and build new ones for them. 1MDB has donated RM100,000 to help the parents, teachers and the school.

SK Nanga Encheremin is the first rural school in the state to be given an allocation ot improve the conditions of the Rumah Arau.

Today parents no longer worry about leaking roofs or crumbling walls because the new Rumah Arau is equipped with electricity and water supply. Inspired by the concept of longhouse communitybased living, the Rumah Arau consists of a ‘ruai’, six rooms, a bathroom, a toilet and a kitchen, and also serves as a place for social interaction.

“In designing the interior of the Rumah Arau, we want to make it as close to home as possible for the parents. 

We want them to be a family and get used to the surroundings and the people around them. With the ruai, mothers, caretakers and children can sit, talk and eat together,” [SK Nanga Encheremin headmistress Jee Sin Lian] said.

Each room in the new Rumah Arau can accommodate two to three families. There are fans to cool the interior and windows for better air circulation.

With the new Rumah Arau, Jee has one cherished wish – that the parents will be more motivated to bring their children to school.

“Most parents won’t even bother because of the long distance between their longhouse and the school. The Rumah Arau is set up especially to ease the difficulties faced by the mothers and the caretakers,” she added.

  • Excerpt reproduced with the permission of The Borneo Post, Malaysia