Orang Asli young shoots start education with lessons in roots and identity

Sharon Tan

The classes are often held outdoors. Just last week, the children received a lesson in the folklore of their village by the river. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Kamal Ariffin, November 12, 2017.

SATURDAY, 8am. A group of Semai children make their way to the community learning centre in Kampung Tual in Pahang. The girls arrive early and start kicking around a ball left out on the field from last evening’s football game. It soon turns a serious match. The boys trickling in watch from the sidelines.

At 8.30am sharp, teacher Miwes Masital calls them into the centre, commonly referred to as PDK (Pusat Didikan Kommuniti). A short reading and writing session gets under way before the clearly more fun lesson of playing the chentong, a traditional bamboo musical instrument, and performing the sewang, a traditional dance.

Opened in April 2014, the PDK Cenwaey Penaney, meaning “shoots of ingenuity” in the Semai native tongue, is a learning centre for about 100 children from Kampung Tual A & B. 

The children are not only taught reading, writing and counting but also culture, language, history, and craft-making.

“The children need to learn their story. Our culture, language and stories are not taught in schools,” says Harun Siden, the 43-year-old Tok Batin of Kampung Tual A.

“Before they go and mix with others, they must learn about their identity and roots. Otherwise, they won’t know or they will forget who they are,” says Harun, who doubles up as a teacher at the centre on most afternoons, telling the children folk stories and teaching them the culture, language and history of the community.

Learning is fun for children taught to play the chentong, a traditional bamboo musical instrument, and perform the sewang, a traditional dance. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Kamal Ariffin, November 12, 2017.

More often than not, his classes take place outdoors. Last week, Harun took the children to a river to tell them a story about a rock that features in the folklore of the village.

Harun, who works on his farm in the mornings, said the lessons instilled in the children a sense of confidence, which he said they would need when out of the village.

“Sometimes, especially when they are in school, they get teased or bullied. They don’t know how to defend themselves and they want to run away (from school).

“We must teach them to defend themselves. They should not run. I teach them that they must not ‘terasa’ if they want to learn,” said Harun, who as a child also experienced being teased for being an Orang Asli.

The PDK of Kampung Tual in Pos Sendrut, about 45 minutes from Raub town, is the brainchild of Jenita Engi, a staff member at the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), and Miwes, who is also known as Ewok. 

They, along with COAC coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas, took the idea of a community school for preschool children to the Semai community in 2013.

“After Jenita finished her diploma in Early Childhood Education, she wanted to start a school. She was looking for a village to do that. As we were in contact with the people there (Kampung Tual) and Ewok is also from there, it seemed ideal. 

“A couple of meetings with the community later, they embraced the idea,” Nicholas told The Malaysian Insight after a recent visit to Kampung Tual.

The initial plan was for a preschool to ensure the children would be able to read and write by the time they entered Standard 1. 

It has since morphed into a learning centre catering to children between 2 and 15.

“We wanted the curriculum to be adapted to the culture as well,” said Nicholas, adding the idea is not new, as similar learning centres have cropped up in various orang asli communities nationwide.

The children are guided with stories based on folklore and lessons in the culture, language and history of the community. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Kamal Ariffin, November 12, 2017.

Jenita, who is a Temuan from Negri Sembilan, developed the modules for the school to suit the community. 

After speaking with the villagers, she decided to incorporate folk stories, craft-making and medicinal plant knowledge into the modules.

“The pedagogy of the Orang Asli is very different from what we have in schools today. We have a science teacher for science, geography teacher for geography.

“There, the village is the whole school. The parents, the elders, your cousins and uncles. Everybody teaches. Anybody with a skill or knowledge will pass it on, not only to their own children, but children of the village,” said Nicholas.

The 36m-by-18m building was constructed by the community using wood and bamboo from the nearby forest. 

It has a library, quarters for teachers, a hall and a few classrooms. The children attend daily classes than run in two sessions; morning and afternoon. The students are also given a meal at the centre.

“Three or four months after the school opened, a nearby schoolteacher came to see Jenita (who no longer teaches there) as she noticed a difference in the children. They were more willing to speak up, talk and participate. The teacher was trying to find out why.

“The single biggest motivator the children have in this school compared with other schools is trust. They trust their teachers because the teachers are from their own village or people they know,” Nicholas said.

The centre has three teachers, two assistant teachers, a gardener and two kitchen helpers.

The centre is not to replace formal education but to serve as a supplementary learning centre, especially for those who have dropped out of school for reasons such as poor adaptability or inability to cope.

And, on days when the transport truck breaks down or there is heavy rain, the children head to the centre for lessons instead.

The children also learn to grow vegetables at the centre.

“In fact, it was the children’s idea to have a vegetable patch when we told them that funds to run the centre were low. So, they now help the gardener manage the vegetable patch,” said Ewok, who has a diploma in Broadcasting (from TV3) and a degree in film and video from Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan.

Teacher Jalil Pariman, 23, has been involved in the centre right from the planning stages. COAC has also sent him to similar centres around the country for exposure and to pick up anything helpful before returning to teach fulltime at PDK.

Jalil, whose formal schooling stopped at Form Four, teaches Bahasa Malaysia and a little English to the younger children. He also teaches an adult reading class.

“We have no problems teaching but there are other challenges, such as the lack of textbooks and resources,” he said.

In the coming year ahead, Miwes said the centre will face funding issues as the main contributor has just ended its sponsorship of RM75,000, which goes to pay the salaries, administrative costs and for the food.

“With just one-and-a-half months left of the year, it will be a scramble to find funds for the coming year,” he said.  – November 12, 2017.

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