Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Orang Asli of Kampung Landap

During the chinese new year holidays, we were given the opportunity to visit an orang asli (indigenous people) settlement in Kampung Landap, Perak. It was really a mind and soul opening experience for us.

To say that the orang asli are 'uncivilised' would be a misconception. Even though they may appear materially and technologically behind compared to the average citizen living outside of their settlement, socially, they are way more civilized than most of us are.
They survive by living communaly, participating and contributing all that they have and can for the good of the whole community. In the mornings, whoever who has a motorcycle would pick up whichever children that were ready and would send them to the nearest school, about 5kms downriver, through a palm oil plantation, on a bumpy tar road that could fit only one car going either way. They own only one beat up Proton Saga, courtesy of a generous donor who had no use of it longer, and that car is shared by all, not only to send and pick up kids to and from school, but also to send men off to jobs in the plantations, to ferry those who wants to catch the bus to town (and pick them up again when they came home at a promised time), to drive pregnant moms to the nearest health clinic for their check-ups and to run errands that is too far to reach by foot.

In the middle of the settlement is a huge 'balai', a hut without walls. On one side of the hut is a platform where people could gather around and discuss matters with the tok balai or the penghulu (the chief). This was where were greeted by almost the whole community. Bear in mind, we were not dignitaries, we were merely curious folks, but we were welcomed with open arms and several sweet smelling durians and cempedaks. One the other side of the hut were placed 2 low wood burning stoves, and this is where the women work together to prepare lunch for the whole village. I watched women, children and men cutting fish, trimming vegetables, peeling onions, checking on steaming rice, sauteing simple ingredients and stirring curry, just like during the kenduri kawin (wedding parties) of bygone times before the advent of catering services.

We tried to find out as much as we could about their life. Even though language was a slight barrier (they speak the temiar dialect/language, and we don't), fortunately we had the help of a man who calls himself Tuan Speaker, to translate and explain things to us. Tuan Speaker and his team of volunteers have been working with the orang asli, and not just in Kampung Landap, for a long time. They have managed to diplomatically 'teach' the orang asli about the importance of proper hygiene, about pre and post natal check-ups in tackling infant mortality and they have managed to start a fish rearing pond, and a duck rearing pen.

Most importantly though, they have also managed to teach the orang asli about proper nutrition. The orang asli's diet consists mainly of tubers, especially tapioca and sweet potatoes. Lack of protein and essential vitamins and minerals have left most of them malnourished. This was most evident with the children. We met a boy whom we thought were the same age as Izani, who is 7 years old, based on his size, but who turned out to be 12. The effects of malnutrition is also evident in the children's performence in school. It's not a surprise, since if your brain does not get the fuel it needs, how would you expect it to perform. We're not saying these children are stupid, we just feel that they have the potential to be smarter if given what other children normally gets.
At the moment the orang asli are already eating a more balanced meal, but having access to ingredients is not as easy as walking to your neighbourhood grocery store. There is not even a neighbourhood grocery store. Currently there are generous folks that donate weekly groceries, but how long can they (or should they) survive on hand outs? The fish&duck rearing projects will be one source of income (and protein), but they have expressed their desire to be able to do more farming.

Here, I was struck by a moral dillema. (I now say 'I', because it won't be right for me to assume the others in my party share my prejudices, presumptions and ignorance).
I see the orang asli as happy, contented people. They have lived this way of life for generations. They have lived as one with nature, taking care of it just as it takes care of them. They have absolutely no concept, dependence or value of money and therefore they have a sense of freedom that some of us dream of. So why do we need to introduce them to our expectations of civilization? Would it bring them any good, or would it just put them into harms way?
On the other hand, no matter how hard they try, our brand of 'civilization' will and has crept into their lives. More of the orang asli children are exposed and want to move outside of their village, and more of the parents are encouraging their children to do so. More 'civilised' people are also reaching their village, and not all of them are good (for example, the guy who bought a truck-full of durians from the orang asli and paid a mere RM30 for it). They need the knowledge to protect their rights.
The more romantic side of me also reminded me of all the feelgood movies I have watched throughout my life, where the weak dare to reach for the stars and eventually triumph over circumstances and fulfill their dream. I look into the eyes of the orang asli children and think, what if one of them wants to be a doctor, a scientist, an astronaut? Or maybe even a mechanic, or a tech-savvy farmer? Why shouldn't we give them, at least, a fighting chance?

So here's what we've been thinking (yes, it's back to 'we'):
The children needs proper nutrition so that they have equal opportunity as anyone else in this country to excell in school (and eventually reach their dreams). To be able to provide this to the children, the parents need to have the ability and access to nutritious food, either by growing/rearing their own, or having a steady income to be able to afford them.
Therefore, we propose to:
1. To donate a chainsaw and a weed-whacker, to be used to clear plots of land for farming and to be used to provide income generating services to the nearby plantations. Estimated cost RM3000.
2. To teach how to make tapioca, sweet potato and/or banana chips, which they can package and sell. (We have been blessed with a volunteer instructor for this, alhamdulillah!)
3. To teach how to make banana&cempedak fritters and to donate necessary equipments, for some of them to start up a stall by the amazingly clear and cooling riverside that is frequented by nearby villagers to swim in. Estimated cost RM500.

If any of you would like to help us out, or if you have any other ideas to add to this, please do contact me via the comment box below, or via