Often when we talk about “unsung heroes”, we always remember our freedom fighters.
Sadly, we have forgotten another breed of heroes — teachers and educators who have sacrificed so much to bring education to rural Sarawak.
In fact, trained rural native teachers have sacrificed much more than their suburban compatriots who enjoy the benefits of modernity.
Urban-based teachers prefer to serve in the towns and when sent to the wilds are more interested in completing compulsory service, often praying they are sent back to civilisation.
But the native rural teachers are fine examples of people with a burning desire to bridge the educational divide between the haves and have-nots.
I have written many stories of our rural teachers from Iban longhouse communities in Kapit to poor semi-nomadic Penan in Belaga and Baram districts in the remote interior.
In 2015, I wrote about the first rural school in the Kelabit highlands in the 564-page publication, ‘Journey into the Central Highlands — the Kelabit Leap of Faith’.
Some of the offspring of the Pa Mein school were WW2 veterans under the leadership of Major Tom Harrisson of Semut Campaign fame.
It was spearheaded by the first Indonesian-trained teacher Agan Raja @ Galih Balang and an Indonesian pastor Paul Kohuan.
Decades later, many of the first students of the Pa Main school were trained at Batu Lintang School and eventually community leaders such as ‘Penghulus and Pemancas’.
In the late 80s, I accompanied Penan Affairs Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Abang Openg, now the Sarawak Premier, to several semi-nomadic schools and found it was run by their own people.
At that time, very little funds were set aside for these rural schools which had to depend on its poor inhabitants.
One fine example is Long Lamai in the Baram headed by Penan teacher Hennerser Uning Bong and family members.
I met one of his nephews Ezra Uda, who was later to became the first semi-nomadic graduate, in political science from UNIMAS in the early 2000s.
Initially, he was attached to Abang Johari’s office to chart out a development plan for his people but is now involved in multi-tasking.
In fact, I met many teachers who spent years in the jungle in trying to encourage the people to uplift the educational status of their children.
One of them is Kenyah headmaster teacher Dan Bira, who built the all-Penan Lusong Laku primary school from scratch and won the ‘National Teachers Award’.
Many more like him such as Kelabit headmaster Willie Wing have been exemplary for encouraging the nomads to attend school.
I first met Willie in 1986 when I travelled to Long Seridan which was established in 1961; the first year’s intake was 129 pupils, the majority of whom were Kelabit.
As headmaster, Wing said that initially, the Penan’s response was poor, hitting an all-time low in 1986 when logging became a major issue and parents were advised by NGOs to withdraw their children from school.
That year, there were only four Penan students, all from the same family, out of the total intake of 35 students.
Despite this, Willie still travelled to the nomadic communities at Long Leng, Ba Lesuan and Long Balau and as far as Ba Bareh and Ba Magoh to persuade the parents to send their children to school.
When I returned to Long Seridan in 2009, I had a pleasant surprise because the Long Seridan school population had improved by leaps and bounds.
I wrote in the New Straits Times entitled ‘Uphill Task Educating the Penan’: “So far, Willie has managed to get 15 children, aged between seven and 10 years old, to join the school — five from Long Lang and 10 from Long Balau. Encouraging in a way because some have indicated an interest in going to school, but also discouraging because helping the Penan is always an uphill task.”
Said Willie: “The nomadic Penan in particular seem to have an inferiority complex because of the jungle lifestyle. They find it hard to adapt to, or associate with, the Kelabit children. So we have to be patient.”
On this trip, I was told that the Penan student population at Long Seridan school had increased to 37 pupils out of the total of 70. All the Penan children were from nomadic families at Ba Ubung, Ba Puak, Ba Bareh and Ba Magoh.
In 2011, 2017 and 2020, I made three more visits to Long Seridan and was happy to learn that its Penan school population had grown to 90 per cent.
It was an enriching experience, given the fact that I had been witness to the transformation of the Penan over the last three decades. Thanks to the likes of Uning Bong, Dan Bira, Willie and scores of teachers who have placed education as their top priority.
We must not forget these long-suffering native teachers who have given their all to our remotest and poorest citizens.
The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.