WHAT I LEARNED IN A BORNEO CLASSROOM

Manson Toynbee October 1 1966

WHAT I LEARNED IN A BORNEO CLASSROOM

Manson Toynbee October 1 1966

WHAT I LEARNED IN A BORNEO CLASSROOM

Manson Toynbee

LUBOK BENDERA SCHOOL,” said the bowman of the perahu (canoe) and pointed his paddle at what looked like an oversized outhouse atop a hill. I scrambled out of the dugout. and immediately sank to my hips in the ooze of the riverbank. I struggled out and up the hill. The rain that had made the journey upriver miserable was now helpfully washing the river mud from my clothes.

1 peered through the doorway of the shack at a scene of bedlam. Fifty seminaked brown boys and girls w'ere jostling to keep their seats at hopelessly overcrowded rows of desks. At one end of the room two teachers were competing for the use ol a single blackboard the size of a handkerchief. The small schoolroom was also occupied by five dogs and seven fighting cocks, which had evidently come in out of the rain and, disliking the schoolroom's muddy dirt floor, were perched on the desks, the dogs scratching vigorously and the cocks flapping their wdngs.

Whoever had built the schoolhouse had not thought to level the hilltop, so the earth floor was considerably higher in the centre, and the pupils at the back could scarcely see what was going on at the front of the room.

The confusion ceased momentarily when I appeared. The senior teacher — “headmaster” was his title — welcomed me and told the children, “Class, stand and say, ‘Good morning, sir.' ” ( It was then mid-afternoon.) The children chorused the words. 1 he dogs barked and the cocks crowed.

I stood in dazed discouragement at what I saw and heard. It seemed incredible that only three weeks before I had been the principal of Gleneaglcs School, an up-to-date elementary

school in West Vancouver. Now’ I was in Sarawak, an External Aid teacher sponsored by the Canadian government under the Colombo Plan. My assignment was to supervise nine rural schools in Baram District, to try to raise teaching standards and improve the school buildings and equipment. I left Canada with only the vaguest knowledge of Borneo, the legendary home of wildmen and headhunters, and Sarawak, a country in Borneo that had been ruled for a century by the swashbuckling Brooke family, the “white rajahs,” before becoming a British colony.

On that first night of my first tour of the schools in my charge, as I struggled for sleep in a leaky thatched hut provided by the headmaster,

I found some comfort in the knowledge that the assignment was only for a year. My last thought before falling asleep was that there was at least one similarity between Sarawak and West Vancouver — the weather.

But long before the year was up I knew I would stay. In fact. I stayed nearly eight years, wdth increasing admiration for the determination of the children of Borneo’s jungles to obtain education against almost impossible odds. During my stay I also acquired, among other things, an adopted son and a native name. The last happened this way:

Soon after I arrived, a district officer introduced me to a meeting of the penphulus (native chiefs) of Baram District. To my inexperienced eye they looked very much alike, so I was surprised and — from the teacher’s viewpoint — a little disturbed to learn that the penphulus were of seven different races and that the 23.000 people they represented spoke 12 languages and as many more dialects.

The district officer introduced me as Tuan Toynbee (tuan being the Malay word for “mister”). The chiefs looked puzzled, so the officer repeated, “TOYN-BEE.” The paramount chief of Baram District, Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau. nodded and said very loudly. “Tuan Bee!” From then on my name was Tuan Bee.

Baram District possessed no roads, so journeys were made by perahu or. w’here there were paths through the jungle, on foot. Treacherous rapids were just one of the hazards of the upper reaches of the main rivers. One afternoon, when two helpers and I were paddling along a small stream, a king cobra dropped into our perahu as we passed under the tree. We hastily jumped into the water and pushed the perahu toward the bank, where one of my companions found a heavy stick and killed the deadly snake. Wet weather brought out hordes of leeches. One afternoon at the end

of a day's hike I found 34 of them attached to my foot when I removed a shoe.

On my rounds of schools I stayed with the natives in longhouses, which would be the world’s tallest buildings if stood on end — they are up to half a mile long. An entire village, up to 700 people, live in a longhouse. Each family has its own room but all residents share a community veranda. Longhouse living offers little privacy, but it is a friendly way of life that encourages community-mindedness. It took me a while to get used to dressing, undressing, bathing and shaving before an audience, and I will not soon forget my introduction to longhouse dw-elling. A bath in the nearby muddy river was followed by a supper of rice, monkey stew and jungle greens served on rather grimy dishes and eaten with our fingers. I hen came rounds of tuak, a potent native hrew' that is decidedly an acquired taste. Then the young people of the village put on a display of native dancing in my honor. About midnight I felt that I had been exposed to enough drinking and dancing for one evening. The village chief pointed to a place on the floor where I could stretch out, so I took off my outer clothing, wrapped my sarong about me, and lay down. Looking up, I saw a dozen human skulls with their empty eye sockets fixed on me. My / continued on pape 26

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To get to school: a six-day walk

host must have sensed my alarm. “Don’t worry about those.” he said. “They’re just wartime Japanese heads.”

During my first round of visits to schools in the upper reaches of the Baram River I took a step that eventually made me a father. I he school at Long Lellang, like most jungle schools in Sarawak, offered only the first four grades. Paul, a boy of nine, had finished these and had done well enough to go on to higher classes, but the nearest were a week’s journey away. Paul’s parents were not at all keen about his going so far, but eventually they agreed, providing I would keep an eye on him and have him spend school holidays with me. Two years later, on the urging of his family. I adopted him.

Paul was by no means the only Baram child who had to travel a considerable distance to obtain schooling. Three years earlier. Lian Aran, another lad from Long Lellang, made the long journey to the coast to get to secondary school. Luhat Wan, a Kayan boy, had to paddle his peralut for a day through rapids to reach the school nearest his village; a Kenyah girl paddled upriver for two days; and a Kelabit boy walked for six days across several mountains.

Once they reached the nearest schools, these youngsters, and many more like them, had to look after themselves. They cooked for themselves, washed their own clothes and often made their own little huts in which to sleep. Their families usually kept them supplied with rice, but the children had to find other food and

collect firewood. After classes they fished in nearby streams and collected bamboo shoots, fern tops, jungle greens and fruits.

The teachers with whom I worked were anxious to improve their classroom performance, but most of them had received little schooling and no teacher training. The teachers tended to start their classes from where they themselves had stopped their schooling. They seemed most confident about teaching arithmetic, so it wasn’t unusual to find that subject occupying well over half of each school day. Unfortunately, the teachers had little idea of an orderly sequence of instruction. Thus, beginning pupils might be assigned a question such as 479 times 68, before they had been taught to add one and one.

Teachers had been given a good deal of leeway in setting school holidays. Sometimes I arrived at schools to find they had been closed for several days or weeks while teachers and pupils attended cock fights or other festivals, planted or harvested crops, or went hunting. I introduced timetables and standard holidays, aimed at curtailing excessive “academic freedom.” but those measures didn't always work. One morning I reached a school at assembly time only to hear the headmaster say, “All pupils will now spend 10 minutes cutting and piling firewood for the headmaster and the assistant teacher.” 1 suggested that preparing firewood was not the best sort of activity with which to start the day’s lessons. He pointed to the

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timetable prepared by me: “7.50— 8.00. Opening Exercises,” and asked, “Isn’t cutting firewood good exercise?”

Before long I realized that by attempting to improve everything at once there was a danger that I would end up improving nothing. From then on 1 set myself a limited objective for each short training course I held and each demonstration lesson I taught. Progress was sometimes slow' — hut things did get better.

Much of my time and energy were devoted to getting improvements made to school buildings and furnishings. Little money was available, so I concentrated on improvements that could be made relatively cheaply, such as leveling floors. The villagers donated their labor and often building materials. Dozens of sheets of hardboard were purchased for full-sized blackboards. and better desks and benches were built.

There was no shortage of pupils; indeed, there were often more than we could cope with. A constant problem was getting children into school at the right age. Often parents wanted to enroll children who were obviously too young or, where schools had been newly opened, too old. It was a difficulty compounded by the fact that no birth records were kept, and parents usually couldn’t remember birthdates. The system eventually adopted was to have the child reach over the top of his head with his right arm. If he could just touch the top of his left ear he was the right age to start school. Odd though this school-readiness test may sound, it works!

Halfway through my Sarawak sojourn came a major move — to the Kelabit Highlands, a remote area in central Borneo bordering Indonesia. Twice before 1 had visited the highlands — a six-day trip by perahu through the rapids of the Baram River headwaters, followed by nine days of hiking, including climbing mountains almost 5,000 feet high. (Later an airstrip was laid out, and travel time from the coast dropped from a fortnight to less than an hour.) Kelabit schools had received little attention or help, hut 1 found teachers and pupils so eager for improvement that on my return 1 recommended a full-time Colombo Plan helper for the area. I was assigned.

My home was at the village of Bario and was a simple four-room wooden building which 1 shared with three Kelabit teachers. Food didn't present any problem since rice was abundant, and meat, vegetables and fruit were generally available. Occasionally there were delicacies such as young bees, wood slugs, padi beetles, snake, lizard, porcupine and monkey. All were quite tasty when properly prepared, though every time 1 ate monkey I felt like a cannibal, especially as a thoughtful host would give me the skull so 1 could dig out the tasty morsel of brain.

Not long after I moved to the Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak joined Malaya, Singapore and Sabah to form Malaysia, and Indonesian hostility made itself felt. Movement across the border, once unrestricted, came to a stop.

Indonesian children attending Kela-

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For an honored guest: a half-pound chunk of parboiled fat

bit schools had either to withdraw or to accept separation from their families — a difficult decision for the youngsters and their parents. One Indonesian father who came to get his two young sons changed his mind. He said to me. "Perhaps it will he a long time before my wife and 1 will see the boys again, bul I want them to learn how to read and write.”

After two villages were burned by Indonesian raiders, the authorities in Sarawak decided to encourage the Kelabits living near the border to move. This shift of population closed four schools, while enrolment at Bario increased from 70 to 300. Fortunately, the jungle is a generous provider of building materials. So the equivalent of 350 Canadian dollars covered the cost of six temporary classrooms and nousing for the more than 200 newcomers.

Kelabit villagers regarded a visit from me as sufficient excuse for holding a community feast. It seemed to me that farmyard animals viewed my arrival with alarm and my departure with relief, since several chickens, a pig or two and even a water buffalo might be slaughtered in my honor. The piles of food on such occasions were quite overwhelming, hut the village headman invariably made a speech apologizing for there being so little. Then he would offer me a chunk of parboiled pork fat weighing up to half a pound. As a guest I could refuse this first chunk and, instead, feed it to my host. Once he had managed to get this down, he would offer me a second chunk, which good Kelabit manners forbade me to refuse. What's more, it had to be chew'ed and swallowed as my host pushed it into my mouth. This pork - fat business would then he repeated on me by several other leading men of the village. My stomach still turns over at the thought of those half-cooked chunks of fat.

The Kelabits didn’t have to be persuaded of the value of education. They are intelligent, forward-looking people and they gave me whole-hearted support. School enrolment and attendance were virtually 100 percent in spite of education being neither compulsory nor free. Many Kelabit villages are a long way from the nearest school and Kelabit children must make the long journey to the coast to attend secondary classes. But during the past few years Kelabit children have done so well at secondary entrance examinations that the Malaysian government intends to start a junior secondary school at Bario next year.

While the main part of my work was with schools, I was also representative in the Kelabit Highland area for most departments of government. I was involved in checking shotguns, issuing cartridges, registering births and deaths, settling probate matters, prescribing medical treatment, collecting taxes, registering voters, conducting elections and selling postage stamps. I was also responsible for co-ordinating community development projects. These included the introduction of new crops and improved

breeds of livestock, and assistance to a co-operative shop. Other projects were the construction of cycle tracks, the drainage of swampy areas and the making of good latrines, acting as resettlement officer for the 600 Kelabits who moved to the Bario area after Indonesian hostility commenced, and helping 70 refugees from Indo-

nesian Borneo to make a fresh start.

Sometimes jobs were suggested for me that 1 didn't feel competent to take on. One evening w hen 1 w as \ ¡siting Penghulu Law ai. paramount chief ot the Kelabits. 1 suggested to him that Kelabit girls often got married much too young. Being married at the age of 12 or 13 was not onh

detrimental to their health, but also spoiled the girls’ chances of attending secondary school. Two of our most promising schoolgirls, who could have gone on to secondary classes, had recently been married. Neither had wanted to get married, but their parents had decided the issue. Kelabit mothers are professional matchmakers. Almost before girls are born, their mothers are thinking of suitable husbands for them. 1 suggested to Penghulu Law ai that the custom

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Suddenly I had a new job: to decide when girls should marry

should ho changed so that girls wouldn't be married before they were 16, or preferably 17 or 18. 1 was

pleasantly surprised when the Penghulu agreed. He added that he would speak on the subject at a meeting of villagers to be held the following afternoon.

The next day was warm and the

heat, coupled with a heavy lunch, had made me drowsy by the time the meeting got under way. 1 heard Penghulu l.awai start to speak of marriage and the evils of girls getting married when they were too young. Then he proclaimed in a forceful voice. “Yes. from now on mothers aren't to arrange any marriages. I want all mar-

riages to be arranged by Tuan Bee."

i bis brought Tuan Bee to his senses with a jolt. I protested that 1 certainly wasn't qualified to arrange marriages since I had never even succeeded in arranging one for myself. So Kelabit mothers continued to arrange marriages. though the first part of the Penghuiu's announcement was taken

to heart. During my last two years in the Kelabit Highlands, no girls under 16 got married.

Back in Canada, memories of the past seven and a half years crowd in upon me. What was to have been a short adventure in a strange land turned out to be the most satisfying job I have ever undertaken. Of course, there were disappointments. For example. the most progressive jungle villages, those that accepted education unreservedly, were soon in the worst shape. Their young people went off to the towns at the coast to obtain secondary schooling and often remained there to take jobs. Aging parents and grandparents were left to fend for themselves. As the headman of one Kelabit village told me recently, “We thought that if we sent our children to school, our longhouse would prosper, hut instead it has become an old-people's home.” For those people remaining in their jungle villages, transistor radios and tape recorders have replaced native musical instruments. the twist has taken the place of traditional dances, while the Beatles sometimes appear to command more attention and respect than do village headmen and penghnlus.

Rewards of a mission

Still, there is the positive side to be taken into account. Seven years ago there weren’t half a dozen native children from Baram District starting secondary school; this year there were more than 150 who passed entrance examinations. Already dozens of girls and boys from jungle longhouses have completed three to five years of secondary schooling and are serving their country as teachers, midwives, nurses, medical assistants, forest officers, agricultural assistants, policemen, airfield supervisors, radio operators, and in many other capacities. Now they are starting to qualify for admission to universities. Lian Aran, the Kelabit lad from Long Lellang, is in second year at Ohio State University in the U. S., studying business administration. while just a short time ago a Kenyah boy returned to Sarawak with a law degree from St. Catherine’s College. Cambridge. My adopted son Paul is in his junior matriculation year in a Sarawak boarding school and will join me in December to continue his education in British Columbia.

In Sarawak now, even remote jungle villages are starting to feel the benefits of education. Medical services arc steadily improving, with medical attendants and midwives doing much to help. Farmers are being shown how to grow better crops and raise improved livestock. Advice is being given on the construction of better longhouses and the improvement of sanitation. Women are receiving instruction in the preparation of more nourishing and appetizing food.

My last month in the Kelabit Highlands was a busy one both in work and socially, with a farewell dinner party or feast every evening but two. The largest was attended by more than 1.000 men, women and children. At all of these parties there were lengthy speeches, the main theme of which was summed up in the Kelabit words, “Naam n gal a pan” — “Don’t forget us." How could 1? ★