In summer 2008, a few students from Atlantic College went together to Malaysia to help local people and to gain insights into a different culture. The following is an account of the project.
Faridah Dikko (Nigeria, AC 07-09)
The main excitement and anticipation must have started sometime after the sixth hour of being on board Malaysia Airlines. Although the flight was long and involved sitting still for several hours, we were somewhat refreshed on landing in Kuala Lumpur. On the way to the hotel, we got our first glimpse of Malaysia’s beautiful landscape and architecture in addition to our first taste of its tropical climate and exquisite cuisine. With the diversity of our group, this was all new to some while others felt quite at home.
While in the capital, we were privileged to tour the sky bridge linking the Petronas towers. After this, we moved on to the various stations of Petrosains. If nothing else, this gave us quite an appetite for dinner that night.
We then flew to Miri where we tried to cram in as much sleep as physically possible before we set out for the major aspect of our project in Bario. It took roughly an hour to arrive at Bario airport.
It was here that we began our work properly. We had two days to ‘adjust’ to our new environment which was relatively easy with the help of our amazingly hospitable hosts. As we were such a large group, we resided in two different locations, both within walking distance from the school, SMK Bario.
Our average day began around seven in the morning when we got up to get dressed and have breakfast. It took a while to get used to such an amount of spice in the mornings but by the end of our stay, it was practically our way of life. We would then walk to the school to arrive a bit before eight to discuss which people would do which aspects of community service for the morning. We did several things during this time: we constructed a bridge and other structures for the children, cleaned out the paddy fields responsible for the infamous Bario rice, helped refurbish the Penan rest house, construct benches for the motivational centre at the school and painted a mural in memory of our visit to SMK Bario, amongst other activities. When this was sorted we would all go off in different groups and work till noon.
After lunch we would return to the school at two o’clock to discuss our plans for the afternoon session with the children. We started with the children a half hour later and did our best to coordinate numerous games that required the 170 children be split into smaller groups which one member of the group would work with. We agreed it would be best to vary the groups both in students and instructors to ensure they not only interacted with as many of us as possible, but with children in different classes as well. The major aim of our project was to improve the confidence with which these children spoke English as most of them already had the necessary basis, and the children whose foundation was still a bit shaky, help develop their grasp of the language. Although we worked mainly with forms one, two and three, we spent one of the afternoons working with the primary students as well. Most of our games relied heavily on group work and we were able to rope in the English aspect by giving all instructions in English and encouraging the children to communicate in English. We also encouraged them to ask questions. Some activities we lead included races, art, different sports and reaction games such as ‘Huah’ and ‘bang’. ‘Huah’ was definitely a favourite. We also taught them different songs in English and tried as much as possible to get them to converse in English. At the end of each session, we made it mandatory to have a debrief session to evaluate all aspects of the session: flaws, successes, possible areas for improvement, different approaches and techniques.
The evenings, to our relief, were considerably less physical as we visited the children in their classes for an hour. During this hour we improvised and involved them in anything that would encourage them to speak more English, but this time on a more academic level. For instance, we taught different verbs and create different skits involving these verbs. We taught songs and told them a bit about our different countries and also encouraged them to teach us about their own cultural practices. Whenever possible, we also got them to write paragraphs on random topics to ensure that all children participated. Although these sessions only lasted for an hour, it was evident that progress was made with each passing day.
Our second weekend in Bario was perhaps the most physically challenging experience most of us had ever encountered. We trekked several hours through the jungle, slipping in mud fighting the most aggressive leeches we have met yet. We spent the night in a village nearby and set off the next morning, walking several more hours before we arrived at a lodge. We returned to Bario gratefully the morning after and resumed sessions the next day.
Petrosains also made a visit and we spent two afternoons working with the children to introduce different scientific concepts. The CEO of MLNG, Mr Mohd Medan Abdullah, once a student of SMK Bario, also paid a visit and gave the children a very well-received inspirational talk.
And so the days went by and with them the shy children who spoke English in low tones transformed to confident and eager children ready to learn. The progress we had made with them was remarkable and to say all the hours of planning and working were ‘worth it’ would be an understatement. However, this would not have been possible if we did not have such cooperative and open-minded children who were ready to try just about anything we proposed. The staff of SMK Bario was also most supportive, in addition to the Bario community as a whole that made us feel more than welcome.
Our time in Bario is testimony to the fact that time flies not only when you are having fun, but also when you are working hard. The two weeks literally whizzed past and sooner than we expected it was time to say goodbye. We celebrated our last night in Bario (at least for now) with the children and community of Bario. After even more food, we all participated in different dances and other presentations involving the different classes of the school and of course the customary traditional Kelabit hornbill dance, which we even participated in! Different gifts were presented to our group and we returned the gesture to our hosts and to the students. Although we had only been there for two weeks a strong bond had developed between our group and the students of Bario and to be entirely honest, the goodbyes were harder than we expected. The famous Bario rice and pineapple were also hard to let go.
We returned once again to Miri where we were exposed to yet more culture and food. We visited Petronas Carigali where we learned more about its operations and proceedings. We spent one morning at a school in Miri where we conversed with the students. At first, we were a bit nervous seeing as we had been interacting with younger children for quite a while but luckily, everything went very smoothly. We also completed a sea survival training course before we were on the move again to Kuching. At Kuching, we visited a cultural village to expose ourselves to more of the Malaysian culture. We also visited Twintech College Sarawak, where we interacted with the students there and shared some of our Atlantic College ‘culture’ with them. That same night, we attended yet another dinner hosted by Twintech College Sarawak, where we watched some of the most amazing performances from the students. From our visit, Twintech College Sarawak has adopted a few things that they got from our visit, namely our National Evening, CEP service, and Rescue Service (their version of Lifeguards and ILB, but land rescue).
One would think that after all this hard work some relaxation would be in order. Thus, we flew to Kuala Terrenganu and sailed to Redang Island where we had the most amazing time. We took full advantage of the beach and were privileged enough to view the amazing aquatic life and environment while snorkelling. It was truly beautiful. On returning to the mainland, we visited the Terrenganu State Museum and then the market, and finally the breath-taking Crystal Mosque before returning finally to Kuala Lumpur the following day.
While in Kuala Lumpur we visited yet more schools where we interacted with the students and spoke about the International Baccalaureate and United World Colleges in general.
Petronas also contributed immensely to our project. Apart from visiting SMK Bario to lend us a hand and provide yet more opportunity for the children to learn, Petronas also granted us a very generous donation of £13000 to cover our meals, transport, accommodation and part of our airfares. Needless to say, this was immensely appreciated.
All in all and all things considered, this trip was many things: educational, breath-taking, cultural, exposing, fantastic, welcoming, and enriching. There are so many adjectives one can use to describe this experience but we daresay one can capture everything we have felt and learned over the past month. We would like to thank every single person involved in making this project the success it was.
– United World College Student Magazine –