A trek through forest to reach school

The children begin walking through the jungle at 6am every day; that is the only way they can get to school. And at 13, they leave their parents to go to boarding school - the only way they can complete their schooling. Going to school in the isolated interior of Malaysia is a feat in itself. This is the sixth instalment of a nine-part series that brings to life the places and people of Malaysia many of us know little about.

About 20 children from Kampung Tiku walk an hour each day through the jungle to get to school in the neighbouring village of Buayan and make the return journey home. (Below) Children at the Buayan kindergarten.
About 20 children from Kampung Tiku walk an hour each day through the jungle to get to school in the neighbouring village of Buayan and make the return journey home. (Below) Children at the Buayan kindergarten. PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG
About 20 children from Kampung Tiku walk an hour each day through the jungle to get to school in the neighbouring village of Buayan and make the return journey home. (Below) Children at the Buayan kindergarten. PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

The suspension bridge high over the rushing Papar River sways and rocks alarmingly but to the children of the jungle school, it is as stable as a paved road in the city.

They run across, stopping to lean over to see the river, tease each other and race on to class. The bridge is part of their daily route to school through the rainforest in Malaysia's Sabah state.

About 20 children, aged six to 12, from Kampung Tiku walk an hour each day to get to school in the neighbouring village of Buayan, and make the return journey home. The trek to school is a reality of life in isolated villages in the vast interior of Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo island where there are limited roads, schools and hospitals.

They start walking at 6am, and often go barefoot but don shoes as soon as they reach school, or risk the wrath of their teachers.

Their lives seem simpler than those of people in the city and closer to nature. Yet as they grow older, they have to face a different path, one that can be far more challenging. To complete their education, they have to move to towns and cities to attend secondary school, a wrenching change for them and their parents. A lack of secondary schools in remote areas means they have little choice.

Kampung Tiku and Kampung Buayan are among nine villages along the famed Salt Trail of Sabah, so-named because the people of old used to walk the jungle path to get to the tamu (or market) to trade their produce for other goods, including salt.

They are some of the most isolated villages in Sabah, surrounded by dense forests and mountains. The people practise mostly subsistence farming, such as planting rice, vegetables and fruit, and forage in the jungle. Many also plant rubber for extra income. It takes about three to four days to walk the trail - and many tourists do so, for fun - but it is less fun for locals who have to carry heavy items such as gas cylinders.

A dirt road arrived at the end of 2012 to some of the settlements and a four-wheel drive vehicle can take two hours to travel less than 20km. Mr Mojus Gisu, from Kampung Tiku, said only one or two people own cars and fuel is expensive and not always available.

He has seven children, three of whom make the daily trek. "We have to force them to wake up early when it's still dark, so they can walk together to school," he said. "If they wake up late, they have to skip school unless one of their parents can accompany them as some are afraid to walk alone."

The government-run primary school in Buayan serves six villages in the area. This year, it has 35 children and 11 teachers. It is fairly well equipped with a cook, Internet access via satellite and solar panels for electricity.

Books, uniforms, shoes and bags are provided by the government or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and there is also an NGO-funded kindergarten with five children.

The Tiku children can be considered lucky because they can go home daily. Children who live farther, up to two hours' walk away, have to live in Kampung Buayan, either with relatives or teachers. For these children, from age seven, they no longer live at home.

By age 13, all children leave their parents to attend secondary schools in town. Some may never return except for school holidays.

It is a familiar story in these remote areas. Many parents prepare their children to be independent from a young age. "They learn to cook simple dishes like fried eggs by the time they are in Year One, and will be quite good with dishes such as fried rice by the time they are 10," said Mr Mojus, a farmer and part-time guide and porter.

Some schools get their pupils to board from Year Three or Four, even if their homes are nearby. In Kampung Buayan, there is no hostel and the teachers get the Year Six pupils to live in their homes. The teachers do this voluntarily so that the pupils can get extra classes, better food and also lessons in personal hygiene and presentable dressing. The school has almost full attendance.

As the children grow older, the challenges increase, with many struggling to adjust to life in towns and cities.

Villagers tell of students who drop out of secondary school. They struggle to fit in and socialise, and some are bullied. The children, typically shy and gentle, find it hard to manage. There are stories of drug abuse and poor academic performance, even among students who did well in primary school.

"It's usually with the boys. They often insist on leaving the school hostel to live outside with their friends. This creates problems, for example, if they don't have transport to school," said Mrs Tani Kodoyou, 49, whose children are all grown up.

Mr Mojus, whose two daughters are studying in town, said he worried more about their ability to adjust to their new life.

When his girls first left home, he made the long trip to town every fortnight to visit them, a trip that involved walking three to four hours to the nearest village to catch a bus. "It's the culture shock that is a problem. For the first few months, they didn't want to go to school, and when they came home on holidays, they didn't want to go back," he said. The families hope the government will build a secondary school, as it did in the Bario highlands of neighbouring Sarawak.

One solution proffered is to relocate the villagers closer to town. Most of them reject this.

The people of Buayan, said Mrs Tani, have lived there since the land was settled by their Dusun forefathers seven generations ago.

Progress could force their hand. Buayan and another three villages on the Salt Trail have been asked to make way for a dam to supply water to the Kota Kinabalu area.

The villagers have protested and handed over a memorandum to the government. They want to keep living in this isolated village even if life is hard - even if their children have to trek through the forest to get to school.


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