ABOUT an hour’s flight away from Miri, Sarawak and approximately 1,000 metres above sea level resides a rice farming community that numbers a little over 1,000 people. Proud of their heritage and culture, the inhabitants here strive to continue their age-old traditions.
They are the indigenous Kelabit tribe who call Bario, Sarawak, their homeland. However, over the years, more and more of their young have migrated to the city to seek a better life, some to further their studies. These days, the community struggles to maintain their ways of old.
It so happened that one day, a young stranger together with 30 other volunteers from around the country descended on their humble land. His smile genuine, Daniel Devan, co-founder of Project WHEE! reached out to them with the words: “We’re here to help.” He was only 20 years old then and certainly, Daniel recalls that it was an awkward first meeting which to his surprise, soon turned warm and welcoming within a short space of time.
Sitting in a dimly-lit cafe at Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus, Daniel confides: “What I love most about the community is the people. They know how to make you feel welcome. They had this spirit of togetherness which made you feel included, no matter what the occasion. I felt really blessed to be with them even though there were times when my stay was just as short as three days.”
Project WHEE! was first initiated by Daniel and his partner Rhonwyn Hagedorn back in 2015, in aid of rural communities in the country. Their first plan lasted for nine months, during which time they armed the locals with language and guiding skills so that they could eventually go on to develop the eco-tourism industry in their area.
Through feedback from the community, the volunteers graduated to helping them with farming and chores that required a larger manpower, such as building homes and other facilities.
Through the months, Daniel maintained close communications with the tribal representatives so that he’d be able to understand their lifestyle and in turn, ensure that Project WHEE! would be able to assist the community better.
“My plan was only to take a gap year off from studies after completing my A-levels. I was going to use that time to see whether I really wanted to pursue the medical degree that I’d planned. In a way, I was figuring out if my future was the right one for me,” con¬fides Daniel, adding: “But I never intended for that gap year to stretch to three years!”
In recognition of his patience, kindness and perseverance, Daniel was awarded the Taylor’s University Talent Scholarship, when he finally opted to hit the books once again. Sheepishly, he reveals: “It feels wonderful to be recognised and I’m really grateful for the opportunity. It’s actually quite fun to be back in school after finally getting over the fact that I’m the oldest in class!”
It has only been three months since he began his journey as a medical student but it’s more than enough time to affirm that it’s the right decision. “I feel like I have more purpose and direction now. The three years of doing social work has given me an even stronger reason to study medicine so I can help more people later on.”
SMALL ACTS OF KINDNESS
It isn’t every day that you hear of young people willingly devoting all their time to social work right after graduating from college. A gap year for many of today’s younger generation would often entail “seeing the world” or “finding oneself” or even “discovering self-fulfilment”.
But that wasn’t so for Daniel who admits that he finds sense of joy and fulfilment when he’s able to help someone, no matter the capacity. Living life to the fullest doesn’t need to be selfish, he’s quick to advise.
“I’ve always believed in small acts of kindness, whether it’s being given in the home or outside of it. But my eyes were truly open to a new kind of kindness when I had to tutor this child for a year as part of my college year-end programme. I was fascinated by how just with a little understanding and guidance, I could change the boy’s mindset towards his troubled lifestyle and empower him in the process,” shares Daniel.
As his time with his young charge slowly came to an end, Daniel’s curiosity about what would become of the boy was piqued. His voice low, he confides: “I constantly found myself wondering where this kid was going to be after I left, what would happen to him and his family, and whether my tutoring helped in any way. And that got me thinking deeper about what it meant to truly help someone who really needed it.”
That was when he decided to take a gap year to explore the possibilities of helping the less fortunate. “Being in the medical profession is a lifelong field that requires a huge heart and big passion. Most times, the money you make doesn’t really match the amount of energy you put into your job,” explains Daniel.
It wasn’t long after that he stumbled upon Hagedorn’s post on Facebook seeking for volunteers for her upcoming project to educate the Kelabit community in Bario.
“I told myself that if I were to take a year out, I wasn’t going to take the usual “travel around the world” route. What I wanted to do was get myself out of my comfort zone and see how I’d cope with it,” enthuses Daniel before adding: “I really wanted to discover something new!”
UP FOR A GOOD CHALLENGE
His first few steps into the village were tentative, to say the least. Daniel recalls: “I had never heard of the place before engaging with Hagedorn and needless to say, it was an extreme culture shock for me when I first arrived. I couldn’t believe that such a place existed in our country!”
The early days were challenging. But thanks to the presence of Sinah Rang, the homestay host whom he treated as his “adopted” godmother and who was to become his pillar of support, life became less “painful”. “It was definitely a step out of the norm for me and being so new to the idea, it wasn’t surprising that I’d be berated for not having the experience or knowledge to do what I needed to do,” recalls Daniel.
His face creases into a smile as he recalls: “But whenever I felt my spirit breaking, Sinah Rang was always there to help lift me up again. And soon enough, she became the bridge between us (volunteers from Project WHEE!) and them (the Kelabit community).”
The elderly matriarch was always there waiting for him whenever he flew in, putting a smile on his face every time he stepped off the small propeller airplane. As months passed, Daniel grew closer to Rang and was comfortable with sharing his problems with her. “She was always ready to offer her wise counsel. At the same time, she wouldn’t hesitate to tegur (chastise) me when it was necessary. She’d tell me straight away if the project was veering off course!” recounts Daniel with a chuckle.
Before he knew it, the first phase of their nine-month long plan came to its conclusion. Suffice to say, it was not always smooth sailing. The journey was riddled with challenges. Brows furrowing, Daniel recalls how teaching a new language to the older people in the community was at times very hard. Sometimes, carefully laid out plans couldn’t be realised. That said, Daniel is quick to add that each failure only served to strengthen their sense of collective strength, ingenuity and courage.
“When you fail, it doesn’t mean you completely stop what you’re doing and break down. Failures, I’ve learnt, is another way for you to strengthen yourself. Because when you recognise the failures, push through them and try to figure another plan to counter those failures, you actually discover that it’s these little glitches that make the project (and life) more fulfilling,” says Daniel.
BACK TO REALITY
Addicted to life in the highlands and the joyful rush of being able to help his adopted family in whatever way he could, Daniel found himself returning there constantly for the next three years. But like all good things, it had to come to an end — eventually. Daniel decided that it was time to go back to school.
“My parents and siblings are always supportive of whatever I do although at times, they can get a little sceptical of my ventures. But once I show them results, they’re OK again. They knew, just like I did, that despite my passion for this initiative, I couldn’t do this forever. I needed to go back to school someday.”
His experience over the past three years has made Daniel realise that the value of one’s contribution to social work cannot be judged solely by the amount of time you spend on it. Instead, it’s the efforts you put into it that matter more — that, and being able to maintain a strong and healthy human connection with the people you’re helping.
“You can never really bring about change if there’s no proper human connection to drive that needed change. Achieving that connection was what drove me to push on and wake up every morning,” shares Daniel before lapsing into thoughtful silence.
Suddenly in the distance, a crow squawks as it flies past the lake, pulling us back to the present. His smile poignant, Daniel concludes: “The people in Bario will redefine the meaning of happiness as you know it. They’ll change the way you value relationships and family. And they’ll also challenge your thoughts about what contentment really entails.”
A pause again before he ends softly: “I hope Project WHEE! will continue to provide both the rural communities and volunteers a platform to take away the kind of life lessons that you’d never be able to find in books or in the cosy comfort of your home. May the relationships that are forged be the effective change we all need.”