AN a/l Tahan is 12 years old. He harbours an ambition far beyond his age.
A child from the Batek Orang Asli tribe living in Kuala Tahan, Pahang, An was asked what his plans were when he grows up.
Rather nonchalantly, An said: “Saya mahu jadi bos Jakoa (I want to be the director-general of Jakoa).” (Jakoa is the Department of Orang Asli Development).
For someone so young, I thought that the boy made a telling statement. There are sections of the Orang Asli community that may feel Jakoa has not done enough for them. On the other hand, Jakoa’s work has not been easy, given the Orang Asli’s “disinterest and indifferent attitude” in efforts to assimilate them into the social and economic mainstream of daily life.
An lives in Kampong Dedari in Kuala Tahan, Taman Negara. One can access Kampung Dedari via a short boat ride from the Kuala Tahan jetty or via the jungle track using a 4x4 vehicle.
An’s village can be seen from Sungai Tembeling, one of the main rivers in Taman Negara. It is often visited by tourists.
There are other Orang Asli villages along the same river — Kampong Aur, Teresek and Yong — but Kampung Dedari is the nearest to Kuala Tahan, the commercial centre of Taman Negara.
The story of An and 55 other children in these villages have to be told. Everyone must know their story. Theirs is a bold attempt to get these children to enrol in a regular school.
Sixteen years ago, children from the Batek tribe in these villages enrolled in a regular school. However, they did not last. After about two weeks, they ran away and never went back to school.
There were many reasons for this. The children have not heard of school their entire life. They live in the jungle, their parents did not go to school and education has never been a priority. Education for them was all about living skills. No maths, no essay, no history.
School is like a prison, where one is trapped for several hours trying to understand strange formulas and theories. Everything that an Orang Asli child needs in life is taught by his parents, passed down from generation to generation.
An and the 55 children are embarking on a new education adventure. These children, aged between 6 and 16, have been grouped into a single class at SK Kuala Tahan.
This is an initiative started by four main parties: Kelab Pencinta Burung Taman Negara, SK Kuala Tahan, the District Education Office and Jakoa. The driving force behind this effort is Roslan Abu Kassim, 53, a seasoned nature guide.
What can these children learn if they are put in one single class despite the clear difference in age? Promoters of this initiative have an explanation.
Roslan said: “They are all put in one class because we want to prepare them for normal classes after six months.
“During the six months, they will get acquainted with a school environment, discipline, how to use toilets properly, hygiene as well as how to interact with teachers and fellow pupils. In between, they are taught reading, counting and spelling.”
It is a pre-school setting, really. The difference is that these children have never stepped foot in a kindergarten, let alone a proper school. Today, after two months, these children can count and read a little.
Sixteen years ago, the first group of Batek children ran away from school because they were not prepared to be on their own in a strange environment. Today, the parents in these villages have realised that only education can help change their children’s lives for the better.
Tahan, An’s father said: “Kami dah buang banyak masa. Seka-rang, kami mahu anak kami boleh berkomunikasi dengan dunia luar dan bawa pembangunan ke kampung.”
(We have wasted many years. Now, we want our children to be able to communicate with the outside world and bring development to our village).
Another parent, Ardi a/l Buyong, said: “Saya tak mahu anak saya jadi macam saya. Dulu saya tak pergi sekolah.” (I do not want my child to be like me. I want him to go to school and study).
Silot a/l Pakcu echoed the other parents, adding: “Biar anak-anak sekarang pergi sekolah. Boleh belajar dan jadi orang.” (Let these children attend school. They can learn and be somebody).
A factor that contributed to this encouraging development is that the children’s parents are in support of this new initiative. Six parents stopped going to the jungle to earn a living. Instead, they man three boats transporting the children to and from school daily.
Roslan collected money from friends and well-wishers to compensate these parents with RM30 a day for five school days a week. They each get RM600 a month to feed their family.
But this latest effort is running short on funds. Roslan is seeking funds from sponsors to help this programme continue. He managed to keep this up for only two months. If these parents are forced to go back to the jungle to earn a living, this programme may have to stop. It is a simple bread and butter issue.
Can we help Roslan and give these children a real go at getting proper education? Are there game changers out there? He needs RM3,600 a month to make this programme work. That’s all.
Ahmad A Talib is the chairman of Yayasan Salam Malaysia. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @aatpahitmanis