From the Borneo Post January 6, 2008 – article - School winning over Penan children : “I teach you so that you can teach your children next time.”
That was the simple and logical explanation Jason Juk Epoi, senior assistant for students’ affair of SK Long Kevok (primary school) in the upper reaches of the Baram came up with in persuading the Penan children to remain in school.
Sitting in a classroom and paying attention to the teacher presents a special challenge for the Penan students who until a few years ago lived a nomadic life roaming the jungle with their parents.
Under the programme to settle this nomadic people, the government had built several villages at the fringes of the jungle, their erstwhile home, to help them adapt to a settled lifestyle.
The long term success of this programme hinges on educating their children through schools like the one at Long Kevok where Jason teaches. And he is glad his Penan students heeded his advice and were motivated to take their education seriously.
Jason, a Kayan from Long Panai, happily pointed out that an increasing number of Penan children were beginning to show interest in studying. Many, the 32-year-old added, had enrolled in schools.
In SK Long Kevok where Penans made up a large portion of the students’ population, the boarding school registered a 70 percent attendance rate. Last year, 121 students were enrolled in the school, of which 63 were girls. Students in the school came from 15 villages: Kampung Baru Sungai Patah, Long Kevok, Long Kawa, Ba Kabeng, Long Ham, Ba Pakan, Long Nen, Long Liwok, Long Latei, Long Beluk, Long Kerangan, Long Sayan, Long Siang, Ba Puak and Ba Kajau. The school, staffed by 11 teachers, including three temporary teachers, has six classes, with each class having about 25 students.
In spite of the remoteness of SK Long Kevok (located about seven hours’ drive from Miri city through a dusty logging trail), students in the school are making waves both academically and in sports. In 2003, the school received a nomination for ‘Sekolah Harapan Negara’ award. That year public examination achievement rate for the school was 60 percent and there were students who scored 3As 2Bs in the Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR). Given the trying circumstances for both students and teachers, it was an impressive result. The students have also proven their prowess in sports, with some being selected to represent Sarawak in several sports meets.
The school recently took the initiative to bring in children from the Penans who are still living a nomadic life. About 20 of them were brought in from Long Siang and Ba Puak areas, but unfortunately, according to Jason, the children only came to class for a few days before running back to their forest home.
“The children apparently want to be closer to their parents. But truancy for the rest of the students is really minimal here in SK Long Kevok,” assured Jason, adding that the school authorities did not have to worry much about students not turning up for their classes.
He further pointed out that the school had gone out of the way to bring the Penan children to school, including providing transportation to fetch the children from their remote villages after the semester holidays.
“We engage the assistance of the Resident’s Office to transport the Penan children from their villages. The transportation itself is not cheap as it cost about RM2,000.”
Sadly this noble effort suffered a setback when the Resident’s Office no longer had such allocations for transportation, said Jason, adding that the school later had to resort to seeking assistance from a logging company.
“Luckily I have a friend working in the logging company and I requested for his assistance. The company expressed its willingness to fetch the children from their respective villages after the semester break and to bring them home for the school holidays.”
Jason observed that there was a lack of understanding on the importance of education among the Penan parents.
“For two or three months, the parents never turned up to find out the problems of their children.
That is why the school has to resort to seeking assistance from the Resident’s Office. For instance, if the children do not have exercise books, we will provide them with the books. The school also took the initiative to secure financial assistance from Kumpulan Wang Amanah Pelajar Miskin.”
Assistant Administrative Officer who oversees Long Lama sub-district, Gima Mangkang, 44, concurred that Penan parents were not aware of the importance of education. In Long Lama, there are more than 10,000 Penans and they make up the third largest ethnic group in the sub-district after the Kayans and Kenyahs.
Most Penan children, noted Gima, studied only up to Primary Six.
“The Penan parents did not really give the encouragement to their children to study. But time has changed and slowly the Penans are beginning to realise the importance of education. Some of them now have studied till Form Five.”
Best friends Adeline James and Sheila Awing are an example of some of the young Penans who aim high. The girls who are students of SMK Tutoh Apoh harbour a similar ambition — that is, to enter university one day. This year the girls will be sitting for their Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR).
Although a bit apprehensive at having to sit some papers in English, they are determined to score excellent results.
“I am just worried I do not know how to answer. I really hope to do well in the exams,” said the bubbly Sheila.
Adeline chips in: “Whenever I think of PMR, I am a bit terrified.”
As the two girls steel themselves for their biggest educational challenge, they are also carrying an even bigger burden on their young shoulders — the future of their community.