Monday, April 19, 2010

How Challenging Teaching In Sabah Can Be

As a teacher, I have had many memorable experiences but one of the most fascinating has got to be observing my colleagues from other states as they deal with their first days in Sabah.

Born and bred in Sabah, I never really had much reason or opportunity to question what sort of image Sabah presented to the outside world (which includes other states in Malaysia) until I went to university in Kuala Lumpur.  And, of course, when I began working as a teacher.

My first inkling of how 'scary' Sabah can be to outsiders came during my third year in university.  I had coursemates who quickly got married ... it was the first time I had ever heard of 'nikah gantung'.  Apparently, they could get married but it was a sort of 'marriage on hold' (if such a thing exists..).  What mattered was that they could get a marriage certificate that would help 'save' them from the jungles of Sabah and Sarawak. 

Then, during the briefing I attended to receive my first posting, I found myself sitting next to a teacher who was posted to a school in the interior.  When she asked if the school she had been posted to was far, the officer in charge gave a large guffaw and said that she'd only need to spend three hours on the buffalo.  I wonder if he realized that we didn't laugh.  Till today, I am still not sure whether he was serious or not.

However, bearing in mind that there ARE a few schools in Sabah which require survivor-style effort to reach, the majority are still not that remote.  In most cases, there are roads or rivers that offer hope of reaching the schools.  Heh heh.

I confess that my first posting was to La Salle Secondary School, five minutes from the airport, eight minutes to the city and nary a buffalo in sight.  But even then, there are people who are unsure of just how 'city' the school is.   I remember walking to the staffroom after one of my classes, to find suitcases and various boxes at the entrance.  I knew five teachers were expected.  But when I saw a table fan (!) with the MAS cargo label still hanging from it, I couldn't help but ask the teacher why she carried it all the way.  She told me that her mother was worried there would be no electricity in Sabah.  But then, I asked gently, what use would the table fan be if there were no electricity in Sabah?  Hmmm.

So I haven't experienced any privations in the course of my work as a teacher.  The most terrible experiences I have had involved walking to schools, laptop slung over my left shoulder and blazer over my right shoulder while trying to make sure I didn't step too close to the edge of the cliff or hill.  There was some mud involved and slight heart palpitation... but it was a temporary thing as I was only visiting the schools in the course of my work as an ICT officer.

Yet another time during my years with La Salle, I saw a teacher lug in a bag of rice with the suitcases.  I didn't bother to ask why.  Perhaps family members were worried there would be nothing to eat in Sabah.  Or perhaps it may be a DIFFERENT alien type of rice... oh, horrors!

And there was one instance when I noticed a teacher looking at the currency in my hands.  I could only suppose that she was trying to see if we used the same.  I feel that this is a reasonable assumption as my own mother has been asked where she changed her currency (she was attending a course in Penang.)

I always LOVED mentioning supermarkets to the newly-arrived... if only to see the abject relief on their faces.

And as recently as 2002, an ex-student of mine now working as an English teacher reported having to slog through knee-deep mud when her car broke down on the way to town.  She had been posted to the Kalabakan area.  She also said that she and her housemates bought generator electricity, which came and went as capriciously as a flibbertigibbet's mind.  Well, at least she had a road.  And a generator.

To be fair, I'd noticed how documentaries and stories about Sabah tended to focus on orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, verdant rainforest, marine wildlife, dive sites and the such.  Can hardly blame people for thinking that that was all one would be able to find in Sabah.  One West Malaysian teacher defended himself by saying that when he looked for information about Sabah (before departing for Kota Kinabalu), all he could find were nature coffee table books and history opuses that had great descriptions of headhunters.  Armed with such knowledge, he probably fortified himself with a bagful of prayers and running shoes.  Ha ha... just joking.  Don't get mad, X... you know who you are.

But on the whole, the teachers who were sent to the interior of Sabah have been quite open-minded and right-thinking about their travails.  Susan used to tell me that on the last leg of her journey to her school, she'd begin with a white tee and blue jeans and ended up all red in colour (including her hair and skin!), thanks to the red clay dust of the logging track.  Susan's lot in life has improved considerably... now she only needs to board a boat for a 15-minute ride to SMK Pulau Gaya, just off the Kota Kinabalu harbour.  She no longer 'changes colour'... unless you count her bright yellow life jacket.

However, the tales I am telling belong to the early nineties.  I think things are much better now, thanks to the Internet.  There are enough pictures of Sabah's supermarkets and roads to gladden the most fearful heart. 

But then again... just five years ago, my dad did give a lift to a UMS freshie and her father (they had just arrived from West Malaysia).  When my dad drove into the parking lot of a supermarket, he noted the looks of relief on their faces.  It seems that a supermarket is proof positive of an acceptable level of civilisation.

That said, it is also very common for people to fall in love with Sabah and they never leave...  even after their tenure is over...:)

Maybe I should post a few pictures of Kota Kinabalu City here... as I do get a few visits from people who search for 'teacher sabah work'.


RuYanda said...

This post reminds me of my Form 3's Geography/BM teacher. She was a bit reluctant when she knew that she's posted to Sabah. Later on, she fell in love with Sabah too... especially the "1Malaysia" environment here.

That table fan story made me smile. Last year (during university orientation week), one of the seniors shared a similar story to that. He said one of the students' parent called the university to ask if baldi is sold in Sabah or not.

p/s: In addition to those pictures of KK, I think you can make a short guide for teachers who are going to teach in Sabah. They'll really appreciate that. =)

Roslyn said...

I can imagine the worries of the poor parent who had to deliver his precious child to the mercies of wild and untamed Sabah.

A 'baldi' is absolutely crucial to the cleanliness of self (both physical and spiritual). And I mean that in a serious way. I cannot imagine surviving my campus days without a pail.

And to think a monument to capitalism lay just five minutes from the gates of UMS. Lots of pails in OneBorneo..heh heh..

Audrey Wiles said...

loved this post.. hehe you are wonderfully observant.. ;-)

an ex-colleague of mine told her class that she would hve brought her car over if she knew that sabah had a road system. lol... how dense is that!? see ya sunday dear! hug hug

Roslyn said...

Ha ha... there are just so many fascinating things to observe where people are concerned. Sometimes mindboggling...but well, where would we be without people, yeah?

hobbit1964 said...

Good Lord, you taught in La Salle???? I was a student there from 1977 to 1981, was in the opposition party in '79 and served the school cabinet in '80. Bro Charles O' Leary wanted me to serve as editor in '81, but I was much like your beleaguered students and could not take up the esteemed offer due to many labours at home.
I do empathise with teachers who serve the interior of Sabah. Doubtless, roads have crept into some places, but navigating the ravines to the borders, I know from looking down that they do not ply an easy route to work.
They are heroes in their own right.

Roslyn said...

There is a popular song about teachers with the lyric 'seperti lilin membakar diri'.. like a candle burning itself down. That is truer than many people realise. I have come to realise that some teachers just stop caring because caring too much was slowly killing them.

hobbit1964 said...

I was once stranded for one night in Sepulot because bad weather barred the way to Tawau.
I think the teachers there are a great bunch. They housed me and my crew and we were foddered and bedded and were even offered tapai, but that came to an premature end because of an untimely knock on the door by cops who were seeking information as to our safety!!
While some teachers may run out of gas, it is no different from what ails many who serve: the dependance on internal fuel!!
Harness onto what is bigger than yourself. And most of all, never render your endeavours as being about yourself. We be but the instruments. Merely instruments.
I hear your voice railing on the lines with an "Amen"!!! :P