A tale of two villages

CLIMATE CHANGE / Winds and Waves / December 2015

A modern house in Bubun surrounded by oil palm trees. Many villagers have turned their land into plantations and moved out of the village to live in the city.

We recently visited places in Malaysia and Indonesia where we had worked with the ICA during 1977–1982. We linked up with old friends and colleagues and visited villages where we had lived. Among them were Serusup on the north coast of Borneo and Bubun in Sumatra. Although we had come expecting change, we were overwhelmed by the degree to which things were different.

Serusup in Sabah, Malaysia, was the first village where we had worked. When we began the Serusup Human Development Project 38 years ago, few of the 450 residents had ever seen a Westerner. Serusup had no roads, electricity, water, latrines, telephone, mail delivery, television, cook stove or any reliable medical services. Malaria, typhoid, cholera, T.B. and hepatitis were common. The average life span was 48. Homes were made of jungle materials often held together without nails. They lacked furniture. Thin mats woven from jungle grass were used as beds and places to sit. The women dressed casually in their sarong and were sometimes bare breasted. The men fished from small dug-out boats. Sometimes there was no food in the village. The elementary school was small and ineffective. With the South China Sea on one side and Mount Kinabalu towering on the other, the village looked idyllic but was isolated and undeveloped.

Now we could drive to Serusup over a paved highway in our rented car. The village had more than 4,000 people. We were struck by the size and quality of the homes, all electrified and with piped water. The exteriors were of hardwood and colourful paint. There were real windows and solid roofs. People proudly showed us their fully furnished homes with big flat-screen TVs. There were tiled floors, kitchens with stoves, refrigerators and modern appliances and bathrooms with plumbing. Every home was linked to a common WiFi and everyone had smart phones. Everywhere there were cars and pick-ups. Old friends took us around, and proudly showed us the new three-story elementary school, fully air-conditioned and computer equipped. The doctor was just leaving the clinic. We heard the call to prayers from the loudspeakers on the new mosque. Teenage girls in beautiful Malay attire greeted us as they strolled down the paved streets. There were large fish farms and a sizable chicken industry. It didn’t seem possible that they had come so far.

Then we remembered working with the villagers to start the first floating fish-farm and chicken farms and opening the first kindergarten. We remembered the health-care trainings and recruiting the first “health caretakers.” We remembered all the villagers we had trained in community development work. We even found out that one of them was now the Minister of Housing and Local Government. He was known then as Hajiji. Now, with titles bestowed upon him, he was Datuk Seri Panglima Haji Hajiji Haji Mohd Noor. The memories were vivid and good. The present was even better. We don’t often know where the seeds we sow will grow. We can only give thanks.

Dixie with teenagers in Serusup. When she and Rob arrived here 38 years ago, the village did not have even basic infrastructure. Today it has paved roads, electricity and piped water and living standards have improved.
Serusup now has a medical clinic with a doctor present. Old friends took us around the village to show this and other well-built public buildings to us with great pride.

We also met former ICA staff member Joe Hays, who had married a local woman and settled down in Serusup. He and Jelicah have two grown up sons. Joe worked with a Sabah state fishing cooperative called Co-Nelayan but is now retired.

We visited the neighbouring state of Sarawak as well. Our experience with the Iban people there was uplifting but we could see there are social issues to be addressed. Sarawak has lost 80 per cent of its jungle, most of it to oil palm plantations. The Ibans hired to cut the ancient forest are now often employed do the same thing in the Amazon and other places overseas. The community has largely left its long houses and moved to the cities. The men are overseas and the women, children and the elderly live in Sibu, Kuching and Miri.

There is a strong movement in the state to secede from Malaysia. The popular feeling is that the nation takes Sarawak’s bountiful natural resources and gives little in return. There are also strong feelings against the government’s effort to Islamize the indigenous Christian population.

In Indonesia, we went to Bubun, the site of the Bubun Human Development Project and later the Tanjung Pura District Human Development Zone. We had spent over three years as project directors here. We met Atack and Siti, and Fatimah and Arifin, valuable ICA staff from 35 years ago in Bubun and Bontoa. Seeing the two couples brought a flood of vivid visual memories of our time at the Human Development Training School.

The experience of returning here was similar to Serusup but bitter sweet. Indonesia is a larger and poorer country than Malaysia. Bubun, on a muddy river delta in a mangrove swamp, could have never been described as idyllic. There was nothing romantic or appealing about it. When we first arrived, we were struck by the multitude of ugly sand crabs, biting flies and mosquitos. Like Serusup, it was inaccessible and undeveloped. When we began the project, it had about 850 people. It had no road, electricity, sanitation, clean water and was isolated and unbecoming. The only way to get in and out was in overcrowded and unreliable river boats.

Atack, who works with an NGO that preserves mangrove swamps, came with a car and driver to pick us up. We drove to Bubun on a new road, across many bridges and passed many villages. It was a rough ride, thanks to the trucks hauling out palm oil fruit. Tanjung Pura district had replaced most of its jungle and many mangroves with palm oil plantations. This was also the story of Bubun.

The few houses that lined the new but unpaved road in Bubun were modern and well kept. Electricity and a significant rise in living standards made the community unrecognizable. Our old training centre was no longer there. We met the new village leaders who proudly pointed to their successes. It was heartwarming to also see old faces and hear how the improvements had made their life better. They recalled the time when we launched the village consult and implemented a comprehensive health programme, micro-loans, duck farms, preschool and village beautification.

Development had brought about a bigger change. Most villagers had turned their land into palm oil groves. With robust incomes in hand, they gave up fishing, abandoned their homes and moved to the city. Bubun now has barely a hundred residents. We had not foreseen this but I can’t blame them for moving. Bubun was always ugly and would never be an attractive place to live. Its people were moving up and out. While Serusup has an idyllic location that with prosperity attracts people, Bubun will always be a sweltering swamp.

Both Serusup and Bubun succeeded. Bubun is more indicative of what is taking place in developing countries. In spite of our efforts to strengthen rural communities, people want to live in the urban areas for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, something special took place and it is good to have been a part of it.

By Rob and Dixie Jennings-Teats

Rob and Dixie Jennings-Teats (jenningsteats@sbcglobal.net) were project directors at Serusup and Bubun during 1977–82. They currently co-pastor the Carson City 1st United Methodist Church in Nevada, US.