Saturday, January 22, 2022

Powering on despite Covid at remote Sarawak village

There is very little internet access and no electricity or water supply in Kampung Sapit, but the villagers do what they can to get by.

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Like hundreds of thousands of students throughout the country, Adam Sinjan was forced to make the shift from the physical to the online classroom when Covid-19 hit.

Whenever he needed to submit his homework online or do any of the other tasks required by his teachers for home-based teaching and learning, he would take a picture of the information and walk out to a nearby hill.

There, he would stand and wait for his phone to detect a signal.

This search for mobile coverage, while tedious, was often necessary due to the patchy and limited connection in Adam’s village of Kampung Sapit in Sarawak where, despite the best efforts of teachers and students, it was difficult to stay in touch throughout the pandemic period.

Many of Adam’s fellow students remained at the school hostel throughout the academic year. But when the order was made for schools to turn to remote learning, back in the village the 16-year-old was left wondering how he would cope.

Kampung Sapit, a Bidayuh village located at the foot of the Ulu Padawan hills near the Sarawak-Kalimantan border, is one of many remote settlements in which remote learning was a problem throughout the pandemic period.

Several villagers rest on the porch area outside their home in Kampung Sapit, located over 1,200 feet above sea level.

Over the years, small improvements have been made in terms of accessibility by road. But the villagers still make do without electricity or water supply.

For the most part, they rely on diesel-driven generator sets to power up their appliances although some have solar power. For water, they depend on what they get from the mountain and through other villages.

The village is only accessible by road – a narrow, winding path through the hilly terrain. Basic amenities are few and far in between.

Paulina, a mother of six, uses solar power in her home. The problem for her is the constant shortage of power supply.

“During the rainy season, solar power doesn’t always cater to our needs. Electricity is very limited here,” she told MalaysiaNow.

Even on the best days, there is not enough to keep a refrigerator going in her house. Simple things like charging a phone need a set time.

“It’s hard, especially for the schoolchildren,” Paulina said.

A villager rides his motorcycle past a row of flags put up ahead of the Sarawak state election on Dec 18.

But for Adam, waiting for a signal out on the hills, none of this is enough to dampen his ambitions.

His house has no electricity at all, but he makes do with what he has. At night, he revises his lessons by candlelight. Sometimes he uses a kerosene lamp or a battery-powered light.

“But it’s difficult because if I read the book, I need to write down notes,” he said.

“That’s why I prefer to do it in school.”

While Adam is determined to do what he can, others are less motivated. The lack of internet connectivity, compounded by the shortage of power supply, has caused many students in the village to lose interest in their studies.

Even when they do manage to attend their classes, the lag caused by their circumstances means that they also miss out on many other parts of their lessons.

An aerial view of Kampung Sapit, where the flags of political parties have already been strung in preparation for the Sarawak election.

Samak Willie and his wife do everything they can to ensure that their three children obtain a good education despite having to work on the farm.

But during normal times, this is not easy, and things have only been made worse by the pandemic which shut large parts of the economic and social sectors for long periods over the past two years.

“Small farmers like us have to be careful with our spending because Covid-19 requires us to buy things like hand sanitiser and face masks,” Samak said.

These are luxuries that the family can ill afford, but they do everything they can to juggle their expenses.

“I just have to make sure that my children go back to school,” Samak added.

Kampung Sapit lies within the Mambong constituency, one of 82 to be contested in the state election on Dec 18.

When asked about the upcoming polls, Samak said he hoped whichever candidate wins keeps his or her promise to continue developing the village.

“I can see some improvements,” he said. “We have benefitted from the construction of the access road.

“Before it was built, we had to walk about eight hours, crossing a number of bamboo bridges, just to reach the nearest shop to buy sugar.”

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