In the heart of Bintulu town in Sarawak, a small group of women emerge from their homes at nightfall, carrying pails and empty mineral water bottles.
They make their way to a small coffee shop where they wait quietly outside for the last customers to leave. When the shop falls silent and the lights dim, that is their cue to enter.
Inside, they take turns filling their pails and bottles with water – a basic commodity that is nonetheless unavailable at the abandoned bungalow where they live.
This is the life of squatter families in the town, who lack the electricity and clean water supply that the rest of the residents rely on.
There are five families in the old house. Each night, the women emerge with their pails and carry home what water they can to be used the following day.
They can only collect water after the coffee shop closes. This gives them a narrow window of just two hours.
Among them is 64-year-old grandmother Enchi Anak Gegom. Enchi shares a small room in the abandoned bungalow with her 10-year-old granddaughter, who has been her ward since the child’s mother abandoned her several years ago.
They were happy enough, even after her daughter-in-law left. But several months ago, Enchi’s son died, leaving her and the child completely bereft.
Now, with the Gawai Dayak festival around the corner, Enchi has no heart to celebrate.
“He used to buy me new clothes for Gawai,” she recalled sadly. Sometimes, if he had time off from work, the family would also go back to visit their home town in Saratok.
“But now, I’m alone.”
Her son’s death also leaves her embroiled in a daily struggle to feed and clothe both herself and her granddaughter.
Every day, she wakes the child and helps her get ready for school. In the afternoon, after her granddaughter comes home, she scrapes together enough food for lunch.
And at night, she goes out with the other women to collect water, staggering back in the darkness under her heavy load.
Enchi does not pay rent for the old house, which has been abandoned for many years. But each month, she forks out RM40 for the school bus fee.
This is about one-sixth of the RM250 she receives in monthly welfare assistance. The remaining money, she stretches as far as it will go to buy food and, whenever necessary, clothes.
Enchi used to work at coffee shops around town to bring in a little cash, but at 64, with her health failing, this is no longer an option.
“Shop owners refuse to hire me,” she said. “No one wants to give me a job because I always feel sick.
“I’m already old,” she added. “I often get headaches, especially at night. After that, my stomach feels painful as well.”
Gawai used to be one of the biggest and most important celebrations for her and her family. But this year, Enchi will spend it in her small squatter room, watching her granddaughter and wondering what will become of the child.
For herself, she asks nothing. But she hopes that she will somehow be able to make the day special for the girl.
“I want to buy her a new dress, at least,” she said.
“I just want to make the occasion special for her.”