Jonathan Labo, Headmaster 4/4
On a cold morning in Long Semadoh, I visited the only primary school serving the village. I had met Jonathan Labo, the headmaster of the school the day before. Here’s a man who is passionate about teaching and the welfare of the kids and his community. He lives near Francis Lisa Muga, my host in Long Semadoh. When I met Jonathan, he was busy renovating the house that he shares with his wife. As he is retiring at the end of the year, this is the house he will live in once he leaves the modest house he shares with his wife in the school compound.
On the morning of my visit to the school, Stanley Sedu Lamit, who is Francis’s brother-in-law told me Jonathan wanted to see me.
I was intrigued as to why he would want to see me. So I went to visit him at the school. Jonathan showed me around and I thoroughly enjoyed myself photographing and meeting people. It has been awhile since I witnessed an actual class being taught. The teachers were all committed and seemed as enthusiastic as the students. As the headmaster of the school, Jonathan has his own quarters but due to lack of funds to build better accommodation for the teachers, he chose to vacate his for the deputy headmaster.
He showed me the modest wooden house on stilts he shares with his wife on the school grounds. There were chickens running around the front of where he lived but it was what he kept behind that blew me away. He had a wild boar that he was fattening up for a special occasion.
The school looked like it needed repairs but as money was not available, everyone did their best to ensure that the students were kept safe.
What happened before lunch was simply more than I deserved. Jonathan had gathered more than 90 students to sing a song for me. I was so overwhelmed that when they finished the first song, I asked for another! It was such an honour to gaze upon those little faces as they sang. I had lunch with the kids in the school canteen after. I won’t easily forget this morning with the kids.
I finally found out what Jonathan had in mind for me. As he will retire at the end of 2015, he is on a mission to promote tourism in Long Semadoh and the nearby villages. He asked if I would help. I said yes immediately though at the back of my mind, I knew I would have to do some serious juggling of my schedule to find time for them. I intend to make a trip to Long Semadoh in 2016 and plan to bring along a few like-minded individuals who can help in creating awareness for the area. We plan to work together on documenting the highlands and put together publicity materials for the area. Ba’ kelalan and Bario are already popular with visitors but we need to promote Long Semadoh too.
My time spent in Long Semadoh went by too quickly. There is just so much to see and explore. There is a sense among the villagers that their village and the surrounding areas can be a big draw for tourists. Many people are involved in preparing for what might be a turning point for the villages as far as the economy is concerned. Though Bario rice is still very much in demand, being a paddy farmer may not appeal to the younger generation.
Tourism could revive the area and bring much-needed employment. Many of the younger people have left to work in town. Families are being split up but with tourism, there would be a good reason for the villagers to stay.
I guess what makes a place interesting to visit are not only the sights but the people. Long after the sights are a distant memory, I will remember the people and their friendly faces and I am proud to call them fellow Malaysians. It is most unfortunate that certain groups have chosen to spew the language of hate and racism towards their fellow citizens in these recent years. How does fighting for your rights mean being unkind and threatening towards your fellow citizens? As a photographer who has travelled throughout Malaysia, I think that it’s much better to accept and respect each other than to do the opposite. I know I can speak with absolute clarity and certainty that the majority of Malaysians, whatever race they may be, prefer to live harmoniously with each other. Let us not allow our country to be destroyed by those selfish few who have agendas that are designed to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of others.
Most of us will never experience Borneo like this. There is still a sense of innocence here. People are genuinely friendly and are not suspicious of visitors. The people from the various tribes like the Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Penan and many more are Malaysians but only because we tell them they are so. They have lived on this land for thousands of years from the time when there was no concept of country or race. Why are we imposing our will then on these people? Hardly seems fair. Meanwhile, politicians continue to flog the race card, ignoring all that the country and its people have achieved since Merdeka and might I add, in the case of the Sabah Sarawak, since Malaysia Day.
I asked the question of what Merdeka means to the villagers of remote villages in Sarawak but I should have asked what Malaysia Day means. The answer is simply this. These celebrations are about embracing a country of diverse races and religions and working towards a common goal. There is not a need to define what Merdeka or Malaysia Day means to anyone. Simply embracing our diversity is the most patriotic thing anyone can do. It does not matter if you are Malay, Temuan, Lun Bawang, Chinese, Indian, Punjabi, Chitty or anyone whose identity or race does not fit into some neat multiple choice form.
We are simply Malaysians.
Mahatma Gandhi ‘No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive’