How a smile brought schooling to Bajau Laut kids

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Located on Omadal Island near Semporna Sabah, Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal is a community-run school where dedicated children who went to government schools, teach their less fortunate Bajau Laut peers crucial skills, like how to communicate in Bahasa Melayu and basic arithmetic.

Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal literally means Omadal Bajau Laut School, in the Bajau tongue. And believe it or not, it all began with a smile.

When Chuah Ee Chia, the school’s co-founder, came to Semporna, Sabah for a diving trip back in 2013, little did she know how much of an impact the Bajau Laut community would have on her, and indeed, she on them.

“I met this little girl there who had the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen, and I was captivated by her,” said Chuah, recalling her first memories of Semporna.

Having befriended the little girl and following her back to her boathouse by sampan, Chuah met her parents and four siblings, and become intrigued by the Bajau Laut way of life.

She learned of the hardships they faced as individuals, and the struggles of the Bajau Laut community as a whole, such as their lack of access to clean water and electricity.

In the indigenous ethnic community, it is common for children as young as five to pick up bad habits, like smoking cigarettes and sniffing glue.

And as most of them cannot converse in the national tongue, Bahasa Malaysia, it is difficult for them to communicate with others, and find jobs in nearby communities.

While they live within Malaysian borders, most of the Bajau Laut are stateless as they lack official documentation, which restricts them from receiving proper education, legal protection, and welfare. Some of them live on Omadal Island, while others occupy other islands off the coast of Semporna.

And while she later left Omadal Island and Semporna behind, that little girl’s smile and the plight of the Bajau Laut, Chuah determined to do something positive for the community, though she didn’t know what it was at the time.

Community-run project

It was only two years later that Chuah co-founded Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal in 2015, the community-run project that aims to offer the Bajau Laut children of Omadal Island basic education.

The initiative started when she returned to Semporna to pursue her internship with the Malaysian chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) as a part of her master’s programme in public administration.

“I was thinking that I would like to do more research on this group of people, and I would like to do my thesis on them as well,” said Chuah.

While working with WWF-Malaysia, Chuah had issues communicating with the Bajau Laut community as they only spoke Bajau.

She met Sakinas, a little girl who was able to speak Bajau and Bahasa Malaysia and Chuah asked her to translate their conversations.

With Sakinas’ help, Chuah asked the Bajau Laut children if they would like to go to school if they were able to.

“The kids said that they didn’t want to go to school, and when I asked why, they said it’s because they weren’t good enough, they didn’t know how to read and write, and that they were shy,” said Chuah.

However, they were willing to learn if they were taught by their peers, like Sakinas.

Chuah came up with the idea to have children who attended school and were willing to help, teach them basic Bahasa Malaysia, arithmetic, and art.

She told her host in Semporna, Kak Roziah, about the idea and she asked her 11-year-old son and their neighbour’s son who was 14, if they would help. They were both willing to spend their free time to teach the Bajau Laut kids what they know.

After numerous meetings and open discussions, they decided to hold classes on weekends and teach very basic reading and writing.

“We would like to provide very basic literacy to them. The aim is to teach them how to speak Bahasa, so that we can also communicate with them.

“They can learn to read and write. Very simple words and sentences,” said Chuah.

School set up

The school enlisted the help of four student-teachers, including Sakinas, to teach the 21 Bajau Laut children who wanted to participate in the project.

As her plans for the new school went along, Chuah decided to find the little girl with the beautiful smile she met in 2013, that sparked her initial interest in the Bajau Laut community.

She had a photograph of the little girl and asked around in Mabul Island, where she met her during the 2013 diving trip until someone told her that the family had moved to Omadal Island.

After searching for her in Omadal, Chuah finally reconnected with the girl with the beautiful smile, and she met the little girl’s family again.

They caught up and shared the experiences they had since they last met in 2013 and Chuah invited the girl to attend the new school.

The little girl now attends Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal on the weekends and is learning how to read and write.

By the time the school was fully up and running in August, Chuah had to leave Semporna to continue her master’s degree, so she wasn’t able to be directly involved in the operations.

What she did, was help raise funds to pay allowances to the teachers, buy stationery, and provide lunches for the students every weekend.

“I think within a few days, I managed to raise enough money for one year because actually, it’s not much money (following the budget plan). Only RM500 a month, is only like RM6,000 (a year),” said Chuah.

She entrusted her ex-coworker at WWF-Malaysia, Hui Ling Liew, to distribute the funds to the school each month, and appointed Kak Roziah to be headmistress and watch over the school.

Two of her other ex-coworkers from WWF-Malaysia, Adzmin Chie and Shaffiyah, also helped her to monitor and support the school.

They would hold monthly online meetings from Semporna to update Chuah on the state of the school and discuss what else were needed.

When Chuah graduated in 2016, she and Hui returned to Omadal Island in September last year to conduct an assessment of the school’s progression.

“We interviewed our students and teachers, we had focus group discussions with our students.

“We asked them what they liked about the school and what they learned. We really wanted to know if the school is useful for them,” said Chuah.

After a year of operation, 50 percent of the kids could write the letters of the alphabet, 70 percent can write their names, and 20 percent were able to count.

“The last one year was an experiment, we left everything to our young teachers to see how they would teach, to see if it would work or not,” said Chuah.

Plans to improve

They plan to make improvements to the school, both in its infrastructure and curriculum.

They have been raising funds again to build a hut for the children to have classes, as there is no fixed place where classes are held.

Classes are sometimes held at the general assembly hall, in the kitchens of the teachers, and in front of their homes, where they are not sheltered from the weather.

There are also plans to improve the teaching skills of the teachers.

“Now we have a school teacher as one of our advisers who will look into improving the module for the school’s student-teachers.

“We also have a teacher volunteer programme where we invite specialists to come and train our young teachers to help teach better.

“We plan to invite more speakers to speak to our children, but to do that we need to build the hut first,” said Chuah.

Now that Chuah has graduated from her master’s programme, she plans to invest a lot more time and effort into improving the school and helping the children.

Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal is raising funds and accepting donations to make dire improvements and keep the school running.

They have also received donations in the form of books, stationery, food containers and bags.

To learn more about Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal and donate to the school, please visit their Facebook page or websiteor click here to donate.



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