MALAYSIANSKINI | Six years have passed since the community-run school Iskul Sama DiLaut Omadal was established on Omadal Island, off Semporna in Sabah.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving – a place where dedicated children who went to government schools teach their less fortunate Bajau Laut peers crucial skills.
Now the first batch of students has grown up and taken on the mantle of being teaching assistants, otherwise known as mastal arikik in the Bajau language, for the next set of students.
Enidah, 18, Bilkuin and Delah, both 17, were once students at Iskul but now they are paid a monthly wage to help teach a class of 30 students subjects such as reading, basic arithmetic and how to communicate in Bahasa Malaysia.
Malaysiakini recently spoke to the three of them with the help of Iskul teacher Jefry Musa via a WhatsApp video call. The interview was conducted mainly in Malay with Jefry and Bilkuin translating at certain times.
Like most from the Bajau Laut community in Malaysia, the three teenagers are stateless as they do not have official documentation and this restricts their access to education, legal protection and welfare.
The three of them were quite shy throughout the interview, although Bilkuin quickly became more open and eager to share his experiences.
On a couple of occasions during the interview, before Bilkuin could translate what the girls were saying from Bajau to Malay, he would cheekily ask if I understood.
“Back then, I figured I would just study (at Iskul), but now I can be a teacher. Back then I was dumb, but now I can be a teacher. I think it has made things easier, to teach the kids who couldn’t previously recognise the alphabet, and now they can.
“We like people to become awesome like us,” Bilkuin said with a mischievous smile.
Enidah shared similar sentiments as Bilkuin, saying that she wanted to become a teaching assistant because she did not want her younger siblings to be “dumb”.
“I want them to be good at arithmetic and good at reading,” she said to Bilkuin, who translated for her in the video call.
Delah agreed, saying that she enjoyed being a part of Iskul. They were also given a lot of benefits such as free food and exercise activities, she added.
She also enjoys the feeling of being able to help everyone in her own community, Delah said.
Iskul classes are held from Saturday to Wednesday for about 30 students in one of the houses on the island. Bilkuin said if Iskul had not been established on Omadal, the kids on the island would have remained uneducated.
“They won’t know how to count, they would just walk around looking at the sky,” he added.
Aside from helping out as teaching assistants, the trio is also involved in Iskul’s relief efforts for the Covid-19 pandemic as well as other efforts to improve the island’s living conditions.
Throughout the pandemic, the Iskul team has helped distribute food packs filled with bags of rice, oil, flour and other essentials to the residents on Omadal.
Bilkuin shared that he was also involved with efforts to set up water tanks for individual households on the island which lacked access to clean water.
“I went to each house and talked to them about whether they wanted to install the water tanks,” the teenager said. So far, they have helped with the installation of about 30 water tanks on the island.
Quarantined on mainland
The Iskul team had a traumatic experience last year when one of their teaching assistants, Delah, tested positive for Covid-19.
While there were others from the island’s community who also tested positive around the same time, Delah was the only one who agreed to be quarantined on the mainland in Semporna, despite it being her first time leaving the island on her own, away from her family.
The rest of the Iskul team also underwent quarantine as close contacts. Thankfully, things went smoothly and Delah recovered. She is now back with Iskul on Omadal Island.
The three young mastal arikik are not the only ones from Iskul who have moved on to another role within the school.
Muhammad Khairul Atim was only 14 years old when he was asked if he would like to join Iskul to teach his Bajau Laut friends on Omadal Island.
He readily agreed and became one of the first to join Iskul as a teacher. Co-founder Chuah Ee Chia told Malaysiakini that she considers Khairul to be a fellow co-founder of Iskul.
Now aged 20, Khairul works as a coordinator for the small team of nine in Iskul, compiling reports on the school’s daily progress and activities and liaising with Chuah who is not based on Omadal Island.
Speaking to Malaysiakini via the video call, he said he had always been interested in teaching, even before he was asked to do so at Iskul.
“I was definitely interested in teaching. Even before that, I used to playfully teach my friends. So when I was given the offer to teach, I was attracted to it.
“It was my first time teaching (in a proper setting), it really felt like the best,” he enthused.
That is not to say he does not enjoy his current role as Iskul coordinator, he added, explaining that he now gets a chance to join in on more activities and events.
As a coordinator, he is also involved with Iskul’s relief efforts and the water tank installations. Khairul said households that were interested in getting a water tank only needed to prepare a site for it.
Chuah said the water tanks are provided thanks to Iskul receiving the Yayasan Hasanah Special Grant 2020. They also received help from Engineers without Borders to install them.
The grant also allows Iskul to distribute food and vitamins five days a week to its students as well as supplements to pregnant women on the island.
However, the Yayasan Hasanah grant is rapidly dwindling, which will make it difficult for the Iskul team to not only continue their work but also to implement future plans in empowering the community on Omadal Island.
In the future, Khairul said, they want to look at a trash management programme for the island, as waste management was another issue faced by the residents. There are also plans to expand the space for the school's classes.
This is why the work that Iskul does on Omadal Island is so important, Khairul said, because the Bajau Laut community has often been overlooked by the government for aid as many of them are stateless.
In this way, he said, the community in Omadal itself can provide necessities like education and welfare for their own people.
MALAYSIANSKINI is a series on Malaysians you should know about.