Experiencing New Year in an Indigenous Village

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Written by: Kuan Chee Choun

Edited by: Tan Zhi Ying

Photos by: Oh Chin Eng


So this happened over the new year: a group of 30 volunteers travelled to a village of indigenous Semai folk in Pahang to install solar power systems in their homes. The Semai folk are a tightly-knit community who are shy to outsiders. They speak the Semai language among themselves and a smattering of BM to others. The village itself is 7 hours' drive from KL, accessible only by 4WD, and is not served by water, electricity or telecommunication utilities.


A typical day in the village dawns at 6:30 am, and the adults spend the early part of the day tending the farms that feed the community. The women cook for their families with firewood, while kids run free barefoot, and play with their pet dogs and a cheeky baby monkey and anything else they can find. While we were there they found two baby foxes; the cubs are now being fed milk through a bottle, and will no doubt soon join the menagerie of pets.

Water from a nearby river is filtered and piped to three or four spots around the village, where the villagers do their washing. A glorious outhouse the size of a small bedroom, constructed of corrugated zinc sheets, serves as the only toilet for the entire village, though I suspect it was built for visitors from the city who were uncomfortable using the world as their toilet. The local villagers were never seen using it even once during the entire time we were there. We asked some locals on the first day where they do their business, so that we might do the same. They found the question absurd and just laughed. They thought it strange that we took photographs of everything.


There are no locks on doors, no obesity, no iPads. The air carries with it the many smells of the jungle: the smells of a running river, of morning mist, of crisp petrichor, of compost, of animal poop. On rainy days we struggled for grip on the hillslopes, gingerly putting one Nike-shod foot in front the other, while the village children skipped around us with their bare feet seemingly defying the laws of friction on the slippery mud, cheerfully chanting, "Dua singgit, dua singgit!" (Mail in Upin dan Ipin sells his stuff at a buck for two.)

By 8 pm the village is in near complete darkness save for a few naked lightbulbs in some houses. The night sky is dotted with the brightest stars imaginable. The jungle air-conditioning, set to a chilly 20°C, wafts into every house through the slatted bamboo floors and walls. An unprepared visitor might wake up at 3 am and find himself shivering in the cold.

We were fortunate enough to have been there during a Semai Sewang dance, a ceremony in which men, women and children dance the night away for good luck, and this time of year, for blessings for the children's new school year. Sewang is a community dance that starts as a slow walk in a circle, arms around shoulders of friends and family. Rhythm is provided by a percussion band using bamboo rods, a gamelan gong and a tortoise shell as instruments. The slow walk soon becomes a frenzied foot-thumping circle of humanity, driven by the hypnotic percussion rhythms of the band, each stomp more forceful than the one before, shaking the entire community hall to its bamboo foundations. This goes on till the elders decide everyone needs a break. As the revellers catch their breath, some elders gather around to share the latest village gossip over kapur sirih, a local nicotine source made from betel leaves and areca nuts with a paste made from ground snail shells. Others take a stroll in the cool night air while waiting for the dance to recommence.


We installed 19 solar panel systems over two and a half days, to provide several hours of light to each household every night. This project was funded by Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) and Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Special thanks to the sponsor, Gear Up Venture and solar equipment supplier, Suncrox Solar, not to forget all the Raleigh volunteers. Each solar system should last a good decade or so, if the elements are kind to our installations.

This certainly beats getting drunk and watching fireworks on yet another new year's eve!