The white lady who changed our lives through 4-H Club
by Manai Luang. Posted on May 28, 2012, Monday
The year was 1965.
I had been in school for just over four years, and though I passed every English test in class I had very little confidence in my ability to speak to a native English-speaker or, in other words, an ‘orang putih’.
The chance for me to converse with one came when I returned home from school one afternoon and found out that a petit young orang putih lady was going to be staying with us in our longhouse. I was awestruck!
I was also a bit apprehensive; how was I going to communicate with her? I was a shy 12-year-old with pimples and worse: I could not really converse in English.
In school, our English conversation was limited to listening and answering to the voice of a Mr Moore booming out from a three-band transistor radio during our ‘radio lessons’ on English broadcast to all schools in Sarawak.
One other opportunity where we could gauge our proficiency in English conversation was when the School Affair Inspector came for his regular inspection.
We could speak with him but we never took the opportunity because Mr Thompson, an Australian, scared the hell out of all of us and so we avoided him as much as possible!
Prior to meeting this young lady then, my only encounter with a native English-speaker was in 1963 when I was spoken to by non-other than His Excellency Sir Alexander Waddell, the last colonial Governor of Sarawak! His Excellency was on his last tour before Sarawak gained independence through the formation of Malaysia.
Anyway, as it turned out, the lady staying with us at Rumah Saban, Sungai Semebak was Ms Patricia Elma Taylor, a Peace Corp Volunteer (PCV) from Kentucky, USA.
She introduced the 4-H club to us – a non-profit organisation focused on youth development and agriculture-based projects – and she was our mentor, coordinator and advisor all rolled into one.
She was soft spoken – at times, so soft I thought she was speaking to herself – but she was very nice to my mother.
Apart from being our 4-H coordinator, Ms Taylor inadvertently became our window to the world. We had no TVs back then and our only window to the world was the few short-wave transistor radios available,I think there were only three units in that 24-room longhouse! But Ms Taylor gave us what radio could not provide – the opportunity to interact.
We were curious and asked her many questions: her age, her family, the life in the US.
As teenagers our curiosities were contemporary too: did she know some of the popular singers of the time like Elvis, Skeeter Davis and had she met any of them in person?
But the most important lesson was time difference. Where she came from, she said, people would be awake while we on the other side of the world, would be sleeping. Now that was really scary concept at the time: Iban believe that the world of the dead was the opposite of the living, in that the dead were sleeping while we, the living, were awake!
Making the best better
Our club was named Sungai Padang 4-H Club, after the small stream across from Sungai Semebak. I became a member and my mother was the President. We held meetings whenever Ms Taylor came and before each meet we recited the 4-H pledge:
I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country.
Reciting the pledge was no small deal; we had to memorise it and stand up to act out the action to the word. So when we said “my head”, we pointed to our head with all five fingers as if in salute; put our hands to our chest at “my heart”; extended our hands forward with palms up with “my hands”; and swept our hands from our heads and to our sides when we said “my health”.
The 4-H club brought us a new way of life –a transformation, if you will. It was the dawn of a new era for the longhouse dwellers. The club encouraged the longhouse folk to look into the cleanliness of the longhouse. We were organised into sub-committees to work on project after project and before long, changes came to our longhouse at Sungai Semebak.
The longhouse folk agreed to fence up their free-roaming domestic pigs. We built pit latrines; and though not every household did, it was a good start. We cleared the secondary jungle around the longhouse; dug a big drain along the back of the longhouse that dried up the normally waterlogged area.
Along the drain we built a bund where we could stroll in the late afternoon to wind down.
It was a dramatic change. The longhouse no longer looked like it was about to be swallowed up by the jungle; we could see from one end to the other.
South of the longhouse about a kilometer upstream, we converted a plot of land into a vegetable garden. We planted different type of vegetables: loofah, okra, eggplant. The women learnt how to bake cakes, cook, sew, and even make jam from the bountiful harvest of pineapples and rambutan.
It was during one of those cake-making sessions that one of the Home Demonstrators (HD) was heard commenting, “The cake very black, very funny looking!” Through the years up until recently that statement has been repeated over-and-over again… especially after a few rounds of tuak!
Looking back, it was really an awesome achievement for the longhouse ladies. Baking those days required a great deal of skill because we had neither electric-powered nor gas ovens. What those ladies had instead were wood-fired ovens and the effort to maintain a uniform temperature throughout the baking process was the greatest challenge!
With guidance from Ms Taylor and the HDs, however, the women remained resilient and attained a very high standard of competency. They were so proud of their culinary skills that cakes became the mainstay for any celebration from then on.
Activities organised by the 4-H club may sound like it was totally all-work-and-no-play but there were social activities too.
Inter-club visits were arranged so club members could exchange ideas. There were visits to agriculture stations to learn the finer points of modern agriculture too.
To create greater integration among all the 4H-clubs in the Sebauh sub-district, a sports carnival was organised.
The carnival was held in Sebauh town. Team sports included events like egg tossing as well as individual events like the high jump.
I entered the high jump competition for junior section and won first place, which was easy enough since I was the only competitor!
At night there were individual traditional ngajat competitions and betaboh competitions for teams. The sports carnival was a great success thanks to all PCVs in Bintulu who came to help as officials.
The changes brought by the 4-H club, in particular to the people of Rumah Saban, were tremendous and very beneficial. Even up to this day the 4-H club spirit still lives on – never again do we have domestic pigs roaming under the longhouse, nor any chickens running free. The vegetable garden continues to sustain us till this very day – though now at a different location – right next to the longhouse.
But for every hello there has to be goodbye and it was really sad that Ms Taylor had to return to the US upon completion of her tenure as our 4-H Coordinator and advisor.
She had done tremendously well in uplifting the wellbeing of the people of Rumah Saban having had to overcome language, beliefs and cultural barriers.
As a parting gift, Ms Taylor gave my mother a custom jewelry bracelet with the map of Kentucky as its lure; I forgot what my mother gave her in return. I hope it was something she could relate to and remember her time in Semebak with nostalgia.
Today, Manai Luang, 59, is a retiree. He and his wife have three grown children: two sons and a daughter. He enjoys reading, playing the guitar and singing country songs –legacies of the PCV.