A walk through Sabah

TFTer Rudro shares a personal reflection of the Rurality initiative in Sandakan, Sabah.

Being born and bred in Peninsular Malaysia, this was the first time I had ever travelled to Sabah, which is situated on the island of Borneo along with Sarawak, Brunei and the Indonesian territory of Kalimantan. My first shock came when I showed them my Malaysian identity card at the immigration check point. I was given a piece of paper saying that I wasn’t allowed to stay in Sabah for more than a certain amount of time. This caught me by surprise. It felt like I was travelling to a foreign land! Florian, TFT’s resident filmmaker, was shocked too. Prasad, the Rurality coordinator in Malaysia and a veteran of such trips, seemed unperturbed.

Rurality field officer, Lisa, without whom the Communications guys would’ve been lost, because there are very few signboards in plantations.
Rurality field officer, Lisa, without whom the Communications guys would’ve been lost, because there are very few signboards in plantations.

At the airport, we were greeted by Lisa – our colleague in Sabah who is a Rurality field officer. As we made our way to the mill complex where we would be spending the next few days, I couldn’t help but notice how everything seemed familiar and new at the same time. The people spoke the same language, but their mannerisms, customs and phrases were slightly different. The food was similar, but had a local twist to it. Hundreds of kilometres of seas hadn’t seemed to stop the fast food chains from following us though.

For the next few days, we followed Lisa and Karim, another Rurality colleague in Sabah, everywhere. At first, they were apprehensive about having cameras shoved in their faces at every turn. But they soon became naturals.

A farmer’s rubber plantation. Beware of snakes!
A farmer’s rubber plantation. Beware of snakes!

We spoke to farmers, walked through their lands, ate with them, played with their children and laughed with them. We were able to feel their warmth, sincerity and hospitality from the get-go. We learnt about their problems, and their hopes and dreams. We saw palm oil and rubber plantations. We realized that land is very important in Sabah, and that many farmers have a deep-rooted bond with the land. We saw innovative farmers who work extremely hard for their families.

I learnt that taking photos and videos requires a lot of running! I learnt that coffee is your best friend in the field. It allows you to run on 3 hours of sleep and still keep running – at least for a while. I learnt that it is very important to constantly back up your files – just in case a virus hits your hard drive and threatens to wipe out a whole day’s worth of work. I learnt how to play “hide and seek” when Florian was shooting videos while I was taking photos or recording sounds, because we didn’t want to interfere with each other’s shots.

Language wasn't a barrier for Florian, whose drone was a hit with the locals.
Language wasn't a barrier for Florian, whose drone was a hit with the locals.

But the most important thing I learnt was about trust. Karim and Lisa had actually spent the time to get to know these farmers. They weren’t there to tell them what to do; they were there to listen and help in any way they could. They followed the farmers’ footsteps through the plantations, regardless of the heat. They shared their stories and were welcomed with warmth. Even Florian, who was hindered by the language barrier, could feel that warmth and trust.

Trust is a very important component of what TFT does. The farmers shared their lives with us only because they trusted us. And this trust was borne from open communication; from a mutual understanding that we are all human. And as humans, we share some core values that even seas cannot separate.

Building trust; drinking coconut water.
Building trust; drinking coconut water.

For more information about the Rurality project in Sabah, Click here !

Pictures by Florian Wiesner and Rudro Kumar Roy