A Personal account by Tom Nelson of Raleigh International, Project Manager, on the Building of the REW Building @ Kampong Sonsogan Magandai for the Swepa Solar Project:
In a small kampung hidden away in Northeast Sabah, something extraordinary has been happening. Nestled amongst lush green jungle, in defiance of the rolling, monotonous expanse of the plantation that surround her is the beautiful riverside community of Sonsogon Magandai. It is here that the extraordinary has taken place, as the villagers have come together with SWEPA, with Raleigh International and with half a dozen other organizations to achieve what has never before been done. I know the beauty of this place, the beauty of her people and the beauty of this achievement, as I have been blessed enough to have seen it first hand. This achievement is one that is taking the people of Sonsogon Magandai on a journey, allowing them to enjoy the benefits we today take for granted, and allowing them to journey with us through a life where electricity and access to information comes at the touch of a button. It is also the first step in a journey where we create a more fair future, by making best use of the skills, resources and knowledge from different organizations, and working together in this way we achieve more. For some in the community- as for the Raleigh International volunteers – it is a more literal journey taking them from one continent to another. Women from the kampung are to travel to India to learn about the technology that underlies this first step. Just imagine that! Braving a move from the rural, peaceful, familiar life you have always known in Sabah through the mad, bustling streets of New Deli to submerge yourself in a completely new culture, with alien language, unknown tastes and unrecognised faces! Extraordinary indeed. And so it was extraordinary volunteering with Raleigh International. I spent nine weeks as a Project Manager working with young people from all over the world, getting to know the village and ensuring that the community workshop space was constructed. My part of this journey started in early June and I remember it well………….
For hours we have been shaking along the dusty maze of plantation routes in the Asian Forestry Company’s (AFC) truck, an eclectic music playlist blaring and the air con doing its best to keep up. The roads deteriorate and for the last hour our land cruiser is attempting what it was originally designed to drive. The road is mud and hill, we’re sliding and scrambling and somehow avoiding the worst of the holes as we round one last corner and there in front of us – the first teasing signs of Sonsogon Magandai. A scattered few ramshackle wooden houses, chickens, pigs and, up on a grassy hill, a church. We meet with the chairman and he guides us across a log spanning the river, dancing over the smooth wood to wait on the opposite bank. My colleague, edging cautiously, edging, shuffling, edging, disaster! She loses her balance, flailing as she goes to catches me and pull us both into the muddy cool waters of the ‘sungai’. What a first impression! I am to cross that bridge many, many times over the coming weeks, but never again do I lose my footing.
Walking up the steep slope leading to where the building will stand we are rewarded with the most breathtaking view. Surrounded by hundreds of shades of green rolling off over the valley and covering the vistas right on into the distance where the hills meet the sky. It’s just gorgeous. Looking carefully I spy freckles of timber giving a clue about where the village spreads along the valley, each side of the river. What a stunning place to be standing! What a place to work! The site is overgrown and covered in bush, miles from anywhere but with this backdrop I just feel privileged to be standing there and to be a part of it. After scoping the site for a couple of days I am not convinced what we are about to do is possible. It’s too remote. It’s too hot. It’s too much to build and too little time to do it. But the things that are challenging in this life are often those that are the most worth attempting. We divide into three phases, each of three weeks, with between 10 and 20 volunteers working hand in hand to see the project grow from a bare, scorched patch of exposed earth to the first ever rural electrification workshop in Sabah. So it begins.
By the time we arrive for the first phase there is pile of materials awaiting us on a hill a few hundred yards from the building site and the site is cleared. We move all our supplies and set up home in the kindergarten across the river, a 15 minute hike from that stunning scenery of where we are to work. A typical day sees us rise with the first light, eat enough porridge to power us through the morning and start work before the sun has burnt off the protection of the morning’s mist. By 11 the exposed hill top is scorching, we are soaked in sweat and know it is time to retreat from the midday heat. We return after lunch to continue where we left off – moving huge piles of timber, digging, sawing, marking out and putting the foundations of this project together. The evening twilight tempts the fireflies out to dance under an audience of glittering stars, the silhouettes of palms is all that stands between them and us. The scent of the rations cooking signals the food, stories and laughter before we all squeeze into one of the kindergarten rooms, lying, as we work, side by side, to slip into dreams of extraordinary things in beautiful places. It is the dedication and hard work of this first group that sets the pace as we finish ahead of schedule and happy with the progress made. All are sad to leave as the AFC’s 4x4s roll in to collect us.
Starting the second phase we have a solid routine and the building is taking shape. The initial shyness of the villagers softens and we begin making friends – in the school, on the volleyball court and in the church. Where they hid from these tall, pale, overly hairy, invaders they now smile, greet us and share fruit. Conversations held along winding riverside trails make explicit the appreciation of our efforts and the warmth the village feels to our being there. This is very touching. I consider how the foundations we set determine the shape of the finished building, and see the allegory of our work as foundations for further change that can be achieved in the future. However the magnitude of what we still need to accomplish sits with me too, as I realise we are already half way there… And don’t yet have half a building! Thankfully this second group is just as keen and motivated as was the first. Everyone feels lucky to be a part of something so ground breaking and inspirational. Working on a project that can make such a difference for the community means everyone is enthusiastic and determined to do justice to the progress made in the first three weeks. More sweat, more energy and more laughter. Endless buckets of sand brought from the river, passed hand to hand. Before the second team leave the roof is ready to go on and I see what was a jumbled pile of wood and metal, stone and cement is beginning to look a lot like a community building. I see also the smiles and pride of each volunteer as they see the change they have been instrumental in creating.
The last phase is upon us. Less time, fewer people and an opening event looming fast. We are building the kitchen and toilet, putting up the internal walls, and painting inside and out. The worst of the sun is shielded by the roof now in place, the time of day told by the length of the shadows. There is a determination on site that this will be ready in time and the friends we have made with those we work alongside makes for much laughter. Shared iced gems and paint in the wrong places, bent nails and muddy floors. The days disappear too rapidly and, as the sun sets on the last, we look back at the finished building, knowing we have each contributed to achieving the extraordinary. The opening takes place and amongst the speeches, photos and food we tell the story of our time on site by dancing to badly played jerry cans and guitars with broken strings. There is again that sense of pride and achievement amongst the volunteers during the ceremony as it is clear what this project means – not just for the people living in Sonsogon Magandai but for many others in many villages like it. It has shown what can be accomplished when we work together.
Personally it brings me great hope for the future. Crossing that bridge for the last time I stop and drink in the now familiar beauty of the river and her banks. It surprises me that I do not feel more sad to be leaving this enchanting place. I understand that I am ready to go because we have done what we came to do and we have done this well. We leave a community building and workshop but we also leave much more than that. We leave having helped to show how much more we can do when we stand holding hands than when we stand with our hands apart. I would like to give my very sincere thanks and gratitude to the women of SWEPA, without whom none of this would have been possible. I also want to thank all of the Raleigh International volunteers who shared with me the magic of our time in Sonsogon Magandai. Thank you for the effort you each made in achieving what I thought would be impossible and for each, in your own way, inspiring me. Terima kasih semua kawan saya!
Venturer Volunteer List
Wing Man Chan
Li Shan Ng
Sze Wing (Hazel) Wong
Ying (Flora) Xie
Raekwon (Ray) Hare
Project Manager Volunteer List
Tom Nelson – Phases 1,2 & 3
Laura Wilson – Phase 1
Andrea Hill – Phase 2
Tom (Welly) Weldon – Phase 3