Jun­gle jin­gle bells

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By ANN MARIE CHANDY star2@thes­tar.com.my

CHRIST­MAS has al­ways been a time of giv­ing. As a child, I re­mem­ber wait­ing for the hol­i­day sea­son be­cause it meant gath­er­ing with all my cousins at my late grand­uncle’s house in Klang, where we would eat, pray and share our love for each other year af­ter year. The best part, of course, was when the presents would be par­celled out to ev­ery child.

This Christ­mas my church de­cided to em­bark on a very dif­fer­ent kind of pro­ject of giv­ing. We cel­e­brated early with an orang asli (OA) kam­pung lo­cated in the jun­gles of Perak.

There were about 150 adults and chil­dren in the Se­mai-speaking com­mu­nity and they are mostly hunter-gath­er­ers. The Se­mai here are a sim­ple peo­ple, with no elec­tric­ity or piped wa­ter. The chil­dren do not go to school and the adults earn a small sum by col­lect­ing palm oil ker­nels for the plan­ta­tion own­ers right next to where they live.

Our group has sort of “adopted” the kam­pung and have a five-year pro­gramme mapped out in which we are try­ing to in­still a love for learn­ing among the chil­dren so they will at­tend schools as well as to em­power the com­mu­nity lead­ers and elders to know their rights and take proper mea­sures to keep their com­mu­nity med­i­cally sound. These com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tives started with the for­ma­tion of a lo­cal OA com­mu­nity com­mit­tee, and it is al­ways great to see the com­mit­tee mem­bers turn up for meet­ings, ea­ger to con­trib­ute ideas.

Last week­end, af­ter two months of plan­ning and meet­ing with the OA com­mu­nity to brain­storm, we had a Se­mai-style Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion.

It was a first for me. And it was a glo­ri­ous, al­beit wet, Satur­day that I will al­ways re­mem­ber.

Where in the past I have been trained by my mother to give gen­er­ously when it comes to char­ity and have al­ways tried to do so dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son, this time my eyes were opened to a giv­ing of a dif­fer­ent sort, and at the same time to re­ceive grace­fully from the com­mu­nity. This made us equals, all of us in­ter­de­pen­dent.

Spurred by com­mu­nity worker Jas­mine Adaick­alam, my church group was told to change our mind­sets of giv­ing. Our mis­sion was to con­cen­trate on the com­mu­nity’s skills and hard work, and to re­store their dig­nity and self-worth. Mak­ing the com­mu­nity mere re­cip­i­ents of ser­vices was a clear no-no. We were to think in terms of em­pow­er­ing these hum­ble folk to put up their own ver­sion of a Christ­mas.

So no party hats and pop­pers. No an­gel wings or royal cloaks.

Age old story

The lit­tle orang asli chil­dren – aged be­tween six and 12 – put up their ver­sion of the Na­tiv­ity play, di­rected by com­mu­nity mo­biliser Ibu Amoi, a mem­ber of a nearby Se­mai com­mu­nity who is not just lit­er­ate but trilin­gual (and such a bless­ing to us all!).

The kids were great – they were dressed in their usual clothes but their head­gear, wo­ven from palm leaves, de­fined their roles, whether they were shep­herds or Magi. And they sang their hearts out when it came to the car­ols – ever heard An­gels We Have Heard On High in Se­mai? Now I have.

What’s more is that the com­mu­nity made per­cus­sion in­stru­ments from bam­boo sticks to ac­com­pany the kids’ singing. I have sat through many a Na­tiv­ity play in my 45 years and I can safely say that this is one I will re­mem­ber for a long time. The shep­herds (bless each one of them) were all dressed in foot­ball jer­seys, which seem to be in abun­dant sup­ply from donors of all walks of life.

The orang asli built bam­boo benches for the “orang ban­dar” to sit on, and a makeshift tent was con­structed to keep the rain out. There was a Se­mai style Christ­mas tree, with lit­tle wo­ven or­na­ments (birds!) and the guests (who ar­rived by bus from Kuala Lumpur) were all given lit­tle head­dresses to wear.

The orang asli had made bas­kets out of news­pa­per for sale, and were also sell­ing co­conuts, petai, pu­cuk paku and cili padi to earn a few ring­git. Here, our aim is to slowly and steadily ini­ti­ate a bud­ding busi­ness com­mu­nity.

The orang ban­dar brought face paints and ice cream and or­gan­ised a hockey match (the hockey sticks were carved out in ad­vance by the orang asli) and Ken­tucky Fried Chicken do­nated lunch for all.

But it was more than just fun and games, more than presents and car­ols. It was faces filled with joy and con­fi­dence; adults in the com­mu­nity who had spent months plan­ning and pre­par­ing for the event; chil­dren who have never per­formed for an au­di­ence, con­fi­dently act­ing and singing, and earn­ing well-de­served ap­plause; youth who have never in­ter­acted with out­side folk much, invit­ing us into their vil­lage, mak­ing us feel wel­come, and shar­ing with us what was theirs.

This Christ­mas, I be­lieve we as­sisted in en­abling this com­mu­nity to host their very own Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion for the first time; we helped sup­port their dig­nity, and en­hance their sense of worth.

And that was amaz­ing to be a part of. I hope we con­tinue on a path that will even­tu­ally see them tell us we are not needed any more, that they have it all mapped out on their own. That will be a Christ­mas present worth its weight in gold (frank­in­cense and myrrh)!

Se­mai style: The chil­dren put up a na­tiv­ity play and, to in­di­cate the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, wore dif­fer­ently-shaped head­gear that they had wo­ven out of palm fronds. — ann MarIe cHandy/The Star

The writer with Momek, one of her favourites among the lit­tle ones.

a Se­mai style christ­mas tree!

What’s christ­mas with­out presents?

The ju­nior hockey team — the sticks were carved out from wood!

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