The settlements of cottage-like homes, and often surrounded by paddy fields, are now the playground for WHEE
By LYDIA NATHAN
The Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak could easily be one of the best kept secrets on the travellers map, until recently that is.
The highland plateau of over 1,000m which lies between the Tama Abu Range and Apo Duat Range on the Sarawak-Kalimantan border is now getting a bit more attention as a tourist destination as much as an area for volunteers to converge for different causes.
Rhonwyn Hagedorn, founder of We The Youth — helping those in need, exceeding expectations, empowering others — otherwise known as WHEE, certainly knows and has seen the vast potential of the rural village and all that it has to offer.
The many valleys in the region that are peppered with settlements of cottage-like homes, and often surrounded by paddy fields, are now the playground for WHEE, an international, non-profit and non-governmental organisation that seeks to provide opportunities for youngsters to promote their talent.
Hagedorn said when she first went to the area, also known as Bario, she was hit by a little bit of culture shock.
“I went as a volunteer under eHomemakers, after I completed my final exams in 2011. I needed a break from school and thought it would be good for me.
“I found myself in a rural community with different food and no hot water,” Hagedorn, 23, said to The Malaysian Reserve.
The Malaysian-born and bred lass said it was very strange for her to acknowledge that she was still in Malaysia because everything seemed so different.
The initial project under eHome-maker was aimed at upskilling the local women, teaching them the English language and doing data entry using Microsoft Excel on computers.
“The second time I went, I was more prepared. I knew what to bring and wear. One of the things I did was assist in videographing the trails for the community guides,” she said.
WHEE was born after the eHome-makers project was completed, based on the good response from both volunteers and the local Bario community.
“We were very fortunate to receive funding from the government under Dana Belia and our first group of 14 people who went in 2014,” she said.
WHEE and eHomemakers are now a separate entity, but they still work closely together.
According to Hagedorn, the common misconception of most people is that the people of Bario need saving or rescuing.
Instead, she said the locals have been self-sustainable for the longest time and the aim of the volunteers were to assist the community with whatever they needed.
“We do not go in and try and push our lifestyles, or anything, on them. Instead, when it comes to teaching them English, I often encourage my volunteers to learn the Kelabit language. Then only will they know how hard it is,” she said.
One of the main accomplishments WHEE did was helping the locals on how to run their trails.
Hagedorn said there is plenty of potential for the local folk to generate an income by becoming community guides, as there is plenty of forestry and mountains around and is one of the attractions there.
The area also boasts many high peaks including Sarawak’s highest mountain, the 2,423m Gunung Murud.
The area is the headwaters of the mighty Baram, Limbang and Lawas Rivers. Administratively, it comes under the Miri and Limbang divisions.
Located about 1,000m above sea level, Bario is home to the indigenous Kelabit people with a cool weather of 16 to 25°C all year round.
“Bario has plenty of tourists, both local and foreign alike. When they go there, people want an authentic holiday. We helped them develop the trails and brochures for advertising and now they do it all on their own,” she said.
The initial stage of locals learning English benefitted them greatly as they could now converse with tourists.
“Our aim is to hand it over back to the community once we are done. For instance, now that they have learned basic English, they can run their own guides and hikes.
“It is good money for them — for half a day, a guide can make about RM120 and for a full-day hike up to the waterfalls, one can make RM240,” she said.
She added that another thing tourists could do was experience paddy planting in its traditional form, which is manually going into the paddy fields without any machinery.
Rice and pineapple are currently the main export and the Bario rice is now also known as a premium rice.
WHEE is currently working on collecting data for traditional rice planting, so more policies can come into place and have been engaging with the SEACON (South-East Asian Council for Food Security and Fair Trade) to mitigate any challenges the locals have.
The volunteers also realised one day that homestays could bring in extra income throughout the year for the locals.
“Initially, people were a little more hesitant. But, we encouraged them to give it a shot. They had space, it was just them opening up to people outside of their village,” Hagedorn said.
These days, she said every other house in the 13 villages have homestays, where tourists can experience and truly live out the traditional way of life there.
“It’s been great for both tourists and locals. The money they make all goes back to the locals, which is about RM90 per night in the longhouses, including three meals,” she said.
Hagedorn said the homestay industry has boosted the economy on a different scale due to its uniqueness in culture.
“The food is different, but very tasty. When the volunteers went, we lived in a longhouse and there was a lady who cooked for us.
“We ate a lot of vegetables, but also game meats, fried chicken. We were never hungry,” she said, adding that fruits like wild mangoes can be picked off trees and eaten.
Hagedorn fondly recalled an instance after she was accepted as part of the Kelabit family, when she was made to eat a delicacy of the local people — a worm called “Kelatang”!
“All I can say is it smelt like cilantro, but tasted like shampoo,” she said, laughing.
In terms of road infrastructure, there was once no paved roads, just mud trails, most people either rode scooters or owned Hiluxes.
Today, there has been development in the roads and many more amenities including a government clinic and an Internet centre, with more telecommunication companies coming in.
Hagedorn said sustainable developments that contribute to the community are what the area needs, and not mega infrastructures that will ruin the beauty of the place.
“Everything is based on what the community wants. So yes, if the locals decide they want a McDonalds in the middle of the land, then so be it.
“But, we want to help them become sustainable with the resources they already have. The community guides and homestay industry, along with the paddy planting, have been grow- ing and I’m so pleased,” she said.
Hagedorn said there is still a stigma from both ends about living in rural and urban communities.
“I’ve had people say they’re worried that they might be eaten by tigers if they visit Bario, that most certainly will not happen where the villagers live. It’s all about exposing yourself to the different side of our country,” she said.
She said she is looking forward to the next trip to Bario, which will be in July 2018, and she is currently accepting applications.
“Mostly, we want to choose the best of the best, volunteers who are passionate about what they do and are eager to learn. It’s a life-changing experience,” she said.