By Mahen Bala
A small part of the very tricky, steep and muddy road we had to travel on to reach the village. The 14 hour ride brought us through logging camps and some of the roughest dirt trails in the region. On both trips, in and out, we drove through the night, avoiding stray timber lorries and the constant rain did not make the already treacherous road any easier to drive on.
On this mission, I accompanied the international relief organisation, Mercy Malaysia with a small team of dental practitioners, a water assessment team and logistics experts to provide dental care and distribute hygiene kits to the Penan villagers of Lusong Laku in the district of Belaga, Sarawak. The fairly new village of Lusong Laku consists of two longhouses built in a U-shape on the banks of the Luit River (Sungai Luit).
Most of the Penans living in the area have been severely displaced by rampant logging and even more destructive, the construction of numerous hydroelectric damns. For years the Penans has had to suffer silently with limited access to the outside and even more limited coverage by the media. The road leading into Lusong Laku itself is guarded by a blockade set up to stop the entry of unwanted foreigners, more often than not middlemen hired by logging companies to persuade the Penans to give up their rights to the land and abandon their semi-nomadic lifestyle in a different location.
Transitioning from semi-nomadic to living in permanent houses has not caught on well with most of the families. Houses, or rather units within the longhouse, are completely sparse with no furniture apart from a few shelves. Lacking the necessary connections to draw water from the nearest fresh water source, most have resorted to stockpiling water by various means, including stacks of mineral water bottles.
The level of hygiene was also in a dire state, with most residents having extremely bad teeth and skin infection. A mobile dental clinic was set up at the village head’s house, which unfortunately could not offer more to the villagers than simple tooth extraction. Some children came in with so bad teeth that their parents had to choose the 5 most painful ones to extract immediately out of every single rotten tooth.
Access to clean flowing water proved to be a problem for the village as there were inadequate pipes to channel water from the source in the mountains and the river is completely brown with sludge from upriver. During our visit the villagers were working on a ditch right under the longhouse to channel excess water away into the river. One of the men working there had earlier visited the clinic to have a tooth extracted. With only a stump on his feet, we moves around on crutches and in this picture, digs through the hard ground with his bare hands. It took me completely by surprise to hear him greet me in English.
After handing out hygiene kits (soap,toothbrush, toothpaste) I visited every unit in both longhouses to make a compilation of portraits of every single person living in the village. Those portraits will be posted in the next part of my post. The same team will be returning again in a couple of months to set up the proposed water system and to conduct hygiene classes with the villagers.
For more information on signing up as a volunteer with Mercy Malaysia visit www.mercy.org.my