2. The Land Below the Wind

As mentioned in my previous post, Raleigh works primarily in the state of Sabah. Today I’m going to explore Sabah’s origin and some of its history before going on to some of the projects that Raleigh conducts on the community phase of expeditions – only by understanding the past can we begin to make sense of the present.

Sabah was known by seafarers as ‘the land below the wind’ due to its position south of the typhoon belt. There are a number of etymological theories as to where the word ‘sabah’ comes from. Some have mused that it comes from the Bruneian Malay word for ‘upstream’ whereas others have drawn comparisons to the word ‘sabak‘, which is the name for where palm sugar is extracted. ‘Sabah‘ is also Arabic for sunrise and ‘pisang saba‘ is a type of banana which grows on the coasts of the region. Personally I would love it if Sabah was named after a banana but for now it’s a bit of a mystery.

SO, humans appeared in Sabah, North Borneo, about 20,000-30,000 years ago. Their ancestors are thought to be one of the first groups to migrate from Africa along the continental shelf of the Northern shore of the Indian ocean, now submerged in its watery depths. This was the first of a number of waves of migration to North Borneo, all of which have added to its complicated history (which I am struggling to get my head around slightly so please do correct me if I’m wrong). Ancient kingdoms, such as the Vijayapura and the P’o-ni, thrived and then faded back into the past until the Northern and Eastern parts of Borneo were ceded to the Sultan of Sulu in 1658 (although it seems that there is controversy as to whether Sabah specifically was ceded to the Sultanate). Then in 1761 Britain rocked up and, in it’s classic colonial way, found itself holding the rights to North Borneo by 1881; it became a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1888. Jumping forward half a century, much of Northern Borneo became occupied by Japanese forces during the second world war leading to a number of air strikes by the allied forces, which completely devastated most of North Borneo’s towns and associated infrastructure. It wasn’t until 1963 that North Borneo attained self government, becoming part of Malaysia along with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore. At this point, Sabah’s population exploded, seeing a 400% increase from 1970 to 2010. Around about this time Sabah saw huge amounts of migration, which has lead to social problems as a result of ethnic tensions. Population expansion has also contributed to poverty, due to the poor conditions in which many migrants live, and environmental destruction as more people called for more resources.

Now, although Malaysia is regarded as an ‘upper-middle-income country’, official figures are not reflected in the states of Sabah and Sarawak where almost 20% of the population live in poverty. Rural indigenous communities here lack access to basic infrastructure and services such as roads, electricity, water and sanitation. Over 40% of Sabah’s population do not have access to safe water and sanitation – this is one of Raleigh’s major focuses in Malaysian Borneo. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are the cause of a plethora of health issues; for example diarrhoea kills more children each year than AIDs, malaria and measles put together. Typically, it is children in rural areas collecting water that restricts access to education and social activities. Raleigh’s water and sanitation projects consist of awareness raising and training (critical in ensuring that any infrastructure is used to its maximum potential) in addition to construction projects which allow communities to lead healthier and more sustainable lives. Although local people are likely to be very capable of building and maintaining their own infrastructure, Raleigh volunteers contribute by offering an extra pair of hands and, more importantly, linking the new facilities with positive behaviour changes.

Another major focus for Raleigh in Sabah is community resilience, something that we take for granted. Community resilience is the ability of a community to adapt or return to normality after sudden changes in their situation. For example, here in Britain if there is severe flooding the health service, police, government and other community organisations are expected to react. And as much as we complain about the efficiency of these reactions in this country, they do react, ensuring people are safe, provided with food and shelter and that damaged infrastructure and buildings are repaired. Thus, a return to a normal way of life is relatively quick. However, many rural communities in Sabah lack the ability to do this, exacerbating the damage caused by sudden environmental and economic changes and making the negative effects much longer lasting. Raleigh hopes to help build resilience in Sabah’s rural communities by encouraging the formation of community groups, improving access to health and education services and introducing alternative ways for individuals to make their living.

Like the environmental projects in the previous post, it is Raleigh’s partnership with other organisations which is important if these ventures are to be sustainable. For example, Raleigh has been working with the Partnership of Community Organisations Sabah (PACOS), which strives to empower indigenous communities through improving their resilience to environmental and social change, for over 12 years. Creating change together is critical if positive effects are to be meaningful, long-lasting and far-reaching in the land below the wind.

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