Nicol David: Let us not turn our backs on natureJul 13, 2008
A day after international women’s squash player and UNDP National Goodwill Ambassador Nicol David was conferred with the honorary title of Datuk for her contribution to her home state of Penang, the exuberant 25 year old hopped onto a plane and headed for the interiors of Sarawak for her first field mission for the year.
Trying for herself the basic transport facilities available to rural communities, Nicol and a small team from UNDP and the Sarawak Inland Waterway Transport System (SIWT) Study journeyed along the Batang Rajang for many hours to the far-flung community of Punan Bah, some 80km from Kapit. The Punan is one of ethnic groups under the Orang Ulu community and Punan Bah is the largest and oldest Punan longhouse in Sarawak.
At the aggregate level, Sarawak has an enviable record of development and an overall poverty level of just 8 percent in 2004. However, development in the rural areas has been less spectacular, and the rural poverty rate was 14 percent in 2004. The poor communities tend to be scattered along the state’s rivers or live in forested areas.
Currently, UNDP and SRB are concluding the Sarawak Inland Waterway Transport System (SIWT) Study. The two-year development project seeks to enhance river transportation in the state and support more effective use of water and related resources to alleviate rural poverty, while improving environmental management and contributing to the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs).
Nicol visited SK Punan Bah, a primary school lining the banks of Sungai Punan, and read a story titled, “Togu and the Trees of Life” to a group of delighted children during their afternoon tutoring session.
Dressed comfortably in a sports top and track pants, she urged the children not to turn their backs on Mother Nature, which had for generations supplied communities in the state with everything they needed, from wood for building their homes, food to line their stomachs and medicines to heal ailments.
Imitating the voices of various animals dwelling in Sarawak’s rainforests, such as the pygmy elephant, orang utan, and the hornbill, she cautioned of the detrimental impact of economic activities such as logging and palm oil which had caused the deterioration in the quality of the rivers and deforestation, adding that solutions could often be found when the authorities and communities worked together.
Although the vast majority of Malaysian children finish primary schooling, some children, particularly in rural areas, do not attend school regularly and often drop out too early to help support their families. In other situations, education is hindered by a lack of finances for school fees and books and difficulty in traveling to school.
“Education is a priceless investment in the lives of young people. We must help them stay in school and finish their education so they can have more options and build better lives for themselves.”
Nicol also visited the area clinic before spending the night with the community at Punan Bah, which recently faced a tragedy when a fire ravaged most of the longhouse including their prized ancestral graves called the ‘keliriengs.’ She learned about the customs and legends of the Punan community from some of the village elders, and spent a lazy evening along the river bank, watching the children play.
“Despite everything that had happened to the community, everyone was just so hospitable and amazing.”
She particularly enjoyed dinner, when she was served a simple meal of labang fish smoked in bamboo husk, stir-fried jungle fern and heart of sago boiled in clear stock.
The team woke up early the next morning and traveled further upstream towards Bakun, the site of Sarawak’s largest hydroelectric dam, and traveled toward Bintulu before flying back to Kuching.
At the climax of her visit, Nicol brought together some 30 families along the Kuching waterfront on board the MV Equatorial, where she narrated the story of Togu once again and shared with them how she rose to the top of the world’s women’s squash scene from her humble beginnings learning the game in the public squash court in her hometown.
“I was very fortunate to grow up in such a supportive and loving family environment,” she said, adding that her family and friends help to keep her grounded.
The event, called “Lunch and Learn on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)” also provided UNDP an opportunity to spotlight the role that the youth can play in spearheading global efforts to end poverty.
“We are the first generation with enough resources and knowledge to end poverty in our lifetime. As youth, we must play an active role in development, including taking care of the environment. When it comes to the environment, every action counts.”
Wrapping up her visit to the state ahead of her training for the Malaysian Open, she said that she hoped that the children would remember her message of conservation. As the plane soared above the undulating hills and network of rivers, she smiled and said, “Malaysia is truly blessed, but we often forget how lucky we are."