It was almost evening by the time we made our way to the last village of the day. It had been a hot and tiring day but we were in high spirits, buoyed by the optimism and warm hospitality that had greeted us in all the prior villages.
We walked through a deserted street, crawled under a fence and came to a muddy plot that looked like an abandoned housing project.
Nobody but our Goducate guides knew what was coming up next.
Negotiating our way through the muddied site, we arrived at a deforested area where construction vehicles were parked. Still no sign of any village.
It was then that our guides told us the story of Water World.
Village #5 – Water World
Not too long ago, a community of Filipino war refugees, just like the ones we had visited earlier in the day, lived in this swampy area that would get flooded often as the tide went up, hence the name Water World.
I suppose they were happy enough, compared to starving in their previously war-torn homes. Here, at least, they could find simple jobs as woodcutters or seamstresses to feed their children.
One day, civilisation happened. The area on which they were residing was picked for a housing development project. The refugees had to uproot their homes entirely and migrate just a little further up towards the coast.
It was not too far, in fact, only a hundred metres or so. But they had to tear down all their wooden huts and rebuild them from scratch.
Beyond this mangrove copse (picture below) we could see evidence of a recently uprooted settlement. The wooden stilts that used to serve as legs of the villagers’ old homes remain fixed in the ground.
Traversing a foul-smelling land muddied with what looked like toxic sludge, we finally came upon the new settlement.
A wave of sadness washed over the group as each of us silently took in the sight that greeted us. We could hardly have expected this.
It was perhaps fortunate that the tide was down when we visited, allowing us to avoid having to wade through the village in knee-high water. But the absence of water all the more highlighted the waste and pollution that contaminated the landscape.
This is the condition under which the villagers live.
And, yet, I couldn’t feel sad for long.
A little boy walked slowly towards us, eyeing us curiously as he tried to button his shirt. He took little steps with his bare feet, innocently oblivious to the slime and moss that squelched under them.
As we waved at him and said “hello”, he gave us a shy, impish smile even as he walked past us, still buttoning his shirt.
Water World was my biggest lesson in hope. We were greeted with such warmth and sincerity that we couldn’t help feeling touched by the villagers’ happiness, optimism and generosity of spirit.
Despite the village being affectionately named Water World, they do not get enough sanitised water, relying on a few small plastic water tanks that catch the rainfall to supply the whole village.
And, yet, they bought cartons of bottled water for us and cheerfully handed those out to us as we sat on plastic chairs to enjoy the performances that their children had prepared for us.
More than anything else, I felt touched by their love and acceptance of us, total strangers to them.
As we stood up to bid them farewell, the children swarmed around us to take our hands and touch them to their foreheads. I’m told this is their way of receiving our blessings.
Also extremely touching was the way the villagers appeared to be so thankful for their lives and whatever little blessings they received.
An abundance of hope and innocence shone in the faces of the children as they took in their English lessons.
As we started leaving the compound, these two precious kids lingered around us, gazing at us shyly. One of them was the boy we first encountered.
They quickly overcame their shyness as they enthusiastically posed for photos, by themselves and with us.
With that, we concluded our tour for the day, each of us with different thoughts flitting through our heads and emotions raging in our hearts.
But even as we thought different things, maybe reflecting on our lives, maybe thinking about the children, maybe happy, maybe sad, I’m quite sure that not a single one of us didn’t feel deeply touched by what we had experienced.
ieatishootipost – Dr Leslie Tay and his community raised a sum of S$22,000 through fundraising efforts to finance a van for the Sandakan refugee community. This trip was made for the purpose of presenting the cheque to the people.
Goducate – Through the selfless work of this organisation, many underprivileged children in Asia now have the chance to receive an education and to dream of a better future.
Nuffnang – Ever supportive of charitable works, Nuffnang sent a small team to this trip to support the mission. I was one of the representatives.
ieat Sandakan Makan mission group – Shout out to the people with whom I shared a fulfilling four days with: Leslie, Lisa, Wee Kiat, Shirley, Ryan, Jimmy, Irene, Nicholas, Huiwen, Estee, Gregory, Kay, Amylia, Veronica, Pastor Victor, Dr Paul Choo.