“I want to educate my people, my brothers and sisters,” says Bilkuin Jimmysali, seated in the back of Sekolah Bajau Laut Omadal (Iskul Sama Dilaut Omadal in the Bajau language).
The alternative school occupies a bright yellow house that straddles the unofficial demarcation between the homes predominantly occupied by locals and that of the undocumented Bajau Laut community on Omadal Island, Sabah.
For five days a week, it is filled with the chatter and laughter of 33 children who are welcomed despite their lack of legal documentation.
More students want to attend lessons here, unfortunately the constraints of space and funding limit the school’s capacity to accept them.
The cruel irony of the matter is that there is in fact a public school on Omadal Island — the structure is clearly visible as one approaches its jetty. However, the Bajau Laut children who call this island home cannot attend classes here due to their lack of legal status.
Historically, the Bajau Laut have made the wide seas their homes, but the emergence of geographical borders have significantly altered their traditionally nomadic life. Now they are plagued by a host of socio-economic problems; risking arrest, lacking access to healthcare and the prevalence of poor nutrition.
Bilkuin is a Mastal Arikik or Little Teacher, who teaches Bahasa Malaysia and Mathematics at Iskul. The designation describes Iskul alumni who take on the role of teaching upon completing their studies.
When speaking about children from his community not being able to attend school like other kids, there is both a firmness and frustration in Bilkuin’s voice. Aside from basic literacy, it is this exact quality of confidence and self-assuredness to speak up that Jefry bin Musa, one of the teachers here, hopes to equip his students with.
On top of nutritious, hot meals for students, Hasanah’s funding has also provided the teachers’ allowance, clean water for families, and improved nutrition for pregnant and nursing mothers in the community.
Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and so it may just be the very thing needed for the Bajau Laut to break the cycle and to truly be free again.