The ‘kampung’ engineers lighting up interior Sarawak

Published: 18 May 2015 7:00 AM

Pelepok villagers from a longhouse building a mini-hydro dam with pipes in the jungles of Sarawak with the help of three Bidayuh ‘experts’. The kampong folk were paying up to RM200 a month for diesel for three hours of electricity. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Kamal Ariffin, May 18, 2015.
Early this month, The Malaysian Insider featured the Iban Pelepok longhouse in the forests of central Sarawak which disproved the notion that an indigenous tribe's success was dependent on their continued support for the government. In this article SHERIDAN MAHAVERA meets three Bidayuh villagers who are making it possible for others to generate their own electricity and firing their independence.

For most of his life, Simo Sekam was an ordinary Bidayuh padi farmer but in the past few years, this good-natured 54-year-old has turned into a local hero for Sarawak’s remote communities.

Simo, his son, Jerome, and nephew, Tangah Jansah, may not have engineering degrees, but they have become the go-to people for mini-hydroelectric projects which are a blessing for villages cut off from the electricity grid.

Their “expertise” came the hard way, in the dense jungles of Sarawak where they helped villages just like theirs clear away brush, dam up streams and install turbines that generate electricity much the same way a conventional hydro-electric plant does.

The three are part of a quiet revolution taking hold in Sarawak’s rural communities as once-cowed villagers wake up to the possibility that they can be both politically and economically independent.

The little Bidayuh village that could

It would seem obvious to Peninsular Malaysians that people who need help should welcome that help regardless whether it comes from the government or not.

So if a village is so remote that connecting power lines to it is difficult, then logically, the community should accept a mini-hydro scheme if it is being provided by a non-governmental organisation.

But PKR politician Vernon Aji Kedit said such logic did not really apply in Sarawak.
(From left) Jerome Sekam, Simo Sekam and Tangah Jansah planning the mini-hydro installation at the Pelepok longhouse, near Betong, Sarawak recently. The three are now local heroes for helping other villages to generate their own electricity. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Kamal Ariffin, May 18, 2015.

“Most remote villages would want mini-hydro. But they are scared that they would anger the BN (Barisan Nasional) government if they accept such projects and work with groups not considered friendly to the government,” said Kedit, who is PKR information chief.

The villages that accept such projects are prepared to get their aid, such as fertiliser and amenities cut. Or like Simo’s village, Kampung Rajoi Nygol, had already been cut off for defying the Sarawak government.

Kampung Rajoi Nygol in Ulu Bengoh is one of four villages that were told to move because their ancestral lands would be taken for a national park near the Ulu Bengoh hydroelectric dam.

But the villagers refused the Sarawak government’s offer of resettlement and compensation. They also hauled the government to court for the rights to their ancestral lands.

On December 28, 2014 they won that legal battle. The Malaysian Insider reported that the Sarawak government signed a consent order acknowledging their native customary rights to the land.

Simo was one of the plaintiffs in that suit, while Tangah had quit his job in Johor to help his uncle with the case.

“We had 6,000ha of ancestral land and the government only wanted to give some cash and a few acres to each of us as compensation. So we refused,” Simo, who is his village’s pastor, told The Malaysian Insider recently.

The courage that comes from standing their ground fuelled a sense of independence among Simo’s fellow villagers. They accepted help from NGO Light Up Borneo (LUB) in 2010 to build their own mini-hydro project even though they knew it could anger the Sarawak government.

“We votedThe dirt road linking the Pelepok longhouse, near Betong, to the outside world. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Kamal Ariffin, May 18, 2015. for the BN in the past, we didn’t get any electricity either. Now with our own supply, we are not dependent on their promises,” said Tangah, 27.

Their mini-hydro dam gives the 18 families in their village round-the-clock power for their lights and appliances.

“Can you imagine, we have running water, electricity and even the Internet, but no road to the village,” said a smiling Tangah.

To this day, Kampung Rajoi Nygol is only accessible via a five-hour walk through the jungle from a road junction about an hour away from Kuching. It was the first Bidayuh village to have a mini-hydro system.

Working with LUB to install their mini-hydro system has given them invaluable insight into how to adapt the technology to the unique challenges of each village’s environment.

This is particularly critical since the Sarawak government has banned LUB’s project manager B.K. Ong from entering the state to supervise the installation of the group’s projects.

“We’re just ‘kampung’ engineers,” said Tangah, when asked whether they had any prior technical experience.

Apart from the one in his village, Simo has helped install two other mini-hydro systems, in neighbouring Kampung Sting and in another village in Batang Ai, Lubok Antu.

Simo’s fourth project is the Pelepok Iban longhouse, in Ulu Padeh near Betong, a four-hour drive from Kuching, where The Malaysian Insider met him, Jerome and Tangah.

Paying back by helping others

From the time the three inspected the cement on the new dam for Pelepok’s mini-hydro system, they treated the project like it was for their own village.

The dam, which was built on a creek downhill from the longhouse, stores the water that will be used to turn the turbine which, in turn, spins the dynamo to create electricity.

“We don’t supervise the other villagers. We gotong-royong with them,” said Simo, explaining the dynamics of their working relationship with other villagers.

Yet it was obvious the Pelepok villagers took their cue from the three. In fact, a leading member of the longhouse, Lungan Ujie, affecPKR politician Vernon Aji Kedit says Sarawak villagers fear angering the Barisan Nasional government if they accepted help from outsiders. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Kamal Ariffin, May 18, 2015.tionately called Simo “boss”.

When Simo started clearing away driftwood clogging the dam, Pelepok folk automatically rolled up their sleeves, jumped into the thigh-level water and scooped up arm-loads of dead leaves and branches.

Simo then took the lead in attaching and gluing together the pipes that will run from the dam all the way to the turbine station. The pipes will run for 400m and funnel water at a high enough force to spin the turbine.

With the aid of the others, Simo glued all the pipes together.

It was hard work but at the end of the day, everyone was still smiling even though there was still a long way to go. It will be at least another week before the turbine can be installed.

“This is something good for the longhouse,” said Lungan, when asked about all the effort put into the project.

Currently, the longhouse relies on diesel generators for power and each of the 17 families spends RM150 to RM200 a month for only three hours of electricity a day. For Simo, it is about paying back the gesture which helped his village get their own electricity, and with it, their own independence.

“Other Bidayuh villages tell us that we are the luckiest village because we have electricity through the mini-hydro. So I want to repay those who helped us by helping others.” – May 18, 2015.