Nice day to get lost.
It was a beautiful day to be lost in the intestinal tract of roads near Kota Sentosa. I was already an hour late to my appointment and was starting to think that it was One of Those Days. Brilliant blue skies and fat white clouds mocked my inability to find my way out of a paper bag with a map.
After two phone calls, I found myself on a single lane tarred road that started bearing landmarks noted in my map. The high undergrowth flanking the road broke periodically to reveal houses in various ranges of prosperity. Meanwhile, I noticed that the road was gradually shrinking under my faithful little car.
Ever the city mouse, I didn’t think I’d find myself in a village that belonged in The Middle of Nowhere within that short a driving distance from town. But there I was in Kampung Temedak, and it was a relief to find the sign I’ve been looking for – the white rectangle that announced I am approaching a Habitat for Humanity (HfH) project, and the end of the longest 10-inch of road I’ve ever seen on a map.
The house that Habitat is building is bigger than I expected. The reason for this, explained HfH’s Construction Supervisor Eric Yap, is because they were not the ones who began work on the house.
“The family started the house, but they couldn’t complete it because they ran out of funds.” Yap said. “Habitat is now helping them finish it.”
New house in progress (left) and current accommodations (right).
The Iban family that will eventually live there lost their previous home in a fire. The family of six currently resides in a small shack next to their new house, but just for a little while longer. The building is close to completion, with fixtures waiting to be installed. Paint fumes wafted in the air as the week’s team of young volunteers wielded paintbrushes and rollers. They’ve covered a lot of walls already.
Sally Yap, advisor for the 3rd Kuching Company of the Girls Brigade Malaysia, explained to PostMag that the older girls have to do 25 hours of community service as part of their programme. It was also not always easy to match the girls up to a HfH project.
“The houses have to be near enough to town, so it’s convenient for the parents to drop them off.” Sally said.
This is Sally Yap.
Location is not the only factor. They also have to see what stage of built the house is in, because there are jobs you don’t give to a group of 16-year-old girls.”We have to see what kind of work they can do.” said Sally. “It’s been a while since we brought a group to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity because we have to take this into account, as well as the location and the time. Students can only help out during the holidays.”
Vera Li and Katrina Teoh, both 16, are on Day 3 of their 5-day week and are nearer than most to finishing their 25 hours of community service.
“The work is not so tough, but I enjoy the process.” Li said.
Teoh begged to differ. “Painting is quite hard too.” she said, probably thinking about what their first full day of work was like.
“We were only here for half a day on Monday.” said Li, the chattier of the two. “Yesterday was our first day full time, and we just can’t imagine how people can do this every day!”
When asked what they wish they were more prepared for when they started, Teoh consulted Li in a whisper and both girls burst into laughter.
“What? What?” queried this feature writer, who have already signed up for a coming build with HfH and didn’t want to be caught unaware, maybe without toilet paper, in The Middle of Nowhere Else.
Li put me out of my misery. “We didn’t think we’ll have time to rest, so we didn’t bring junk food for our break!”
L-R: Vera Li, Katrina Teoh, Sim Pei Yi and Ong Siaw Wee.
Chalking up their first few hours with the project that week was Sim Pei Yi and Ong Siaw Wee, also 16.
Sim revealed that she wasn’t completely new to Habitat. “I did this two years ago. We laid bricks for the walls of that house. It was interesting work because it’s not something most of us would normally have a chance to do.” she said. “Painting is a more common thing.”
Ong thought the work waiting for them would be harder. “It’s meaningful work for us, but I think we got the easy part.”
Sim agreed. “I wish I could have gotten involved in an earlier stage. The people who came before us had the harder work.”
Although they expect to finish painting the house by the end of their week, their advisor told me that their work is not done yet.
“We will have projects to raise funds for Habitat.” Sally said. “The students will be coming up with their own ideas to raise the money.”
If anything, their week with Habitat would create plenty of fodder for those “What I did during the holidays” essays.
Student groups aside, what kind of volunteers does Habitat get? Eric Yap answers the question.
“We get more international volunteers.” he said. “It’s hard to find locals because they don’t have time. Most of our local volunteers are students.”
Yap reeled off names from the top of his head. “Swinburne just signed up. We’ve had students from Lim Kok Wing, Lodge Group of Schools, and Inti College. We also get a regular group of volunteers from CMS and architects from DNA.”
Habitat also employ contractors to do the specialised heavy lifting. This is because they cannot always wait around for suitable volunteers to take to the task when it arises, Yap said.
“We expect to complete this house and dedicate it to the homeowners by the end of June.” Yap said.
HfH have been pretty busy this year. They’ve completed five houses out of their target of 16 for this year and are looking for more home partners to work with.
The home partners are required to contribute 400 hours of ‘sweat equity’, working alongside the volunteers in building their new house. In addition to that, they are required to pay HfH back for the house. For the lower income group who will not necessarily be able to get a bank loan, being a HfH home partner gives them a fair shot in claiming a better life for themselves. They get a hand up.
Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organisation, but they make no distinction between race, religion and et cetera of things people like to judge other people on. Home partners are chosen based on their level of need, their willingness to be partners in the programme, and their ability to repay the no-interest loan.
Volunteers come from all walks of life – students on a break, professionals who want to make a difference, people who know which end of the paintbrush picks up the wet stuff, and people who’ve never gotten sand in their shoes before.
“I learned about Habitat through church, and used some of my free time to help.” said Yap, who was once an electrical technician with KOMAG. When they dedicated the first house he helped build, Yap knew that he has arrived at a turning point.
“The experience changed my life. It changed my attitude. Before that, I always think about things like earning more money.” He said. “I decided to use my talent to help other people.”
Now one of the two full time staff at the Kuching affiliate, Yap confessed that he didn’t think he’ll make much of a contribution the first time he set foot on a Habitat site.
“The first time I volunteered, I didn’t think I’ll be able to do anything. But I learned how to do every stage of building a house, and now I’m the Construction Supervisor.” said Yap. “It’s really amazing.”
Still on the quest to arm myself with knowledge before jumping in, I asked him what I should bring when it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and toil alongside my fellow volunteers.
“Everything is prepared at the site, depending on what you will be doing. I’ll need to know the number of people at least a day before, but you don’t have to bring anything.” Yap assured me. “Just bring water, and bring your heart.”
For more information on how you and your group of buddies can get involved with Habitat for Humanity, contact the Kuching affiliate at 082-242700. You can also visit the HfH blog at or the online community.
Originally published in The Borneo Post’s PostMag, 4 May 2008