Dressed in traditional Penan outfits, they were hesitant in extending their hands for a handshake.
It wasn’t that they were being unfriendly, but feared what a group of 108 volunteers had in store for them.
However, the villagers from Ulu Baram quickly warmed up after receiving food and clothes. The excited elders turned children for a few minutes when introduced to switches that turned on and off lights at their homes. They kept fiddling with the switches, with huge smiles on their faces.
That was the adventure in Ulu Baram, Sarawak over the weekend for Kelvin Wan, founder of charity organisation Hope Place, and his crew comprising doctors, dentists, nurses, a pharmacist and hairstylists among others.
The team, that left Miri in 35 4×4 vehicles last Friday, took nearly 10 hours to travel 370km before reaching their destinations – Long Siang, Long Rudin and Long Selulung – which house over 200 people from 50 Penan families.
Their mission – to brighten up the villagers’ lives.
The volunteers placed solar panels on all houses there and even conducted health checks before returning to Miri on Sunday.
“I visited the three villages in February. They didn’t have electricity and water supply and most of them had health issues,” said Wan.
“I’ve been doing charity work for years but I’m still touched when helping others. The children and even adults there feared us at first but they quickly warmed up.”
“When we finished installing the solar panels and lights, some of the excited elders had fun switching the lights on and off,” Wan said.
The group raised RM60,000 from donations. Wan said half the sum was used to buy food, cooking ingredients, undergarments, school bags and stationery while the rest of the money was spent on buying cables and other equipment needed to install the solar panels. Some of the children are attending school.
“The solar panels were sponsored by Kuching-based solar company LONGi. So we managed to save money on that,” Wan added.
Much has been written about Wan – a T-shirt salesman whose life mission is to help others after going through hardship during his younger days.
He said the Penan are good craftsmen but the high transportation cost is hindering them from promoting their products.
“Most of them are not educated. They’ve never enjoyed electricity or water supply and it’s sad, really. It’s 2018 and yet we see things like this.”
Wan has not ruled out the possibility of his team visiting the villages again.
“If they require further help, we will visit them again.”