Semai (Orang Asli ) School children

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If the kids don’t go to school, if [my husband] doesn’t take them [on his motorbike], if he doesn’t yell at them, I’ll yell at him. They get in trouble if they don’t go to school. If [non-Semai] kids pick fights with them or their friends I tell them, “Don’t mess with your schoolmates, be good to your schoolmates or you’ll be sorry. If you’re a bad friend, people won’t want you around.” Malay kids bully Semai kids all the time. They hit them, they take their books and papers. “Malay kids are bad,” I say. “They’ll pick fights with you. Don’t hit them back. You’ll just get in trouble.” —Kyah Grcaangsmother, 1992     Rmpent is about nine. He’s “Semai,” though Rmpent’s people call themselves sng’ooy, “people.” To contrast themselves with other peoples, they call themselves maay sraa’, hinterland folk, or maay miskin, impoverished folk. If Pent were Malay, we’d tell you his father’s name, too, what anthropologists call his “patronym,” because Malay fathers officially head their families, so children are “sons of” or “daughters of” particular fathers. Arabic words, bin or binte respectively, indicate the relationship and also indicate that the child is Muslim, since Malays are by definition Sunni Muslim, and children’s names are also usually Arabic.

     Rmpent’s official name (what Semai call muh paspot)—his identity card name—is Ali. The Malay registrar probably assumed he was doing Rmpent a favor by giving him a civilized Muslim name since the kid was bound to convert to Islam sooner or later and it would save everybody the paperwork. The patronym is a nudge toward what the government thinks is “development.” POASM, the Orang Asli Association, has suggested all Malaysians use neutral terms for “child of,” plus father’s name. Since Pent isn’t Muslim, despite heavy pressure on Semai to convert, his official name uses the neutral patronym. Learning Malay patriarchal ways may eventually make patronyms seem “natural” for Semai. But Semai men in the old days were partners of their wives, not bosses. In those days, people used teknonyms, naming themselves after their children, the way American suburban parents do when they don’t know the patronym: “You know, Mary, Susan’s mother.” Pent is a skinny, long-legged kid. When he hunkers down, his bony legs fold up on both sides of him, almost to his armpits, like a grasshopper’s. Like most children in his settlement, he doesn’t get a lot to eat. He and the other children sometimes use a slingshot to kill little birds or club wild rodents to death. In fruit season the kids hide slivers of bamboo coated with sticky tree sap among the leaves of fruit trees. When little birds light on the tree to steal the fruit, they get stuck in the sap and fall to the ground, where the children find them and wring their necks. The kids roast the meat in the ashes of the cooking fire for proteinaceous filled snacks, the way U.S. kids eat candy. (They’d eat candy too, if they could afford it.) Otherwise, Rmpent’s playmates don’t get a lot of protein. Many Semai children are stunted for their age. That doesn’t help them in fights at school. And traditional Semai are famous for avoiding fighting whenever possible, because they think it’s stupid: you can get hurt (Dentan 2008). Fighting is a core course in the hidden curriculum of Malaysian schools. Rmpent fills his school notebook with images of tanks and bombers.     Today the sky is the flat grayish ivory color of rice gruel. Pent, raggedy green rucksack on his back, is off to school with his pal Tkooy. The boys must trudge a mile to the bus stop. The bus route dead ends at the last Malay settlement down the road, like the electricity and the postal service. (The official rationale for moving Semai from the hill forests where they used to live was so that the government could deliver services to them, services like transportation, electricity, and mail. The rulers then gave the hereditary lands to non Semai developers.) Sometimes, on gray days like this, rain squalls sweep in from the Indian Ocean to the west, sheet after sheet of chilly water shattering as the rain hits the asphalt, soaking the children’s hair, clothes, and papers.

     Wish we had one of those, the boys think as a Malay father gripping the handlebars of a 70 cc motorbike puttputts by, a little schoolboy upright between his knees, his wife riding sidesaddle in back so as not to shock prudish Malays by giving a glimpse of thigh, and a toddler resting on her lap in a sarong slung over her left shoulder. But the boys don’t voice their desires: No use in that. Traditional Semai kids don’t complain, though city kids are different, at least with their parents. Another motorbike passes, a Malay man in dark brown trousers driving, his wife in a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse riding sidesaddle behind him, clutching an open bright paisley parasol. Next comes a Chinese man in black shorts on a Vespa with half a dozen chickens, legs tied and slung on each side, their heads a handsbreadth over the cracked asphalt.

     At the bus stop, near the little Chinese convenience store (where Semai who can’t afford bus fare to the market in town buy most of their supplies), an older Malay boy sees the two relatively dark skinned chums. “Sakai! Sakai!” he shouts to his buddies, and several Malay children elaborately pantomime holding their noses.1 Some days the bigger boys beat the Semai kids up, for the hell of it. The Semai kids cluster separately from the Malay kids, just as their parents cluster away from the Malay adults. When Semai parents complained about the bullying, the headmaster met with them. A plump middle-aged Malay man, with a high forehead and even at home, not wanting to sound misKin, a Malay-Arabic word meaning “impoverished and pathetic. Small chin that made his head almost globular, he listened with every appearance of respect and attentiveness, removing his rimless glasses and laying a finger alongside his nose as the parents recited incident after incident. Afterwards, he lectured all the children about the importance of living in peace, and the bullying let up for a while. A few older Semai children from the area and yet more remote settlements go to a boarding school (asrama) in a small city a couple of dozen miles from home. A tall chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire surrounds the buildings (see fig. 22.1). A uniformed male Malay guard occupies the guardhouse by the locked gate. A placard on the gate announces, in Malay: Asrama SMK Sri Tapah Arr. Visit Hrs.

1. When to visit[:] Saturday and Sunday, except in cases of emergency.

2. Visiting hours: 9am to 6:30 pm.

3. Visitors are required to check in with the security officer before they are allowed to enter.

4. Visitors allowed to meet with students [only] in the room designated for that purpose.

 By direction of the principal Advocates of long-term removal of Orang Asli children from their homes say that the elaborate security apparatus protects the children from those who might harm them. It also keeps them from fleeing to the homes and families for whom their yearning is more poignant than most Malays and Americans, who are inured to state-sanctioned kidnapping, can understand. The cement buildings differ starkly from traditional Semai houses—thatched roof, flattened-bamboo walls, floors three feet above the ground—in which, in the 1950s, a Semai cooperative would board kids from the hills who wanted to go to a city school (Dentan and Juli Edo 2008). The new (2007) “Orang Asli school” at Bandar Dua Puluh Hinai is a hostel. Eastman Chemical Malaysia provides computers, tuition, and “motivational talks” for this school. There are sixty two students, only twenty two of whom are Asli.

 

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