Saturday, December 04, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Tambunan

My very first job! I had just turned eighteen and my exam result was till pending. As I was the second in a houseful of siblings, staying on in school was not really an option. If I left school there would be one child less to support. Besides, I could start earning and help ease Papa’s burden.

Years later, I was to learn that I had been offered a chance to continue my schooling. Twice some big shots came to see Papa to talk about a scholarship offer and a place across the sea where people could 'cultivate' their brains. I was, after all, the first kid in the kampong to pass the Cambridge School Certificate. I guess those people wanted to ‘reward’ me for obtaining a Grade One. Ha!

But on both occasions Papa had said, “No, no thank you. We won’t allow her to change her religion.” End of story.

The village church. (Pic from Google Images)
Meanwhile, the headmistress of this girls’ school in Tambunan was looking for five new teachers to teach in her primary school. That was how I found myself transplanted in this remote place so far away from home.

It was remote because in those days the only way to get there was to take the train from Jesselton to Tenom—we still called KK ‘Jesselton’ —then take a taxi from Tenom to reach Keningau. Another taxi or Land Rover from Keningau would take one to the never-heard-of-place: Toboh.

Pic from Google Images

Toboh was on a plain in the middle of nowhere! There was a quaint church where the altar was placed dead centre (was it?), a rectory, a convent/clinic, a boys’ school called St. David’s and the girls’ school where I was going to teach, Immaculate Conception Convent.

There were four of us new teachers. We were given a pretty house to live in. It came with a puppy, a kerosene stove, a Scrabble set; and a ghost resided in the tree towering behind the house. There was no running water but electricity was available in the evening until around midnight, from a noisy diesel-run generator.

Our water had to be carried from a well, some 400 metres from the house. We were up at dawn so we could have our bath and wash our clothes at the well before the village woke up. It was cold but the water was surprisingly warmer than the air.

Our ‘supermarket’ was the weekly tamu. Duck eggs were ten cents each and chicken eggs were maybe 12 cents. Watercress bundles as thick as my thigh—I was quite skinny then—also cost ten cents. We learned to eat strange ‘snake’ gourds and got our proteins from canned stuff. There was hardly any fish at the tamu and I don’t even remember buying meat! We did all the cooking on the single kerosene stove.

For countless nights, I had to put on socks before burying myself head-to-toe under the blanket but my teeth still clattered. The wooden floor was icy-cold so I wouldn’t even get out of bed until I had to get ready for school. Needless to say, I lived in my sweaters.

Pic from Google Images
After an exceptionally freezing night, I’d wake up to see a blanket of white on the grass. Snow? Don’t be silly! Of course it wasn’t snow. Just a million webs spun during the night. Tiny spiders were cocooned inside, not quite safe from the teeth-clattering cold.

School was directly across the field from the teachers’ house. The headmistress was a white nun. She assigned me to teach mainly Primary five and Primary Six because she said my English was ‘better’ than my friends’! (All lessons were taught in English.) My oldest student was Paula and she was eighteen just like me.

The girls were wonderful kids and were courteous and super-polite. Some teacher must have made the rule: No farting in the classroom! However, some girls couldn’t ‘hold in’ the gas and so they farted while asking for permission to leave the room. Right under the teacher’s nose.

Sometimes when the Primary One teacher called in sick, I had to play ‘substitute teacher’ to this class of very enthusiastic tots who came to school with uncombed hair and with snot running down their noses. The cold contributed to their ill-health and some of them had to walk bare-foot across the shallow, rocky rivers and across paddy fields before they could reach the dirt road which led to the school.

Those were the days before TV, computers, cell phones and Mr. Bean. For leisure, we had a battery-operated record-player, a tiny radio and Scrabble. We walked miles and miles, across rivers and paddy terraces, up steep slopes and down treacherous valleys. We traversed the longest village, Sunsuron, and beyond. We climbed up the hill to see the progress of the new Jesselton-Tambunan road, still uncompleted, and dreamt of hitching a ride on a JKR lorry to go to Jesselton.

We didn’t get any special ‘elaun kesusahan’. My salary was $180 per month. I had enough to eat and could even send money home. But that was a long time ago… when going to Toboh meant a two-day journey from Jesselton!


  1. interesting...did the ghost ever kacau you? I remember the first time I visited is cold and very quiet at night. now, living in a noisy city sometimes I wish I could return to the quiet retreat again.

  2. Oh I didn't know that during your time, you still had to go to Tambunan through Tenom, as you can't be older than my father? Was this in the late 60s?

    I know that during my father's childhood, in late 50s, they had to walk across the hutan to go to Penampang and but in the 60s, as I understand it, they could already use cars to go down to Penampang-KK?

  3. Hi Angel and Jewelle!
    Thanks for looking in. I loved Toboh. Got so used to the cold until KK felt so uncomfortably hot!
    I was there in 1969 the year of the infamous May 13th incident; the year the Americans landed on the moon. The road wasn't completed yet. We had to hike a long distance after Sunsuron to get to the road which was still under construction. At one time my friend and I hiked to the road, just the two of us girls, to catch a JKR lorry to KK. How foolish we were to put our safety at risk. And how innocent and trusting! But somehow those days were different. Even strangers were kind and helpful... no udang sebalik batu!

  4. Angel, I forgot...the ghost left us in peace but one of my friends claimed to have seen some light moving behind the house!

  5. Hi Tina,
    just want to let you know I've enjoyed reading your book :) Glad I found your blog, and I know I'm going to enjoy reading it too! :)

  6. Hi Verone! Welcome!
    Glad you enjoyed the book. Hope you'll like the blog too.. hehe..

  7. Interesting recount. I went to St David's as a primary but that was in the late 80's. The big tree was already gone when I was there. The school is far from my kampung and I had to walk about 9KM. I wonder why my father sent me there when there were closer schools at Kinabaan and Kipaku. Maybe he wanted me to get better education, since the Nuns at St David's were very, very strict. I still remember one of my English teacher (a 'fierce' Nun) until this day.

    I went back to St David's for my School-based experience and much have changed. Nowadays, the girls school is used for Church activities.

    Recently, I heard that they are going to move the school somewhere else. Maybe the Church is concerned about government taking over the school, and the land it sits on. Not confirmed yet, but likely to happen. Kesian my school.

  8. Hi:

    You did not describe your old school conditions but I suspect that it was no better than my primary one school in 1965: corrugated zinc roof, half-walls made from Kumbar (rumbia palm fronds), and earthen floor. There were no doors too; at times, the kampong pigs (every family owned a few) would gatecrash the classrooms, running and squealing among the wooden benches. There was no canteen and during class break, we kids will climb the tarap, rongitom and langsat for food. A river coursed by the school and we would take a dip during class break. Sometimes, the teachers joined us.

    Boy, those were happy days! We were poor but we were rich, if you know what I mean

  9. @Rick, thanks for stopping by. You went to St. David's? Nine km is a long way to walk! Must have kept you fit and lean.. hehe.. So you had a 'fierce' nun for an English teacher. She must have helped to polish your language!

    Sorry to hear about the school and land going to be 'usurped' by the govt. Same old story. Some people think whatever belongs to the mission, belongs to the country. Good luck to the Church!

    @Rayner, I must say you had a most unusual school with pigs sometimes joining in the fun! Ahhh, today's teachers would never dare take a dip during recess. Their job is to take the rotan and chase kids out of the water!

    I thought I'd tell about the actual school/teaching in a later post.

  10. Hi Tina. My family moved back to Tambunan in 1986. I was only 4.5 year old but I could remember those teeth clattering experience and my green jumper that I have 'lived in'.

    I'm glad you mentioned about the snow-like spider webs on the grass in the morning. Thank you so much for mentioning it. You see, I have a vivid memory on that beautiful scenes in the morning, but when I mentioned it to my mum and siblings, they laughed at me, saying I spent too much time with my 'imaginary friend' when I was a kid.

    I'll send this link to them as a proof that they are wrong, and to point that it's them who are lost because their brains missed to register such beautiful memories!

  11. Hi Gunaqz.. the snow-like webs made such an impression on me I remember them to this day! Each web had a tiny spider and I remember thinking spinning the webs must have been how the spiders kept warm. I don't know if my friends noticed them, though.