1970: A student volunteer at Benuk and Mentu, Anglican Church of Sarawak Maternal and Child Health Clinics

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After the Higher School Certificate (Form 6) exam, the headmaster of my school helped me volunteer in maternal and child health clinics for six months from 1970 to 1971 to help a British nurse, Sister Rose.

I spent the first three months in a Bidayuh Benuk village (Bunuk) in Padawan Division, then a three-hour bus ride on a winding mud road from Kuching.

The past three months have been spent in Mentu, an Iban longhouse in Samarahan division, four hours by fishing boat to a coastal village, Sebuyau and another eight hours by open rowboat upstream.

Both clinics had no electricity. We used pressure lamps when there was a patient to deliver. Normally only wick lamps were used, to save kerosene for pressure lamps. The kerosene refrigerator provided by UNICEF was used to store BCG, DTP and oral poliomyelitis vaccines.

The Benuk clinic and our simple house were in the same compound as the primary school. Shy and curious children came during the breaks to observe us. Ethnic Chinese and white women were rare in rural areas at this time.

There were rainwater tanks for water supply. To save water, we bathed and washed our clothes in the shallow stream near the house. The water in the creek was very cold but clean, except during the months when the farmers soaked sacks of pepper berries in the deeper sections, until the green skins could be rubbed off (to produce white pepper ).

Patients came to the clinic for simple medical conditions and brought their babies for weighing and vaccination. There were occasional deliveries on the wooden examination couch.

Most, however, preferred to call Sister Rose home for the delivery rather than come to the clinic. The bus to Kuching was only once a day and private transport expensive, so going to the hospital was not an option.

I remember once a severe flood cut off the main road. A young man came to ask us to free his wife. We walked for an hour to his village. In several long stretches of the road we had to wade waist deep in flood water.

By then I had learned how to secure my sarong and could work/walk/swim without the sarong slipping or floating (jeans were not commonly worn back then). We were careful to walk as far as possible from the presumed sides of the road. Flooded roadside sewers drowned even residents who could normally swim like fish.

We finally arrive at the little house on stilts. The kitchen floor had been cleared for the young woman in labour. We sat on the floor next to the woman and read our books, quietly waiting until the time was right. The shadows cast by the flickering lights of the wick lamps and the sounds of the dark night jungle, interspersed with soft grunts of his deep pain, were truly surreal.

As with all rural deliveries I witnessed, there was no shouting or commotion. One way or another, the pains of childbirth were such a part of life that Aboriginal women endured the pain of childbirth without a fuss. The baby’s first cry in greeting to the world lit up the woman’s face with such joy. In an instant, his long hours of pain were gone.

The Benuk villagers, unlike the Ibans, lived in more individualized stilt houses. These were largely connected by walkways and bamboo platforms which were used for drying padi and pepper and for gatherings like mobile clinics.

These walkways were raised above the ground at the level of the houses. They have a kind of lateral support – like a single bamboo, more for psychological support than structural. It wasn’t too high of a drop (10ft?) but the ground below is normally soggy with human droppings and pigs and poultry running around freely. A soft and messy landing indeed, with tons of bacteria to infect the wound in the event of a fracture!

When we set up a clinic (on the open platform) usually at the chief’s house, the women would bring their children for examination and vaccinations.

The Mentu Clinic in Ulu Sebuyau was very similar in its remoteness. The house we lived in was up a hill from the clinic. There were flush toilets in the clinic, but our house only had a surface toilet, planks above an open pit in a small remote shed.

Snakes like to take shelter in such outbuildings. I was advised to carefully shine a flashlight before use. Apparently, if there are reflections from a pair of eyes, you should be able to tell if they belonged to a scared frog or an annoyed snake. Eye color or something – I never want to prove it scientifically. I preferred to train my intestines at the only hours of the clinic.

Life was very basic. The nearest floating retail store was an hour downriver from our little boat. For simple things like sanitary napkins, we did what the locals did: recycle pieces of old sarong and wash them for reuse.

We had a vegetable garden to supplement wild ferns or leaves that we could pick freely in the jungle. Every evening we went there before taking a bath in the river in our sarongs.

The young men of the village worship “mandi jepun” (meaning totally naked) in the deeper parts of the river. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for these burly naked young men to stand there (hands covering where the proverbial fig leaf should have been) and greet us.”kini seduai“Where are you going?” in Iban is about as universal as “did you eat?” in Chinese. They weren’t intrusive, just polite and friendly.

There was no electricity or television. Children love coming to see us. I practiced my Iban on it, everything I learned verbatim from the Iban translation of the New Testament and a dictionary.

Invariably, they burst into fits of laughter, as if I had just told the best joke in the world. They kept repeating the words until I understood them correctly. I owe them my mastery of Iban.

I may have had my first sense of heavenly intervention at the Mentu Clinic. A young man ran over to tell us that he had heard my name being called on Radio Malaysia Sarawak to attend an interview for a Federal Medical Fellowship in a few days. We didn’t have a radio at the clinic and I would have missed the announcement and the interview!

The mission nurse and I had to paddle our boat to buy gas for the outboard motor at the nearest floating store (we lost one of the paddles halfway through). It was an hour by outboard motor to the next village, a two hour walk to the Pantu bus stop to wait for the bus once a day about six hours to Kuching. My mother couldn’t recognize me when I arrived, in my sarong, but in time for the scholarship interview.

I was one of four people from Sarawak to receive the Colombo Plan Fellowship for Medicine in Canada that year. Unfortunately, after my Higher Education Certificate (HSC) results, these were withdrawn, probably because too many medical scholars never returned to serve their country after graduation.

Despite doing well at HSC, my family was too poor to send me to college. My dad said, “It’s okay, you can go to Batu Lintang Teacher Training School.”

I got a medical scholarship at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

Dr. Tan Poh Tin, proudly Sarawakian, is a pediatrician and public health specialist. She says, “Sarawak – to know you is to love you.”

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