In Kuching’s shadow, a life of poverty and little hope

Victoria Duncan showing the house she lives in along Lorong Chawan.

KUCHING: They came to Kuching in hopes of a better life, but now eke out a bare existence with little money and not much to show for their hopes, huddled in a little village just a kilometre from the city centre.

The 30-year-old village is populated primarily by Iban and Bidayuh, many of whom migrated to the city to look for better jobs or education opportunities.

The village grew next to a graveyard where the first settlers buried their loved ones. With nowhere else to go, they put down roots here.

Selina Gebek, a Bidayuh from Serian, is one of them. She has lived in the squatter village for so long that she cannot now recall when she arrived here.

The pipe from which villagers obtain their water supply.

Selina, who has 11 children, said her husband has worked as a gardener for the past 12 years, earning RM800 per month. “It’s not enough. Our monthly expenses are more than RM1,000 and most of the time we don’t have enough to eat.”

Two older daughters went to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to seek work after secondary school and they send some money, but it is not enough.

Selina Gebek.

“They have to pay for their younger siblings’ school expenses. Life is very hard nowadays. There’s not much you can buy with RM100 in your pocket,” Selina said.

“That’s why I don’t mind staying here because we don’t need to pay for the house. We only need to pay for the water supply.”

The water is from a stand pipe, shared with 16 other households in the village.

Electricity comes from a car battery which they used after their generator broke down. “It’s too expensive to repair the generator so we decided to use a car battery, but it only lasts for five days,” she said.

Selina’s home has three rooms but she sleeps in the hall as it is too warm in the rooms.

Victoria Duncan showing her injured leg.

She misses her home village in Serian, but has no reason to return there as most of her family have passed on. “Besides, we don’t have enough cash to return to our kampung. It’s been 15 years since I last went back,” she said.

Victoria Duncan, 56, an Iban from Sri Aman, lives behind Selina’s house. She said she migrated to Kuching when she was 22 to look for better job opportunities.

Victoria Duncan.

“I worked as a cleaner but I was forced to quit after I suffered serious burns on my leg, which can sometimes be painful when I walk. I have stopped going to the hospital because I’m afraid the doctors might amputate my leg,” she said.

She also suffers from high blood pressure but cannot afford to pay the cost of travel to the hospital, and relies on traditional herbs to relieve her breathing difficulties and chest pains.

“I live alone and depend solely on the RM200 financial aid from the state government. For food, I pick wild vegetables that grow around the village and buy canned foods like chicken curry or sardines. I don’t eat canned food often because I’m worried that my blood pressure will increase,” she said.

She has been looking forward to the state government’s plan to develop affordable housing for those who live in squatter villages. The plan was announced by Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg in June, with houses to be built in Stapok, Sungai Maong, Segedup and Batu Kawa.

The graveyard located near the squatter village in Lorong Chawan, Kuching.

Abang Johari said the state government also plans to provide land for a cemetery.

Victoria said her house, built by a church friend years ago, is in bad condition. The roof leaks and the toilet is not working any more. “I use my neighbours’ toilet,” she said.

Last month, Deputy Chief Minister Douglas Uggah Embas pledged to bring an end to urban poverty, especially among the Iban community in Sarawak. He urged Kuching district Dayak Iban community leaders associations to collect data on the villagers by the end of August.

Victoria Duncan cooks her meals using firewood.

“The data should list the problems faced by the people coming to live in the city, including housing and social problems,” he said. This would help the state government come up with ways to assist the villagers.

Members of the Kuching district Dayak Iban community leaders association visited the village last week to gather more information. The members hope to brief Abang Johari after their second visit to the village.

Plastic bottles filled with water in Selina Gebek’s kitchen.

Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii said he would collaborate with the Sarawak Human Rights Commission (Suhakam Sarawak) to address urban poverty, especially among those living in squatter areas.

“We will work together with Suhakam to make sure that all children in this village attend school and are properly documented.

“We were informed that there are some sick and disabled people here and we will talk to NGOs or doctors to see if they can organise a general health screening programme for the villagers and refer them to healthcare facilities, including mental health facilities if necessary,” he said.