Aspiration of marginalized young people, energized by their determination
I remember a time when a young man approached me when I was shifting from one spot to the next. The homeless bit was the lowest point of my life, a torn backpack filled with clothes and with no place to call home. Then, my constant companion was misery.
Anyway, SH, a 21-year old man, cycled 4km through a forbidding palm-oil plantation, rough dirt roads, in the midst of Malaysia's notorious humidity.
SH had this problem, besides what he called a compulsive character of stubborn determination; he and a small group of friends stuck in the middle of a god-forsaken land, called a plantation.
Surely you've heard great things of plantations playing a part in making Malaysia economically successful.
Oh hell, besides the fact that the marginalized few are made poorer in a culture of institutionalized slavery; and as a result young people living and working in plantations are vulnerable to poor health, stigmatized due to their caste, and never truly accepted by their urban peers.
SH, and his girlfriend, LB, jumpstarted a support group for young people who were using drugs and ostracized by the folks of the nearby village and town. My role, then, was to guide them towards building activities, and equipping them, and over the years sided by 8 other youth leaders, with skills needed.
Marginalized rural young people, between the tender age of 13 until 24, are in need of life skills, an assortment of decision-making, problem-solving, critical thinking; while communication and conflict resolutions are equally important. Informal "education" through mentoring fitted with patience, is what they need. Definitely not some text-book case study or social experimental thesis-based idiocy of some cultured, refined consultant from some forsaken city.
I managed to push aside the nagging problems I had in those days, and started the tedious work of ensuring that these young people have opportunities to building skills. I was very careful not to prescribe solutions for them, and encouraged youths themselves to consult one another and make those decisions; at times, tentative steps forward, and backward. No fault of anyone, we, aye me included in this equation, we were learning.
Where was the state and federal government? Where was the NGOs and so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs? Well, then and now, it's still in the back-burner of a redundant group of "experts" who have nothing better to do except squeeze money from aid agencies and, yes, focus on some popular issues in the city, where life is somewhat easier than neglected rural isolated spots.
Fast forward, to the present. LB and SH are no longer lovers but have their own businesses in town, their own lives meeting daily challenges of family commitments and the occasional joy.
The support group is on-going, my presence is merely to observe, to share stories of my travels, and at times, to listen to the concerns of young people. Their activities, which are self-funded and determined by them, include peer counseling, harm reduction discussions and outreach.
As I sit, on this wooden bench near the plantation, shaded by a tall tree, with my t-shirt drenched in acidic sweat, I think of the faces, those who came and left the support group. My heart fills with happiness, that odd temporary satisfaction, of being part of their lives, and... remembering those who have passed away, or had relapsed into a daily drug-infused life, or those who left the plantation to seek their fortunes and aspiration in Kuala Lumpur; never to hear from them again.
Life, this pendulum of unpredictable sensation, has been kind to me; my work is almost done, and I move on to the next group that not only understands my role in the bigger picture, but we share a past, and this present which seems to bog us down for whatever reason, or boost us forward in an adrenaline-filled rush.
To my friends in the support group of Sungai Pelek, I'm blessed to be part of your lives, we shared the laughter, the sadness and wherever you are, know you are with me, in solidarity and in memories.