by Maryam Gomary
After working in the office for the past two years I finally got a chance to get some hands on experience. When Arkitrek asked me to facilitate volunteers from Camps International I could not wait to get on the site and get my hands dirty. I was based in Sepilok working by the forest edge at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). I had 35 Volunteers and 2 local Sabahans in total to help me to build a composting area for the Sun Bears’ daily wastage plus a board walk for the new forest enclosure. I had four weeks and a limited budget, gapper volunteers with no construction background and some basic tools to start this project. It was all back to basics.
Before we were introduced to sun bears by BSBCC staff not many of us knew what a sun bear was or the danger they are facing due to us humans. During work it was so easy to get lost in my own world at times and forget where I was, until I would realise there was a sun bear next to me in their enclosure, I could just watch them for hours. Some of the volunteers were really engaged with the cause of what we were doing and worked really hard. We were working 7 days a week at times on the site under the Malaysian heat.
We started with clearing the site which everyone got really involved with cutting all the undergrowth and moving all the rubbish off the site then we moved on to making the ground ready for our concrete slab. It sounded easy but without proper tools it seemed impossible at times. To begin with we put 10 tonnes of aggregate on to the muddy looking site which disappeared soon after. We tried different techniques for compacting, at the end we got a huge piece of Ironwood tree trunk which is extremely heavy and made a few handles suitable for 4 people to pick up and drop on the ground. By the end the group was calling compacting the ‘C word’, we all had enough of compacting. After 20 tonnes of aggregate and days of compacting we managed to get the base ready for the concrete slab.
After we had our slab ready it was time to put the posts up. We were using reclaimed Ironwood which made it very difficult to find the right length or thickness of material. We had to put a few pieces together to make the posts into the right size. Cutting these timbers took hours and every time we put a piece together there was a problem with another one. They were either cut incorrectly or rotten from inside which meant more searching and more cutting. This was a really long process finally they were all ready to go up. Watching the first structure going up in the air was a great moment and very rewarding. The team were great…they were willing to stay behind and work hard some even came on the site to help me out on their day off. We even had BSBCC staff helping out mixing concrete; don’t get me wrong it has been really challenging working with some of the volunteers as not everyone had the same attitude and enthusiasm.
Next we moved on to making our six composting bins 1.5meter by 1.2meter rectangles made out of bricks. During the brick laying we had a visit from one of the Orang-utans. He decided to help the group with brick lying. He must have watched the group from far and decided to get involved however he managed to destroy some of the work the group done that day. This was not the only visit we had from the orang-utans. Watching the orang-utans trying to copy us humans, is really amusing, sometimes it`s hard to believe how cleaver they are and how similar they are to us. They can open your water bottle, drink from it, put the lid back on and put it back where it was.
Not only working in Sepilok was completely different and exciting but also was living in a local house. I was waking up every morning to the sound of our cock and trying to run away from our 2 dogs and a cat while eating my dinner in the veranda… Sometimes I had to sit on the railing where the cat could not reach my plate to have my dinner. The Veranda was my favourite place in the house, a great view towards the forest also a great spot for bird watching.
Working on this project was really challenging at times, I had to make decisions on the site and come up with solutions right away. This has been a great challenge as I have become more independent and more confident in designing and making decisions. I was working really closely with the clients as an architect, site manager, contractor, QS, engineer and a builder at times. Not only have I developed my technical skills but also working in a group and managing the volunteers has also been a great experience. I have been stretched mentally and physically at times. However without the challenges it would have not been the same experience. After a hard day it was really rewarding to see every part or pieces being put together. The experience I achieved is unforgettable and very enjoyable. I will miss all the people that I met in Sabah for the past 4 months and special thanks to Ian and the Arkitrek team to give me this opportunity.
Ed: Now that Maryam and her teams have done all the hard work, this project will be easily finished off by BSBCC staff and individual volunteers