By Yeong Kam Loong
Architecture volunteering is something I always wanted to try. My 3 months working in Sabah was a great experience and made me realise that it takes more than goodwill and skills to be in that position. I could have performed better if I was more mentally prepared. Allow me to explain:
I was posted in Camp Tinangol, Sabah to assist the construction of a kindergarten project and conduct experiments on concrete-alternative material called coco-crete which include test blocks and test wall. To coordinate between the camp staff and gappers (gap year students) was quite a challenge to me as an introvert with lessons learnt along the way. One of the major project issues throughout the internship period is materials; they just don’t arrive on time for some reasons. The camp staff and I working at the site were always anxious when material delivery is consistently delayed from one deadline to another deadline. What I realized by the end of internship is that things might not be that bad if I’ve been more firm in dealing with the person involved in this mess.
So we had to be resourceful when there was not much resource left at site and with gappers checking in group after group. Making sure the gappers had enough work at the site is our responsibility as they do not pay to be there for nothing. This is where I’ve learnt resourcefulness from Mann, the master builder a.k.a project supervisor in terms of planning adequate construction works for them throughout their stay with remaining materials left from the previous purchase order. What amazed me is that they remained cheerful despite the unresolved problems were staring at us in the face. The reason?
‘Kalau kerja muka sedih kerja jadi susah, kerja muka happy baru senang’
“work will just get difficult if you face it with a sad face, it will only get easier if you do it with a happy face” according to John, one of the camp staff. Lesson learnt? Don’t take problems too seriously.
Working at the kindergarten site was a humbling experience which exposed me to lots of hands-on construction knowledge that we don’t normally get from working in the office. It feels healthier for me to sweat at the site doing shoveling, sawing, mixing concrete, sometimes under the sun than staring at the computer screen working on drawings for 8 hours in the comfort of air-conditioned office. We were able to do some design changes as we discovered parts that can be enhanced as we go along the construction process, something which is hard to be done in conventional building practice.
The Tinangol village consists of people from the indigenous Rungus tribe. Rice wine is something you can’t miss when you are there. With alcohol as part of their culture plus globalization of the alcohol goods nowadays, don’t be amazed if you see Label 5, Johnny Walker plus some local brand whiskeys pops out in some local wedding ceremony in the village. Alcohol aside, they are cheerful, chatty people who know how to make life simpler and happier despite living in poverty, where the notion ‘poverty’ is judged based on how well they fit-in with Capitalism, not by self-sustainability. Salleh, one of the staff shared his view with me: kita kulit warna beza, tapi darah sama merah (we might not have the same color of skin, but our blood is equally red), meaning we should treat each other as brothers and sisters despite the difference of skin color we have.
The material for the test wall finally arrived in the last week of my stay in the camp. It turned out that we did not have enough lime to fill in the final quarter portion of the test wall. We tried to find alternative supply but were unsuccessful. It was disappointing to leave the test wall incomplete due to ordering inadequate lime. I should have questioned more the information in the BQ and not relied so much on the information gathered from concrete formulas and concrete calculator in the internet.
It was not a successful experience, which is why I hesitate for quite some time before writing this blog. Hope that the mistakes I have done here can be served as a bad example to be avoided by other volunteers in the future. It did not stop me from engaging volunteer works again in the future, but I will do it when I’m better prepared. Many thanks to Ian, Sarah, and Zhen Ron for their guidance and hospitality during my stay in Sabah. Great to know that the kindergarten is making good progress under Lewis Kelly, keep up the good work!
Ian: I disagree that this was ‘not a successful experience’. I understand that not completing the test wall in the time available was disappointing, however the experience gained in the process was outstanding. Learning to balance being ‘more firm’ with a ‘muka happy’ and to ‘question more’ shows great maturity. Thank you Loong, for your humility, hard work and dedication and thank you also for sharing your experience.