A day “at school” with the children of Mah Meri Orang Asli

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Laughter rings out from a small wooden building in Pulau Carey, Selangor, where a group of Orang Asli children have gathered for the day.

Most of the time, the Orang Asli Handicraft Center is quiet, unless Mah Meri tribesmen are running a program with tourists, students, or government agencies.

Today is the second group that met with the children for an afternoon of English lessons.

Sitting in a circle, the students of the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) play games with the children, acting out activities that their young pupils have to guess.

There are about 30 UiTM students in total who came with their lecturer to organize Mah Meri’s English Getaway program with the children.

And while English lessons can sometimes smack of rote learning and boredom, today’s classroom is anything but.

“I’m learning to guess what the different parts of the body are called,” says Abrisam Mohd Hasmadi, 10, beaming.

“We have to answer in English. It’s great fun to learn with friends like that.”

Abrisam’s remarks are music to the ears of village chiefs, who fear their children will be left behind in their studies, especially after two years of pandemic-induced closures.

But in Pulau Carey, dropouts have always been a concern, with a number of children reluctant to move on to secondary school after completing their primary education.

At 10, Abrisam and many of his friends have not yet mastered sentence construction, and their English vocabulary is limited to simple questions like “What’s your name?”

Azman Sap, chairman of Sungai Bumbun Orang Asli village security committee, said the community always welcomes the holding of educational programs for primary and secondary students.

“They encourage these students to continue going to school and learning,” he told MalaysiaNow.

While the school dropout rate has not yet reached an alarming level, the trend of students leaving school at an early age is discouraging, he added.

“Perhaps the parents themselves don’t emphasize enough the importance of a good education,” he said.

“They normally prefer their children to learn certain skills instead.”

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There are about 500 Orang Asli in Kampung Sungai Bumbun, where two primary schools cater to the needs of young children.

Azman thinks peer pressure also plays a role in determining whether or not students continue their studies.

“If they’re friends with kids who don’t go to school, they’ll want to follow their lead,” he said.

“For the most part, they will stop going to school after the third year. The hardest part is getting them from primary to secondary school.”

Azman and several other community members have tried to encourage those who no longer wish to attend school, but there is little they can do if students are set in their ways.

Programs such as Mah Meri’s English Getaway go a long way in helping them stay in school.

For one thing, the informal setting and fun approach to learning grab kids’ attention much faster than traditional classroom activities.

This is something university students are well aware of.

Mohammad Syurizan Husni, the project leader, said that they normally organize three interactive activities with the children: “Sumpit it Right”, a guessing game for animal names and a version of musical chairs.

“We make it easier for children to understand,” he said.

“Here and there, we slip them advice so that they continue to go to school when we learn that there are some who are no longer interested in it.”

Syurizan said he chose to work with the Orang Asli community to raise awareness of the importance of English in rural areas where the language is little used, if at all.

“From what we observed, their knowledge of English is at a very basic level,” he said.

“So we focus on how to structure proper sentences.”

Among the Orang Asli communities, he said, few had a good command of English.

“It would be nice if we could find a way to help them master the language,” he said.

“Not just school children, but also adults.”

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