Bengoh Project

PurpleLily spent the weekend of the 2nd – 3rd March, 2013 in a remote village, Semban, deep in the Borneo jungle. Due to the construction of the Bengoh Dam, this village is scheduled to be relocated to a new kampong near Kuching in the not-so-distant future. Batik Boutique Hotel’s Corporate Social Responsibility division (B with a Heart) has been helping and supporting this village and three others in the area for the last few years. The Hotel approached PurpleLily to provide some training to help the villagers to prepare for this inevitable event.

Usually, we cater only for women but, given the nature of this special project, we agreed to involve men in our workshops with Brian, my husband, temporarily joining the PurpleLily team.  We were also fortunate to have Shefaline, one of our Financial Club participants, put her hand up to volunteer with us as our translator for the weekend.

To reach this village we drove 1½ hours to Bengoh Valley Dam, which was the starting point for our 5- hour hike.  It was a beautiful sunny day with hot and humid conditions. Although it was tough in parts, with constant uphill stretches, we truly enjoyed the experience. The first bamboo bridge crossing was scary as it creaked and bounced up and down. However, it was something that we soon became accustomed to as we must have crossed 20 bridges throughout the day. We had lunch on the side of a beautiful waterfall and went for a refreshing swim before the final climb up to the beautiful and quaint village of Semban.

Shefeline & I in our first hour of hiking


One of the many bridges we crossed


Waterfall called ”The Curtain”


We met our homestay hosts, had a lovely local meal and were made aware that there’s only electricity from 6:00 to 10:00pm. So, by 10:00pm, everyone was in bed!

Semban’s main street


Our homestay: simple but clean and wonderful warm hosts


The next morning, after a local breakfast (rice and noodles), we headed to the community hall where we started to get organised. Without electricity or PPT, we made posters and adapted our usual workshops by including more stories (relevant to the villagers and their future situation) and group discussion activities.


Semban’s Community hall


Shefaline & Ginette preparing and making posters


Shefaline and Ginette ready to start!


Once ready, we waited for the villagers to arrive. “Time” is not a priority in the jungle, so villagers came slowly and eventually, we got started!

The purpose of the workshops was to give the villagers a platform to discuss money and the changes ahead. The first workshop for the mixed group was called Introduction to Financial Literacy.  Brian & I co-facilitated, however, Shefaline was definitely the key person. The villagers learned how to track their finances and we gave them strategies to save money and especially, save for an emergency fund and how to avoid the cycle of difficulty. We tried to prepare them for all the bills they will need to pay in their new homes: electricity, water, rates, transport…. Most of the villagers are currently 100% self sufficient; they farm their own rice and vegetables, have chickens and they all have pepper plantations.  When they need money, they go to Bengoh Kampong to sell their pepper. With that, they can afford clothes, books and things that they need. They have no bills to pay at the moment.


Brian & Shefaline in action!


After the workshop, we all went and had lunch together. Shefaline informed us that the villagers had learned a lot from our financial workshop. They felt it was very useful information and they were still discussing the workshop while having lunch.

After lunch, the men went with Brian for a Stress Management & Goal setting workshop. The focus was on how to deal with this stressful situation, as the stress in the village is already evident. From there, they completed a Goal setting session. The men often referred to their future financial situations and how things will change for them. Change is often difficult for most people but this is a huge change for them as they will lose their way of life and their little close knit community.  The new settlement village will include new, modern houses with running water, bathrooms, electricity and a school, but will also include families from three other villages. The little Semban community will be integrated into a much bigger and wider community, which is creating a lot of uncertainties.

This was also mentioned by the women in the Self Confidence and Positive Thinking workshop, which was facilitated by Shefaline and me.  They referred many times to the fact that the women of Semban must stay united and support each other, no matter what. We quickly realised how confident, strong and independent these women are in their current village and way of life, but the changes coming will possibly affect their confidence. We completed a range of activities, gave tips and made sure the women were engaged and having fun.


Shefaline discussing and supporting the participants


Ginette and the Self Confidence Participants


For our last night, two of the four Ring Ladies came to visit us after dinner. They were looking so pretty and talking with us. This tradition is disappearing quickly as these women are aging and passing away and the younger women no longer wear rings.


Shefeline and I were lucky to dance (or should I say attempt to dance) their traditional dance. It was a lot of fun. It was a great way to finish our day!


The Ring Ladies having a good time with us! Chewing betel nut and enjoying being the stars of the night.


Sunday morning and it was time to think about returning to Kuching. We went via a different route so we could visit the local primary school in Rejoi. The kids from Semban leave their families every Sunday morning to go to school where they board during the week, and on Friday afternoon they return home.

A group of four young kids became our unofficial guides and they showed us how they have been born and bred on these steep tracks as we tried to keep up. They were walking, running, laughing and enjoying this little trip. We arrived at the school where we visited the classroom and dormitories.


Kids welcome a volunteer teacher (Teresa) at their school!


After lunch, the final trek back to the Bengoh Dam site was undulating and included our first rain storm of the weekend for about 45 minutes. This 3-hour trek gave us the chance to reflect on the unique opportunity we had to get a glimpse at a way of life that may be lost, and getting an insight into the challenges this community will face in the future. We just hope Purplelily was able to help in some small way to support some of the villagers to make these difficult adjustments.


Ginette & Shefaline in our last hour of hiking!


The PurpleLily team loved the experience and I personally feel privileged to have met and talked with these villagers and discover such an inspiring self-sufficient and deep-rooted culture.


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