A FEW days after the RM270 billion 2015 Budget is tabled in the legislature, I journey to a place where billions mean nothing, and ‘nothing’ is plentiful. It is a land where possessions are few and needs are many, and tears flow as easily as floodwaters.
|The view from the pit. Pic by DCXt
DAVID CHRISTY - NST Columnist 2 NOVEMBER 2014 @ 8:05 AM
On a narrow laterite road, our conveyance roars and rattles as it dives into ruts so deep and over banks of earth scarily steep. It trembles in fright, as do we, but we take courage from our guide who ever smiles as he steers us through the unhappy ground.
On both sides of the way, there are small grey houses made of wood, some on stilts, and there are huts, too, which seem to barely stand and which will likely fall if the winds are unkind. Between and behind the dwellings are thorny and tangled plants and lalang, some dense, some less so, and here and there is the occasional pleasant garden or well-grown tree which provides a deep and comforting shade to little creatures on the hot afternoon.
It appears for a while that we alone are wandering this pale corner of the earth, but as we sweep down another bumpy slope, we see two boys and a cow on a grassy patch. We wave at them. The waifs stare at us. Brown skins and a bleak whiteness, the lads and the beast. I muster a smile, but it is too late. They are already behind us.
The sounds of the world fall silent in the groans of our vehicle, but I think I can almost hear the fluttering of wings as we round a corner and come upon a hut. There it is, a swarm of butterflies, of colours too lovely to tell, fluttering from twig to twig in an assembly of flowering plants.
Ah, they are welcoming us to the dwelling. We laugh gaily. As does the young woman who is watching us from the doorpost. She shuffles across to us and puts her small hands in ours. They are soft and gentle, as is the expression she wears. Her hair is short, she is wearing a faded sarong and a T-shirt.
She gestures to the hovel, inviting us to enter. One by one we go in, and as I step over the threshold into the room which is as dim as dusk, I feel the touch of the fingers of sadness.
For I immediately catch the face of an old woman lying on a rusting bed frame. There is no mattress, only a mat. It is only by the charity of the sun, and the poverty of the home that I find her gaze. The sunbeams stream in through the patchwork of decaying boards and fall upon her and a few objects and the earthen floor in the only room in the hut. There are a few dust-covered framed photographs on the wall and a charcoal stove on which a small kettle rests. A fire is kindling within.
We step towards her. She tries to move her slender arms and her lips quiver as if she wants to say something. The skin hangs loose from her cheeks and a deathly pallor is all over her. Yet her tired eyes hold mine strongly.
My companion and a dear friend who accompany us, hold her left hand and pray for her. I withdraw into a corner to stand beside an old low table and two dishevelled children who have just come in. They are meek and look malnourished. They belong to the young widow, the daughter-in-law of the figure on the bed. My friend had told us earlier that the man of the house is no more, his soul swept away by an illness of the stomach some years ago.
The family is living deep in the pits of poverty, surrounded by darkness and burdened with emptiness. There is no happiness in their lives, neither is there sorrow. There is only the bleakness of the room which is their refuge.
I pat the little ones close to me, and hold back tears. But my heart is sobbing. I remember what another villager told me, “If you are poor and sick, you die”.
As we leave the hut, I notice a large earthen jar. The family uses it to store water. But the vessel is broken, and little can go into it before spilling out. It is emblematic
of humanity’s age-old ‘law’; the haves store, the poor struggle.
And it was in ancient times, too, that a former prince of Egypt wrote prophetically, “… there will always be poor people in the land”. What can this mean? In this land which I journey to, which is not a long way from Malaysia and whose budget also runs into the billions, the unending tears cry for an answer. Do you hear the cries, too?