Rotary International had approached Raleigh International to see about being involved in building a 'gravity water feed system' to the village of Ambong, a village that had never had running water. Raleigh was keen to help and the project was initiated. Zoë and Nick, the existing project managers had done an amazing job since September to bring the project on and I felt privileged to be there with them with the aim of seeing it come to fruition.
Kampong Ambong is a small coastal subsistence level community of a thousand people, an hour and a half and a world away from Kota Kinabalu. It's a strictly Muslim village, half of which is built on stilts, with a mosque, three 'shops', a kindergarten, a school, and a community hall which we made our home, and which had already been divided into living and sleeping quarters in the first phase by the group, with a borrowed squat loo thanks to the kindergarten next door and an open air, surprisingly refreshing shower, made from a few tarpaulins for privacy and a bucket! Our kitchen was set up in one corner of the hall, made out of school desks with our gas bottle for the cooker and food supplies stored around the edge. This all worked out well until one morning I awoke to hear suspicious noises at around 6am and stumbled out of my hammock to find six goats and a cow had wandered in to our hall and were chowing down on our supplies!
Raleigh life follows a few 'rules'...no drugs, no alcohol...and adherence to the 'three bowl system'... (!) a way of avoiding the aforementioned D&V by thorough washing and bleaching of hand, mess tins and cutlery prior to and after eating... Apart from that the only two things we could really be sure of each day were the three meals we had, prepared by us all on a rota basis and us making a radio call to Fieldbase at 7:20am and 4:30pm to update on progress and let them know we were OK. I managed to duck out of breakfast duties by totally screwing up the porridge I cooked one morning which I burnt to the pan and for which I suffered a torrent of abuse...though I did enjoy the radio contact if I was on rota to do it. Other than that we planned each day as it came, at the mercy of the weather on occasion (cement doesn't dry in the rain) and of the villagers on others...who we needed to guide us on local land rights etc. with placing pipes and for invaluable and never-tiring labour.
The welcome we received in Ambong was humbling and we were invited to many homes, most memorably a seven year olds birthday party...just like any other child at that age...with food, games and mayhem...and a couple of weddings, to which most of the village seemed to have gathered for and which lasted much of the weekend, with one ceremony or another.
When not working on the water feed we all got involved in village life and English classes were in high demand. We'd put a note on the door offering lessons at 3pm that day and word got around...'lessons' were mainly games with the young children, but in previous phases the guys had been involved with adults too, who were also keen to learn. The door to our hall was always open and usually we were surrounded...by adults, children, animals, general chaos! One of the participants had brought a guitar which he and a couple of the locals played most evenings, and we all learnt the 'pochu-pochu'...the equivalent of the macarena...useful to know at those village gatherings. Life became a lot simpler and it was interesting to spend time talking to a bunch of 18 year olds, listen to their aspirations and ideas and ultimately try to get my head around the fact they really did think that Zoe, Nick and I were "oldies".
Without getting too technical on the work front, the first and second groups had built a cement dam and it was our task to finish that off with cement bases for the water tanks at two sites and to feed the pipes from there, across the bay to the village, where we would then build a number of standpipes. The water source we initially worked at was reached by a 3km walk along the road from the village to a paddy field, followed by a trek across that and a half kilometre steep climb to the dam site. As we worked closer to the village the daily trek got a little easier. Cut a long story short...and fast forward over a three week period and hopefully the photos do some justice to the work involved - sweat, blood and a few tears later we woke one morning to a commotion from the villagers who were overjoyed that the holding tanks outside the village were overflowing with water from the source and an hour later we turned on the flow - it was a particularly poignant moment to see an elderly woman walk past just as that happened, with a bucket of water on her head, with the thought that her days of heading to the well for water might be over.
We'd worked to a tight deadline...but made it and there followed an official opening ceremony at the village attended by representatives from Rotary International in Kota Kinabalu and Japan, their sister sponsor, along with Rory, our Country Director. The highlight was an agreement that day by Rotary to sponsor another project in the village in 2008, with the help of Raleigh, to re-build their jetty, a lifeline to the villagers for their fishermen, but which is currently in a dangerous state of repair.
We left the village the following morning, with many incredible memories of the experience. Hopefully the photos say more than I have room for here - every time I look at them it reminds me of another story...the children, the adults, the laughter and an invitation to us all to return one day...