In my early days in Brunei, I often spent the evenings wandering the boardwalks beside the Brunei River, the water glistening in the gathering twilight and the rippling waves from the wake of a water taxi rolling gently towards the jetty. Across the wide expanse of water, the lights in the moonlight flickered and I would gaze at the many wooden houses of Kampong Ayer, standing on stilts in the distance and the long wooden schools straddled across the river with their multiple legs. Little did I know that I would soon be transported into this watery world!
Just a few weeks after my arrival in Brunei, I received a list of the schools where I would be working as an International Literacy Coach. To my surprise, I discovered that several of them were located in the Water Village known locally as Kampong Ayer. I distinctly remember my first trip to a Water Village school – its name in Bahasa Malayu was ‘Sekolah Rendah Pengiran Anak Puteri (PAP) Besar’.
Address in hand, I arrived at a random jetty in the town centre and hailed a passing speedboat. Not quite sure of procedures or of transportation arrangements, I hoisted up my baju kurung and tried not to slip on the moss as I made my way down the steps to the waiting water taxi.
As I half expected, the boatman did not speak English and did not understand my request to be dropped off at the school. I suspected that I was not pronouncing the name of the establishment correctly, but undeterred, the boatman started the engine and off we sped. Clutching my laptop and shielding myself from the spray, I made vain attempts to readjust my flapping baju kurung as we hurtled towards Kampong Ayer.
I knew that ‘PAP’ stood for something but as my memo was getting rather wet it was difficult to read it properly. Fortunately, I had clearly chosen the right boatman. He showed no signs of stress but remained resourceful and calm, despite the challenge that a strange foreign woman with a cumbersome computer bag had presented to him. Slowing down suddenly, he called out to a friend in another boat. This man seemed to know the school and replied with a nod, pointing towards some buildings in the distance. Spluttering at first, the boat’s engine leapt into life again and we sped down the river once more.
The strong waves pounded against the sides of the boat, jostling our vessel and tossing us up and down so that the colours of the houses seemed to merge and swim before us. Moving swiftly, we passed women with baskets waiting at the jetties and children with school bags waiting at others. Glimpsing a golden mosque and passing a police station and then a fire station, with boats waiting ready for any emergency, I realised that although this was a village built in the water, it was still very much a community.
Turning suddenly, the boat man navigated our way in and out of the houses, twisting through tight corners, under pylons and bridges. Then he slowed down so that the engine only purred and I knew that we must be nearing our destination. When we finally stopped, I was very grateful to the patient man and thrust a handful of dollars his way, having no idea what the going rate for a speedboat ride to work should be. He beamed. Perhaps, I wondered, he would take me to work another day.
My introduction to the world of Kampong Ayer could not have been more memorable. I realised that the school was located at the very centre of the Water Village. On every side, from every angle, I witnessed the throbbing heartbeat of this unique community: a stream of students arriving at school by boat; mothers saying goodbye and returning home, treading the tangle of board walks; women in the houses opposite too busy to notice, washing their clothes; a lone fisherman preparing his nets nearby; women on the jetty selling sweets and chatting to the children as they arrived, and the ever-present lapping of the waves on the houses all around.
The school was a school full of smiles. The teachers, warm and friendly, welcomed me and showed me around. I learnt that the classrooms, all made out of wood, were built around the ‘playground’ which was in the centre of the building. This area also served as a meeting point. At Sekolah Rendah PAP Besar, the students were fortunate as the playground was under cover but I later discovered that some of the schools in the Water Village had a central playground and assembly area which was open to the elements.
Shown to my seat in the staffroom, and bemused by the creaky floorboards, I was cautioned against treading on a certain section of the floor behind my desk. The teachers explained that this area was not weight bearing and might collapse. I smiled politely and shuffled my chair a little nearer to the staffroom door. The water was clearly visible between the wooden floorboards and I did not relish the thought of falling through them into the jaws of a hungry crocodile!
During my time at the school, I marveled at the manner in which the school community adapted to the challenges of its environment. Sometimes, for example, when it was low tide, it was not possible to access the steps to the school building and therefore, not possible for the children or the teachers to arrive by boat. On these occasions, I discovered that it was possible, by taking a particular route through the Water Village and by using the network of wooden boardwalks, to gain access to the school on foot.
As time went by and I became more familiar with the schools in Kampong Ayer, I realised that some jetties were more convenient for travelling to certain schools than others and indeed, I learnt that each school has its own school boat for picking up its teachers. These boats can easily carry twenty teachers and are long and sturdy. However, all teachers are issued with their own life jacket which they are always advised to wear, just in case the vessel capsizes. Becoming the proud owner of a luminous, orange school life jacket was truly a first for me and I always kept it ready for boarding on the backseat of my car.
Transportation provided by the schools is free of charge but as the cost of a speedboat ride turned out to be only fifty cents, I often chose a speedboat over the school boat partly because of the convenience and minimal cost but mainly, of course, because going to work by speedboat is quite simply, much more fun!
I will never forget waiting at the school jetty and observing a large monitor lizard, its tongue flicking and long tail swishing as it crouched menacingly on the bank, or the time when my colleague and I noticed a crocodile nearby, at the edge of the river. I was relieved that it was a small specimen, but I dared not share the story with my mother on Skype that evening!
On occasions, the rain lashing down and spray flying in my face left me looking somewhat bedraggled and I was very glad that I had taken a spare baju kurung to school. While the local female teachers seemed to glide gracefully off the jetties, I lost count of the number of times I tripped on my baju and fell headlong into a waiting vessel, much to the amusement of onlookers.
Most of the children lived in the Water Village of course and to them it must have seemed second nature getting a ride to and from school on a boat. They sprang out of their boats with ease and seemed to skip up the slippery steps which I had to navigate so carefully.
Home time at the school was a very carefully orchestrated event, with a number of family boats arriving at the same time but never colliding with each other. The school boat joined the throng, wending its way through the rippling waves and weaving in and out of the smaller vessels. Teachers checked with colleagues to be sure that they knew that the last boat was leaving, and many a time the boat had to wait for its final passenger to scurry on board before heading back to the shore.
I relished the trip to the washroom at Sekolah Rendah PAP Besar as it meant walking along the balcony at the front of the school and taking in the view on the way. The washbasin faced the water and standing there, washing my hands, I could look into the lives of the local people as they went about their business: a young man in a passing speedboat waving to a friend; a mother with a small child hanging out the washing; an old man reading the paper near his front door. There was always something to see and always, the ebb and flow of the water and the lapping of the waves in a speedboat’s wake. At times, it was an effort to tear oneself away from the view and get back to the classroom.
I looked forward to going to my three Water Village schools each week but my final day at Sekolah Rendah PAP Besar came round much more quickly than I had expected. Indeed, my last day at the school proved to be a significant day not just for me but for every pupil at the school and for every teacher too.
It seemed that the teachers were preoccupied that day. They were not themselves. I said hello but they did not hear me. I stumbled on them chatting in clandestine clusters, lowered voices, leaning inwards with raised eyebrows. Puzzled, I searched for the head teacher and found her in a corridor, surrounded by a posse of enquiring teachers. I ventured to ask what was wrong. Sighing apologetically, she explained that the building, now over forty years old, was deemed too unsafe to remain in use. Like stooped old men with pot bellies who had once stood proud and tall, the concrete stilts which supported the building were now crumbling, cracking and wearing away.
Resigned to the inevitable, the guru besar shared that the safety of the students was at stake and that they had just heard that they must evacuate the premises within less than a week. The GB explained that the school would be relocated to the mainland. The teachers, bursting with questions and seeking reassurance, scurried around the school in shock.
With so little time, and realising the serious nature of the situation, the school leaders decided to hold an emergency assembly. The children gathered as they usually did, flocking in with smiles and small talk. But this time it was no ordinary assembly, no ordinary meeting and no ordinary day. When the children were told not to come to school the following week, a loud and joyful cheer went up. They thought it was a random holiday. But here and there in the crowd, one or two children looked lost, afraid and were silent. In a few days they would not sail to school on their father’s boat nor wend their way homewards on the wooden boardwalks. In a few days they would not play roughshod in the familiar playground they once knew. In a few days, they might not remain with their classmates.
As the teachers got to work and starting packing boxes, the children were led in communal singing. The deputy head, beloved by the children, was determined to make it an assembly to remember. And it was. The children sang as they had never sang before. They laughed, they danced, they giggled and smiled and the singing could be heard in the wooden houses all around.
Students clutched belly loads of books when they left school that day: books from English, from Science, from Maths and Malay. They balanced artwork on top of the books, and games and PE kit on top of that. Mystified parents were greeted with smiles half-hidden by plimsolls and pencil boxes. “Oh, this letter is for you mum!” one boy exclaimed as he indicated a letter with a nod of his head, on top of the stack that he carried. And as the parent read the letter, with gaping mouth and eyes open wide, you knew the same reaction would roll out across families just as sure as a rippling wave.
The letter informed parents of the closure of the water village school and the relocation of the school to the mainland. Plans were shared for the students to share a building with another school – a modern purpose-built establishment with lots of space for everyone.
One week later and the same students waited at the school bus stop on the mainland or walked hand-in-hand with their mothers up the hill. No walking down the board walks. No travelling to school by boat. Eager and excited, the students dashed up the stairs and along the wide corridors, making their way to freshly painted classrooms made of bricks and steel.
The children from Sekolah Rendah PAP Besar forged new friendships with the students who were already at the school and fortunately, apart from a few students whose parents chose to send them to other water village schools, most children remained with their classmates.
These days, if you visit the amalgamated school on the mainland you will find happy children who enjoy the luxury of modern classrooms with attractive learning spaces and excellent facilities. Indeed, you will find students learning and playing in a safe environment in a building which is shared with the Brunei Darussalam Teaching Academy.
I very much enjoy visiting the teachers I once used to work with and meeting up with the students who I used to see each week. But sometimes, before I drive away, I close my eyes and I don’t see the modern, state-of-the-art building any more. I see an old wooden building with a rickety balcony. I feel the uneven, creaky floorboards beneath my feet. I hear the waves lapping gently against the steps and the cry of the boatman as he steers away his speedboat and calls out a greeting to his friends. And sometimes, as I drive away, I swear I see my familiar, orange life jacket on the back seat of my car, out of the corner of one eye.
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Facts about SR PAP Besar:
SR Pengiran Anak Puteri (PAP) Besar was built in 1974 and became fully operational on 11th October 1976. In 2017 the school building was deemed unsafe due to the deterioration of the supporting concrete beams which had stood in the river for 43 years. On 30th April 2017 the school ceased operations.
At the time of closure the school had 169 pupils on roll, 22 teachers and 8 support staff. The GB was Noor Kartimala Haji Matassan and the PGB was Mohammad Suazmie Bin Hj Mhmd Zulkifli.
In 3rd May 2017 the majority of the pupils joined the pupils at SR Sungai Kebun on the mainland. The amalgamated school is housed in the same building as the Brunei Darussalam Teaching Academy (BDTA) and is called SR PAP Besar Sungai Kebun.
Block D, Unit 5 & 6, Kiarong Complex
Lebuhraya Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah
Bandar Seri Begawan BE1318