From the Archive - Mission School in Sarawak

25th March 2011 at 00:00
3 July 1959 - Deep in the Borneo jungle, efforts to teach the three Rs are thwarted by tribal customs

Less than half a century ago the Sea Dyaks of Sarawak were still actively pursuing tribal wars with all the savagery of the headhunter.

Now there is peace in the jungle and the descendants of those fierce people are learning the three Rs at the Cardinal Vaughan School, built in a jungle clearing on the banks of the Katibas River, a tributary of the Rejang River.

Two Catholic missionaries - Father H O'Brien, a Londoner, and Father P Falkner, from Lienz, Austria, both members of the St Joseph's Society for Foreign Missions, whose founder was Cardinal Vaughan, Archbishop of Canterbury - built the school almost single-handed, and today carry out their educational missionary work there.

The school can be reached only by boat over the river from the village of Soong. All materials had to be rowed up river, and precautions against flooding had to be taken in the construction and design of the wooden buildings.

The children are keen and quick to learn, but the two priests have to overcome tribal customs and reticence. If, for instance, there is a parental quarrel between two families, the children are kept away from school so that all contact is severed, even through the young.

If one child in a family is ill, the mother will keep the rest away from school to prevent them from getting ahead. One mother withdrew her son after a week because the family "missed his face".

Some camp out at the school till satisfied their sons like it. Children are withdrawn at rice harvest time and for similar reasons.

All in all, the jungle schoolmasters' task is not an easy one, but, though their successes are hard-earned, it is a rewarding job, and one that provides much quiet amusement.

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