UJIM is 40 years old. She is an Orang Asli from the Temuan tribe. She has never spent a day in school.
She’s not alone. Sarimah, at 47 years old, has also not been to school.
Then there’s Noraini, 49, who has also not had any formal education in her entire life. Noraini has seven grandchildren. At her age, Noraini has something to prove to her grandchildren — that education is a life-long pursuit and that age is never a barrier.
I met these ladies on Friday at the Heriot-Watt University in Putrajaya.
The university is not far from the Putrajaya International Convention Centre and just a stone’s throw away from the Maritime Centre.
The university is known for its science and technology courses. It has about 1,000 students, mostly foreigners.
It’s located in a quiet part of the nation’s administrative capital, which makes learning conducive and productive.
Stella Marie Galimpin, a member of the teaching faculty at the university, had spoken to me about a group of Temuan ladies who use their spare time to learn English, a language that is widely used in the campus.
Stella said: “Our cleaners are mostly Orang Asli ladies. There’s one male by the name of Jamaludin but the rest are all ladies. They are hardworking and eager to learn another language.
“Actually, it’s the most practical thing to do for our cleaners. Very often, foreign students who enter the university would be asking for directions in the first few days in campus. The easiest person to approach would be the cleaners because they are everywhere.
“Quite often some of us have to help out because of the language barrier. Fortunately, some of these Temuan ladies are fast learners.”
I didn’t want to take her word for it. So, I decided to join the class and see for myself. It was worth the trip and I saw both teachers and students in action. (But to the street administrators of Putrajaya, your street signs suck).
The class started about 3pm. The head of the class, Justini Jasni, was the first to walk into the air-conditioned lecture room. The rest walked in soon after, all in their blue-coloured uniforms.
Me: “What is your name?”
Cleaner: “My name is Justini.”
Me: “How are you?”
Cleaner: “I’m fine.”
Me: “How long have you been working here?”
Cleaner: “I have worked here for four years.”
Me: “Where do you live?”
Cleaner: “I live in Kampung Orang Asli Bukit Serdang. It is near Banting.”
Me: “Are you married?”
Cleaner: “Yes, I am married. I have two children.”
Me: “How old are they?”
Cleaner: “The girl is 7 years old. The boy is 2 years old.”
You see! Justini could converse in English, enough to answer basic questions! She would probably be the best student, assisted by the fact that she did go to school many years ago. (The Temuan ladies will have an examination soon and March 20 is earmarked to be their graduation day.)
Back to Ujim. She has never been to school, but she could answer basic questions. For the cleaning ladies, conversational English is what they need most, and this is what they are getting. Ujim just joined the university four months ago.
In halting English, Ujim said: “I like here. I learn to speak English. Saya dapat belajar bahasa baru. Seronok.” (I am learning a new language. I enjoy it here.)
Stella is helped by Assistant Professor Zuhrah Beevi. Both of them kept the class busy throughout. Conversational English depends a lot on practice — the more you speak the faster you learn.
The university’s teaching staff donate books to the Temuan ladies. These books are quite similar to the ones found in pre-school classes. To non-schoolers like Ujim, Sarimah and Noraini, these books take these ladies to a new world altogether.
Sarimah, who has an 18-year-old son, said she must do well or risk being left out. The ladies help each other because they want to prove to everyone that they can do it.
Sarimah said it was very difficult at first but she persevered and could now understand simple English.
Sarimah and the other ladies also want to set an example to their children that nothing is impossible if you put your mind and heart to it.
I asked Stella what is the biggest challenge for the class. She said the ladies entered the English class with different levels of academic backgrounds. While most had never gone to school, a few had been but they dropped out early.
The first task for the teachers was to raise the level of confidence of the ladies. The ladies admitted that they were very shy at first.
The March 20 graduation ceremony ought to be a very special day for them, especially to those who could never utter a simple “Yes” or “No”.
In many ways, teaching them English is very similar to teaching an infant. They are taught to identify and remember the anatomy on their faces and so on. A lot of memorising is needed and this is where they laugh when a mistake is made.
Mind you, in less than six months, and with only about 30 minutes per class, these ladies are now fairly confident giving directions to anyone at the university.
Stella said: “We are starting an intermediate class next month. There’s already a momentum for this. In fact, the more diligent among them have asked for additional reading classes!
“We teach them grammar, too. Mind you, they are doing remarkably well considering that the class is held only once a week.” Keep it up, ladies!
Ahmad A Talib is the chairman of Yayasan Salam Malaysia. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @aatpahitmanis