Dignity for Children Foundation, Malaysia

Recently I was invited to give a workshop on storytelling skills at the Early childhood Conference at the Universiti Tun Abdul Razak in Kuala Lumpur. It was a wonderful conference and extremely interesting to learn about the education systems and the learning expectations that are place on the very young in Malaysia. As a results driven Asian nation it certainly holds many differences to Australia, some of the expectations set on the very young were quite shocking to this laid back Aussie. So it was an inspiration to encounter students and teachers willing to take on creativity as a valid method of learning and development. The teaching conference lasted for two days, the 7th and 8th of October and our warm and welcoming hosts dined and toured us visitors the entire stay of 4 days. I ate some incredible food and enjoyed touring modern and traditional architecture, markets and regions of Kuala Lumpur.

As recent work of mine, over the past few years has included refugee populations of Australia I decided that the link between Australian and Malaysian refugees is not something I can ignore. I made contact with the Harvest Centre (which became the Dignity for Children Foundation in 2010) and offered to volunteer. This was an incredibly rewarding experience. For one day I performed for a number of classrooms, I talked, learned and lunched with the staff and I taught storytelling skills in the afternoon to the teachers.

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, Malaysia

The story circle

First let me briefly describe the Dignity for Children Foundation.

It started from a ground roots need to aid urban poor – those living in shanty towns with no water, broken families, extremely poor, undernourished, high exposure to drugs and crime in their community. Not surprisingly while these kids have the right to an education in Malaysia they do not have the support or ability to continue through. Living hungry, being malnourished throughout their developing years significantly impacts their cognitive ability and concentration levels. They are unable to buy the basic essentials needed for school – uniforms, stationary etc. They have no quiet place to complete homework or study as the family home is small, crowded and often noisy/exposed or the children have other duties to fulfil like babysitting whilst the one parent works or gathering water from great distances.

It took two people from the community centre, Petrina and her husband to recognise that something needs to be done to break this cycle of poverty.

Firstly they had the ability to recognise that these kids are stuck within a poverty cycle (ie its not their fault, they are not dumb). They will drop out of school due to all the difficulties, they will be unemployed, they will have children early, they will be tempted by drugs and a life of crime. Their children will also follow this path.

How to change it?

Offer education that focuses on the whole child. They offer schooling, meals, medical care, hygiene care and therapy when necessary. They offer a safe place for the family to be, to study, learn and share. The education includes opportunities to play sport and to engage with the arts.

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, Malaysia

Girl learning through play

The Dignity for Children Foundation also supports teacher training, sporting competitions, and education (Malaysian curriculum based) for children ranging from 1 year old to 20. There is also hospitality training for those not suited to the mainstream education structures.

When the infants school began a new need was quickly realised. Amongst the urban poor of Malaysia were a different kind of poor – refugees. A refugee in Malaysia does not have the right to an education. That is, currently 16,640 children in Malaysia cannot enter the education system. Their parents do not have a right to work/earn an income and the children cannot gain an education.

The dignity for Children Foundation offers education for all, refugee, urban poor and disabled.

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, KL, Malaysia

The group hug at the end of one class. I love this moment 🙂

The Harvest Centre (the school I visited) is currently at double the classroom capacity accepting the cases that arrive at their doorstep. The administrators, teachers and directors operate from a place of pure heart and love. I was proud to be there for a day and sad to leave so many people in the face of so much need.

In the words of one volunteer at the school – the arts gives these kids an opportunity to learn about people. To learn to trust and who not to trust. Its part of a complete education, its part of what they really need in life. We want to give them the best chance.

Overall I spent one day in my life sharing with these children. I shared stories, language, smiles, hugs, laughter and small details of our histories/our stories. I am in awe of the dedication of those that see a need and an injustice and work with their heart and soul to overcome it. Thank you Kuala Lumpur and the Dignity for Children Foundation for making me appreciate my Australian life and for igniting in me the flame that burns to help another.

If you would like to volunteer time or money please go to the website; www.dignityforchildren.org

Harvest Ctr, Sentul, KL, Malaysia  Harvest Ctr, Sentul, KL, Malaysia

Singapore International Storytelling Festival 2011

I recently attended the Singapore International Storytelling Festival (SISF) 2011 as a presenter and performer. In the hot humid weather of Singapore, storytellers and listeners from around the world converged between the 1st and 4th of September. Funded by the Book Council of Singapore, the festival is dedicated to the art of storytelling in its diverse applications. There were performance evenings, concurrent workshop sessions, full day focus sessions, keynote speeches and short performances offered daily. For a relatively isolated Australian storyteller these festivals are a nourishing experience, in particular I was taken by the performances. What a feast for my eyes, ears and heart.

Showcase storytellers 2nd Sept

I was involved in the showcase performances – where the invited tellers from a range of nations would tell one story each. These were a wonderful chance to see the varying styles, story choices and in particular the humour (how cultural it is!). Although I must, even though I was a part of these performances they were not the most memorable experience for me. The thing that blew my storytelling mind were the first and the final performances – storytelling of traditional epic tales.

How I would love to have lived in a time and place where this was the culture of the day. Where history and stories were told to us by people considered to be important and worthy of the task. One the first night Abbi Patrix and Ruth Kirkpatrick performed “A Journey of Stories”. Two extremely different tellers performing to this theme. Abbi came on first.

This French, Dutch man told an audience of Singaporeans, Indians, Malaysians and Chinese stories from an old Indian text – Panchatantra tales. He had developed a wonderful script – or holding story that detailed the friendship between a Crocodile and a quick-witted storytelling monkey. We did not get to see the entire repertoire and what a shame that was!

I believe this is one of the best storytelling performances that I have seen. Abbi is a 30-year veteran of storytelling; he played the frame drum and mbira while telling. He integrated strong measures of humour and movement throughout the performance. Importantly Abbi has created a modern day version of this epic – we followed the friendship of monkey and crocodile with delight in all its twists and turns. This friendship created many moments for monkey to tell crocodile stories, fun, adventurous, witty and moral stories. He drew on the Indian text for the smaller stories. It was a wonderful, accessible adaptation. Apparently the Panchatandra are the most widely known stories in the world with over 200 known versions of them. While I had heard some of the smaller tales I was ignorant of their rich source/history.

What are other common examples do we have of the holding tale when storytelling – the first that comes to mind is 1001 nights. You can read the full text of 1001 nights at http://www.bartleby.com/16/

The holding story is of a king gone mad by the betrayal of his beloved wife. He becomes a madman after killing his first wife and from that day vows to take a new wife to his bed every night only to be slain in the early hours of the morning. The smaller stories come from the clever female – Scheherazade who postpones her death by telling the king nail biting stories that he must hear the end of, he therefore must keep her awake and alive through the night and into the next day. She always starts a new story before she can be killed.

Many many cultures have such an epic tale where smaller stories are revealed and savoured. A small taste is provided in this list;

The Canterbury tales by Chauser; http://www.librarius.com/cantales.htm

Homers Iliad and Odesey (and many others) http://www.openculture.com/freeaudiobooks

The Irish Epic of Táin Bó Cúalnge by Joseph Dunn http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16464

My question to you is when was the last time you got to listen/interact with a series of tales?

As a child I was absolutely transfixed by Monkey Magic. My brothers and I would spend hours playing out the characters or various storylines in the back yard, sometimes inflicting broken bones and always collecting bruises in our fantastical efforts. Did you know this TV series was created from an Asian Epic tale called the Ramayana? In Singapore, for the first time I got to see an adaption of this Epic. Six Asian storytellers performed an adaptation written by Kamini Ramachandran. Each teller had distinctly different telling styles, each were entertaining and informative and had me, and a couple of hundred others, totally captivated.

Not the least because the Ramayana involves the wonderful character of the monkey king – (Hanuman / Monkey) but because the tale was so fantastic. Traversing topics of love, desire, fear, jealousy, faithfulness, friendship, war, gods, death, demons and kings. I was desperately waiting for the stories of ‘monkey’ and was slightly disappointed that no one storyteller could cloud fly! I feel privileged that I could travel to Asia and see this epic told in such wonderful format.

The festival had many sweet storytelling moments on offer but it was the rediscovering of the epic that was most magical for me. To allow myself to become lost within stories that sat within stories… this is something I plan to make a habit of. I hope I can share it with you one day 🙂