A Volunteer’s Reflections from the Field
by Miriam Zubizarreta Ostivar
Some people back home questioned me about the lack of facilities and comfort during site visits. My answer was that far from being a problem, it was grounding to see how few material items and luxuries we actually need to be happy.
When I applied to be an International Volunteer with Engineers Without Borders UK, I didn’t specifically choose a destination, instead, I applied to the placement where I thought I could be the most useful. This happened to be with TONIBUNG, in Sabah, Malaysia. Little did I know at the time what a wonderful part of the world I was about to discover!
Sabah, in the island of Borneo, is a lush green natural paradise, but it is the people that make it such a special place. Everywhere I traveled, starting in the town of Nampasan where I was based, to the rural villages I went to with TONIBUNG, and all other places I had the opportunity to visit, I felt instantly welcomed. This was not a result of being a foreigner or “Orang Puti” as they called me (literally “White Person”), it is simply part of Sabahans culture. In any event or celebration, their motto is: the more, the merrier. Food and drink are shared, and there’s always an extra chair ready to be added to the table to welcome those who want to join.
This was such a contrast to life in a big city like London, where I was so busy and living so independently, that even visits to see my closest friends often required planning weeks in advance! It was a real pleasure to enjoy life in a more spontaneous and organic way, appreciating each day and sharing it with the ones around me. Sabahans love to get together with friends and family, so there is always a good excuse to fire up the barbeque, break out some beers and give your best at the karaoke machine!
This was such a contrast to life in a big city like London, where I was so busy and living so independently, that even visits to see my closest friends often required planning weeks in advance!
My placement was designed to provide electrical engineering support to TONIBUNG, one of Green Empowerment’s longest standing partners. In addition to assisting with electrical installations on site, I held training sessions on basic electrical concepts for TONIBUNG staff. I also increased TONIBUNG’s technical capability in the field of solar PV, which is a newer technology for them. Together, we designed a mobile phone app that can be used by their staff at project sites for reference and electrical calculations with the ultimate goal of installing more resilient systems. I learned a great deal about technology in the process, and I hope to have passed on some of my knowledge as well.
We all worked hard, sweating our way in the tropical climate, but it really didn’t feel like much compared with the effort the villagers made to host us and treat us to local cooking.
Some of my best memories are from site visits. I feel privileged to have had the chance to visit the most beautiful villages in the jungle, and experience the local life in a way that is not possible as a tourist. I got to see the most spectacular landscapes, swim in pristine rivers, and enjoy delicious local food. We all worked hard, sweating our way through the tropical climate, but it really didn’t feel like much compared to the effort the villagers made to host us and treat us to local cooking. Some people back home questioned me about the lack of facilities and comfort during these site visits. My answer was that far from being a problem, it was grounding to see how few material items and luxuries we actually need to be happy.
I supported TONIBUNG during a period of transition, with new staff arriving and others departing or changing roles. For example, two months prior to joining the team, TONIBUNG founder, Executive Director and in-house engineer Banie Lasimbang was appointed to the Malaysian Senate – an honor and huge opportunity, but also a challenge for the organization.
These challenges meant things were not always done in the most organized way, and there was sometimes a fair bit of improvising involved, but I was always impressed by how TONIBUNG staff managed to keep pushing and get things done. I believe this was a result of their collaboration with indigenous people in Sabah and their wish to protect their ancestral land.
A Path Altered
My eight months in Sabah flew by. I am now starting a new chapter of my life in my native Spain. This is, in a way, is a consequence of my stay in Sabah. As much as I loved the big city lifestyle in London, Borneo made me want to be closer to my family, live closer to nature and enjoy each day. It even helped me conquer my lifelong phobia of dogs, who knew that was possible!
As much as I loved the big city lifestyle in London, Borneo made me want to be closer to my family, live closer to nature and enjoy each day.
I’d like to finish by saying a massive thank you to Engineers Without Borders, Green Empowerment and all of the NGOs that made this possible. I wish TONIBUNG all the best in years to come.