Problems in the slums of Kota Kinabalu
The ax man cometh (part 1 of the slums of Kota Kinabalu)
Faced with an ax wielding teenager, three of his friends and an excitable drunk behind me; I stood my ground. Getting excited or angry does not work in situations like this. I still wasn’t sure whether the teenage leader was mentally unstable, on drugs, both or just trying to improve the rate his testicles produced testosterone.
The three others stood firm as their leader swung his ax at the wooden railing again. His slightly crazed smile looking more enraged all the time.
“You take picture!” he yelled.
The others all did that innocuous V sign with their fingers so many Asian kids do for a photograph.
What choices do you make in a situation like this?
If I took his picture, the leader would have won. I’d have bowed to his ax wielding might. From there I was fair game for any other mischief or demands. I firmly tried to push the boy nearest me by the shoulder in an attempt to walk by.
“Picture, picture!” yelled the leader jumping out and, blocking my path.
He waved the ax in my face and then knelt down and began to hack away on the wooden walkway below. I looked at him as if he was stupid. He was acting like some demented troll from Lord of the Rings.
I conjured up some simple words that would either make things better or worse. I figured worse, but at least they would buy me some time.
“Gago!” which is Filipino for stupid. “You go chop the wood you standing on. You go fall in!”
Why Filipino? There are lots of migrants here from there, and … well, anything was worth a shot at this stage!
Dealing with the unknown element in the slums
The leader unleashed another swing of his ax on the platform below. Only now one of his little cohorts pushed at him and repeated my words. Then another followed suit. The drunk behind me grunted.
I took my opportunity and with authority pushed the remaining boy out of my way as I walked forward with a smile and a wave of dismissal. I had finally got passed them.
However it might have been the wrong choice. I looked ahead for more trouble. It was coming in the form of another gang of youths emerging from a house further down the walkway. If I continued on I’d be sandwiched … in no man’s land.
Catch 22 in the slum
Again, I stood my ground. Raised my camera up, and took a photograph of an unimpressive house. Buying time, and pretending I was not fazed. I turned back, and walked past the ax wielding teenager whilst pointing back down the walkway. A distraction that I followed up by giving him a cheeky royal wave.
He laughed without a second thought and began babbling in a local dialect. I pointed at the drunk man as he glared at me up ahead. Then, signaled from him to the two groups of teenagers. It meant nothing. But, distracted his inebriated mind long enough for me to continue by without harassment. There was no one up ahead.
Finding friends in the slum at last
I turned off along the wooden walkway hoping it was not a dead-end, and was able to look back. They were not following. It was over. I looked around for another way to get past them and get to the other side. But, in doing so caught a glimpse of a familiar face. One I was not expecting to see in a Malaysian slum.
Entering into a shop I was surprised to see a refrigerator stocked with cold drinks. I grabbed a coke and went to the bedazzled man beside the cash register. He was either Indian or Pakistani, I couldn’t tell. So I asked.
“Pakistani,” he said as if it was not my business.
I smiled and told him I had been to Pakistan. He nodded blankly. Not a word of English. I began to list off the various cities I had been too. Then finally one I had not. Karachi.
His home town. He smiled.
The Pakistani family living in the slum
Within minutes the whole family was out. The father in a shalwar Kamzee and quite fluent in English. As is customary for a guest, I was offered a meal. And, sat with them for a while. Customers came and went, all coming over to me for an introduction. Plus the odd question about why I was there.
Then, as each customer left. The non-english speaking shop owner either gave me a thumbs up, or down depending on his thoughts on a person.
All but one got a thumbs up. No one else mentioned this. But from my cross-legged position I could just about make out the area the axe wielding teenager was and I wondered if they had seen everything.
Moving deeper into the slums
The shelter from the heat and the rest felt good. I thanked the family and took a new route back into the depths of the slum. I was getting closer to the looming building blocks towering down on the settlement. I wondered how long the slum would be allowed to stay. Or when it was scheduled for demolition.
The slum workers build the expensive housing, then lose their own
The locals were once again full of smiles and waves. I was now passing through an Indonesian area it seemed. I stopped and generated as much simple conversation as I could. But although I was understood in some parts the whole question about the new buildings in the distance remained unanswered.
I thought back to West Africa during a demolition phase in my old neighbourhood. You couldn’t shut people up about it. But here, no one wanted to talk about it.
A different culture dealing with the same problem in a different manner.
A group of young kids caught my eye around another broken down wooden walkway. The main reason was that they were kicking up dust. It was solid ground. I’d made it through.
They were playing a game with small ringet coins. Something like throw the coin to the center of the square to win.
Faces from the past
From a small broken down box of a wooden structure a small face appeared. I again recognized the Filipina features. I approached, camera in hand. Then, from below a counter an old grey haired woman rose up. She groaned and winced at the pain from lying on the hard wooden floor.
“Hello Madam,” I said clearly. “Filipino no? I just came from there.”
She turned and smiled. All her questions answered before asking. She was fluent in English and very knowledgeable. I sat and talked with her for an hour. Her mother had arrived in Malaysia and now her son was working there ‘sometimes‘. Her other two children were in Singapore.
We talked about life in Sabah compared to the Philippines. She took life in Sabah to be much better.
“There’s work here. My children have a chance. In the Philippines we can do nothing.”
I listened and did not comment. It was her life not mine, and she explained it very well. Their dwelling was as basic as it got. A small 7×9 wooden box which by day seemed to serve as a meeting place for a bunch of local kids. There was a cooking area and a plastic sack by the corner beside which there was a hole for waste.
At night I imagined the dwelling was home to at least six people. That’s just the way it is.
She too called this place a slum. Her house in The Philippines had been much nicer. But, here, her family could eat and her children stood a better chance; at a better life.
Dinner in the slums of Kota Kinabalu
The old lady began preparing rice, a fish head and a little jar of what I called stink fish. I kind of dipping sauce of vinegar and fish that’s highly prized in the Philippines. It held pride of place on her shelf. And, she explained how it had come all the way from Palawan.
I knew what was happening, so made an excuse to leave. She needed the memory more than this passing traveler. I explained something about my bags waiting in my hotel. She nodded with a smile.
Leaving the slums behind …
Away from the water and the simple wooden houses standing above it, I was now surrounded by wire fences, cranes, flattened earth and dusty spaces. In a far corner there were locals pulling apart a heap of old wooden planks.
By the main road I turned back to see an orange dirt strip road splitting the towering new concrete structures and freshly painted apartment blocks from the tattered broken houses over the stagnant water.
Above me a plane few by, a memory of the river miners in Nepal flashed through my mind. An internal flight judging by the twin propeller engine. Shuttling tourists from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu.
Rising high by one of the fences was a giant 30 foot poster advertising an architects vision of the new development; soon to replace the slums.
A car roared by as I walked along the highway. The faint scent of summer fresh washing powder meadows drifting away. Now replaced with gas fumes and dry dusty air. Traffic lights blinking; I headed back into the concrete city.
Night life in Kota Kinabalu