KOTA KINABALU: Oil palm leaves to give shade from the sun shelters. A big rock as a desk. And surroundings of overgrown grass as walls. For a year, that has been a classroom to three young children of a far-flung village in Sabah’s northernmost Kudat district.
Rain or shine, Sharifah Sharizah has, without fail, taken the children on a hike up to a hilltop about 5km from their home, so that the children can attend online classes.
The internet signal is scarce-to-nil in Kampung Panikuan, a village tucked inside the Matunggong sub-district in Kudat.
The village is only accessible via a dirt road, which cuts through several hills as well as oil palm plantations and rubber estates, a 15-minute drive from the main road.
“There are a few other spots where the internet is available but the line is the strongest on that hill,” Sharifah told FMT.
While her children – Mohd Aiman Qusairey Mohd Laison, 10, and Nur Qaireen Mohd Laison, 8 – and nephew Mohd Amirul Zalizan, 12, follow their lessons, her youngest child, Nur Qairah, 2, keeps them company.
There is no one to watch after the child when Sharifah is not at home. Her husband is working in the neighbouring Kota Marudu district.
“We’ve been going to the hill so they can join the classes under the online teaching and learning programme (PdP) on every school day since the movement control order (MCO) in March last year.
“It’s a 20 to 30-minute walk, depending, so we have to start early because their classes begin at 7.20am,” she said, adding some teachers fortunately give some leeway on the starting time after learning of their predicament.
“It’s sad to see them studying in these conditions but there’s nothing much we can do until the authorities improve the connection here.”
Some other parents also take their children to the same hill, but not as frequently as Sharifah and her charges.
Some days, they are able to use a family car to the location, which cuts down the travelling time. But on rainy days, the road to the hill turns muddy, making it difficult for smaller vehicles to pass through.
“If this happens, we have to go to another location not too far away where there is reception but the line keeps slipping in and out,” Sharifah said.
“We won’t go on days when it rains too heavily but some teachers require the pupils to send in homework on a particular day so we still have to go out and hurry back because I don’t want Qairah to fall sick.”
She added the children use WhatsApp and Signal chat apps to send the work to the school.
Sharifah said the family could only afford one mobile phone to share between the children. Amirul was recently given a phone by his family so that makes it a little bit better but previously, all three children had to share one device.
“They take turns using the phone despite their classes all starting at the same time at 7.20am. So Aiman will use the phone first followed by Qaireen and then Amirul.
“Fortunately, the teachers understand our situation and allow each of them time for their classes. The teachers also face connection problems as many are themselves living in remote places,” she said.
To help the children kill time when they’re not on the phone, Sharifah brings home-cooked meals while also trying her best to guide them with work given by teachers.
They are at the hill up to at least 12.30pm every school day before they can go home.
Others facing a similar hardship could be forgiven if they feel hopeless and dejected but Sharifah is undeterred. In fact, she is even more determined so that her children will have a bright future.
“My boy (Aiman) constantly voices his frustrations over the whole thing but I always tell him, Qaireen and Amirul that there’s a silver lining to everything and they just have to keep working hard.
“I am not angry with our situation but my only request to the powers that be is to set up internet facilities in our village, not just for my kids but others too,” she said.