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Tijah Chopil of Malaysia: A vision of one heart

Tijah Chopil invented the phrase Sinui Pal Nanuk Sngik (SPNS) -- "New Life One Heart." It signifies that solidarity among Orang Asli will ensure a future for them. Tijah established SPNS as an organization in 1995, when she was 17 years old, to improve the life of the Orang Asli in West Malaysia.

Tijah is the sixth of 10 children. When her father died she was 12 years old, and her ailing mother needed her help in raising the younger children. Tijah soon began working mornings with an older sister as a rubber tapper, walking eight kilometers to work every day to help the family. She attended school in the afternoons. When her older sister fell ill, Tijah had to quit school to help out at home. Her two younger siblings couldn't attend school for lack of money, so Tijah taught them how to read and write. She soon started an evening kindergarten in her village.

Some village people criticized her at first for what they considered showing off. A government teacher from a nearby village even accused her of holding classes illegally and threatened her with arrest. None of this deterred Tijah. Today her organization has community education programs in four villages in the state of Perak and is starting programs in eight others, including three in the state of Negeri Sembilan. All of the teachers are volunteers and, as funds can be scraped together, are provided with training and supplies by Tijah and her helpers. The programs cover formal and informal education for children ages three through 12, informal education for youth groups, and for men and women (many with no prior education), and a special program for women's self-development.

Besides her many teaching initiatives, Tijah has collaborated with others in studying and reporting on the use of rainforest resources by Orang Asli women. She served as chairperson of the Indigenous Peoples' Network of Malaysia (Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia, or JOAS) for two years, the first Orang Asli and the first woman to hold that post. She is now deputy president.

In March 2001 she co-convened the National Conference on Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, jointly organized by JOAS and the Faculty of Law at the Universiti Malaya. The conferees pointed out that Malaysia's indigenous communities have mastered much knowledge about how plants and other biological agents are useful in treating illness and promoting health, as well as knowledge for sustaining the earth's resources. Malaysia's natural-products business sector has ignored their contributions. As Tijah pointed out at the conference, even the Malaysian Ministry of Health ignored the Orang Asli when it set up a program to organize Malaysian practitioners of traditional medicine. "Why were we not invited?" she asked. "You can't say that you don't know about the existence of Orang Asli herbalists or holders of knowledge of traditional medicine. That is impossible; history tells you about our existence and our dependence on the forest and its products, not only for food but for our medicinal needs as well." Tijah was concerned about this cold-shouldering; if Orang Asli could become part of the Ministry's drive to integrate traditional medicine into the government's health services, they could use their healing systems as participants in national life.

For too long Orang Asli have been marginalized, dispossessed, and derided in their ancient homeland. Tijah and other Orang Asli women are vocal supporters of their communities. This new generation provides much needed strength for advancing the welfare of their people.

Cultural Survival's Orang Asli Assistance Fund is intended to strengthen Orang Asli organizations, education, legal actions, health care programs, publicity and lobbying, and emergency assistance.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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