Till We Have Faces: Reflections on Paitan, Poverty, and Privilege

Paitan is a region in Sabah that is four-hours by car (on a good day) from Kota Kinabalu: three hours on the expressway and the other hour at 20km/h through the dirt tracks in the jungle. Uncle Alfred, Jonathan, and I arrive in Paitan in the midst of a drought. The area has seen little rain for months. The water tanks are half-filled and the river level has dipped. The three of us ration our water, and learn to bathe with a three-quarter full pail and still have some water left over to wash our clothes.

In the afternoons after lunch till 3.30PM (at the earliest), the temperature soars to a debilitating 38 degrees celsius. Moving about generates body heat and makes us sweat; lying down traps body heat and also makes us sweat. We sit around in our hut, trying to read or write, or do something else that we can convince ourselves is productive, lingering, sweltering in the warmth, waiting for time to pass.

Most villages in Paitan run on solar power. As the battery may not last through the night, we use oil lamps and torchlights. We also do not switch on the fan despite the heat; there are more important uses for electricity than for our comfort.

It is when night falls in Paitan that a kind of beauty rises. The darkness obscures the jarring blue water tanks, the crushed plastic bottles littered across the land, and the haphazard dwellings constructed of wood and aluminium. Untainted by the glare of street lamps, the stars are free to shine. Jon even saw a shooting star.

“Holy places are dark places,” observes the protagonist of Till We Have Faces, the book that I read in Paitan. “It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”


In the evenings during our trip, we pray the Vespers. We also pray the Compline at night and Lauds at dawn. Uncle Alfred is a military man; the Liturgy of the Hours is to Catholics what regimentation is to the army. He carries with him an entire altar: a crucifix, two tealight holders, matches, censers made of quick charcoal, and incense. Like Ralph Waldo Emmerson said, “Though we travel the world to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”

As the smoke wafts into the twilight, the harshness of the day also dissipates.

In the mornings and the later part of the afternoons, the children cross the sandy sun-cauterised field – Jonathan and I half-jokingly call this the ‘Scorch Trial’. They sit longingly in a bamboo shelter next to our hut, waiting for us to open our gate to tell them we are ready.


And when we are, they stream in, eager to learn and to receive whatever we have to share. On our first day in Paitan, Uncle Alfred asked the children if they enjoyed school. Their ‘yes’ was unanimous. On our last day (i.e. a school holiday on 2 May), we held a Mathematics revision class at 4.00PM. They began gathering with their notebooks and pens at 3.20PM.

In our 4 days in Paitan, we taught the children a new song, we conducted a session on the Holy Spirit, we held a party, we gave out clothes.

In the end, what did we achieve? What were the fruits?

When I signed up for this Paitan trip, I had no illusions. I was aware of the diatribes against voluntourism and one-trip wonders. So I never hoped to be any saviour, save to perhaps bring a few smiles to a few kids’ faces. We did that I think. This is the Starfish Argument: our inability to save every single starfish on the beach should not stop us from helping the few in whatever little way that we can.

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But beyond such feel-good efforts, I was also aware that I was going to Paitan for my own exposure and experience. In this regard, I had much more to receive than I would be able to give. In 4 days, I cannot change a system. I cannot alleviate poverty. I cannot even form a friendship.

After this trip, I am fully convinced of this: that the keys to tipping the cost-benefit scales in missionary and humanitarian work are sustained efforts and committed relationships. And these must happen in the field. Like Uncle Alfred says, “Mission must have a face.”

Enter in Sowers in God’s Name (“SiGN”). SiGN is our parish of St Francis Xavier’s (“SFX“) ministry for overseas missions. Distinguishing itself from the Church’s overseas humanitarian arm CHARIS, SiGN has a more pastoral focus: it aims to proclaim the Gospel in the field. In addition, SiGN’s other key mission is to inspire missionary zeal within SFX.

In 2010, a group of 20 made their first exploratory trip to Sabah. They were looking for a suitable place for SFX’s missionary work. At that time, no one had even heard of Paitan. The Montfort Youth Training Centre hosted the group, and brought them to various places in Sabah. There is poverty aplenty in Sabah. But it was only during a debrief session that the group crystallised their desire to reach out to the fringes of civilisation, to those whom no one was looking out for, to the “timbuktu places”.

“Paitan is what you are looking for,” the Montfort brother told the group.

In 2012, Uncle Alfred led the pioneer group of eight people up to Paitan. Since then, SiGN’s Core Team has led 15 trips (including this most recent one) to Paitan.


“I am really touched,” Sister Dorothy, the local Franciscan nun overseeing the Paitan region, told the Paitan III mission team (see this video at 5:14). “The first time you came, I thought you were just like any other visitors. You came and visited here and laughed and stayed a few days and [would] never [come] back. But you are here again. It seems you are very faithful to what you have said the first Paitan trip here, and on behalf of the parents and the children especially, a big thank you to all of you.”

Over the past four years, what SiGN has accomplished is astounding. With the voluntary donations received from SFX parishioners, SiGN has facilitated the construction of three kindergartens. Networks have been built and relationships have been nurtured (everyone recognises Uncle Alfred). Students have been sponsored for further education. Prayers and songs have been taught. The Crocs that we saw the children wear during this trip (and which serve them well in such terrain) had been brought up by the Paitan XII mission team.


In 2013, a SiGN mission team conducted a music camp for the children. The team brought a guitar and several ukuleles to Paitan, gave it to the children, and taught them basic chords and strumming patterns. Today, during Sunday services (there is no Mass because no priest comes to Paitan), a row of boys plays the ukuleles as the rest of the community sings along. Elwyn and Bronson, two 13-year-olds, have nurtured their guitar technique far beyond the seeds that SiGN had sown – the two boys can now play bass riffs and rhythmic taps.

If they had been SFX youths, we would have told them they are gifted in music, and we would have mentored them to play for praise and worship.

As in all things: the devil is in the details, critics can always find fault, money is the root of all evil. How exactly are the funds being used and accounted for? Why are the building and construction funds mixed with the infrastructure maintenance funds? Why are we spending money for foreign causes when we have needs at home?

There are other challenges all around. The problem of distribution plagues all charitable efforts, regardless whether one is giving away bags of clothes or billions of dollars. Anecdotes abound of how the locals have to quell the children’s unhappiness in the wake of our philanthropy, because one had received (or had perceived to receive) less than another.

Teaching a man to fish is also not as simple as it sounds. On an infrastructural level, teaching institutions cannot just be built, they have to be maintained. Uncle Alfred thus highlighted during this trip how kindergartens that SiGN had built just 3 years ago have started looking dilapidated. On a cultural level, it is insufficient for the children to want to learn; their parents must endorse their education as well. The local adults had thus challenged SiGN members before: why should they pay for one child to study when they cannot feed the others? If their children pursued education, and then went to the city to work, who would take care of them?


For me, the most crippling barrier was language. I had anticipated my ignorance of Bahasa Melayu to be a difficulty; I did not expect it to render me irrelevant. I could not play any videos or write any skit. I could not even ask the children questions and listen to their answers. All I could do was to smile, to gesture, to touch. It was unbearably frustrating. It was unbearably humbling.

I now see that I cannot assume that English is the lingua franca. I must aspire to be a polyglot – not just of major UN languages, but of indigenous vernaculars and patois. (I have since begun learning Sinhalese from Aunty Anula.) Because to pierce the immediacy of poverty and play, we have to dream, to imagine, to tell stories. And while there are other love languages, none are as precise as words.

Wesley (the kid at the top of the photo below) is 13 years old. He has bright eyes and he laughs easily. I am told that when a previous mission team had given out clothes some time ago, Wesley had donned on t-shirts under what he was wearing, in an attempt to procure more than what the team was giving to each kid. I am quickly assured that Wesley had not intended to steal. Wesley’s family is just not well off. (No one in Paitan is, but Wesley is even poorer than most.)


On the day that our team gives out clothes that we brought up, he does not appear. The first time I meet him, he is sitting outside our hut as he had arrived late for our games session. He only comes in to join the rest of the children when I go out to invite him in.

He is wearing an Arsenal jersey that day. He also later points out that Jon looks like ‘Lin Dan’ (I suspect he meant ‘Lee Chong Wei’), and sings the Korean song Nobody. The banes of globalisation clearly have much further reach than its boons.

I try to teach the children to play frisbee later that evening. I am not very successful, given my ignorance of Melayu. But to the extent that I am, Wesley picks up the game the fastest. When the bigger youths come out for their daily evening soccer, Wesley defects to them along with the older boys.


Late in the afternoon on Sunday, the children take us on a trek through the ladang. (That means ‘field’ in Malay, but the terrain is really more of a jungle.) Wesley alternates between trailing at the back to hang out with us and rushing up to the front to ambush us. A picturesque view awaits at the top of a hill, and a haunted house (so the kids say) on the way down.

At the end of the trek, we pass our bottles of water around (the kids brought none with them), and just sit together on the grass beside our hut. After a while, the children leave, some to bathe at the river.

On the flight back home, it seemed to me that the office life that I was returning to was less real, less solid, less substantial, than the thin slice of Wesley’s life that I had shared over the past few days. “Heaven is reality itself,” wrote CS Lewis in The Great Divorce. “All that is fully real is Heavenly.” No wonder then that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor.

At the end of my Taizé trip, I had asked myself: what am I doing with my life of privilege? I carried this question in my heart during this trip.

And through this trip, I have perhaps lived a little, just a little, into an answer.

“… For the poor embody Christ in a special way; they mirror for us his message of revelation, salvation, and conversion. And they are also a universal social reality.

Reason and faith merge, therefore, in confronting the reality of the poor. Reason must open its eyes to their suffering. Faith—which is sometimes scandalous to those without it—sees in the weak of this world the triumph of God, for we see in the poor what salvation must mean and the conversion to which we are called.”

– Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.



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About Mel

I dreamt I was a whale. https://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/about-mel/