Living and dead share the same space at Kampung Chawan

Urban poverty is everywhere to be seen in Kampung Chawan.

By Nancy Nais

KUCHING, July 31: Urban poverty exists everywhere, although on different levels, from poor to rich countries including Sarawak.

One can recognise it in substandard living conditions and incomes along with lacking provision of basic needs such as clean water and electricity.


Located barely 500 metres away from one of the latest shopping malls in Kuching city, a colony of about 50 families, comprising the living and deceased, quietly hide on a piece of land located at Jalan Chawan.

When DayakDaily visited Kampung Chawan, the friendly villagers who are mostly Ibans from central Sarawak areas, said they moved from their respective rural hometowns to seek for better lives, job opportunity and education for their children in the city.

However, when they arrived, many of them had no place to stay, and their only choice was to find a place to squat and live in poverty.

The living and the deceased exist side by side.

The conditions inside these slums are nothing to boast about.

The makeshift wooden houses are extremely congested with limited — if not dangerous — access to water, sanitation, electricity and other council services like garbage collection, which can lead to a large-scale epidemic if sanitation is not adequately addressed.

There is no drainage and sewerage system, causing a bad odour to permeate the whole area and create mosquito breeding grounds.

The residents are also vulnerable to fire hazards, storms and other natural disasters.

One of the villagers, Gani Jantan said some of them have been living there for over 30 years due to the earlier migration by the older generation who moved from rural areas to Kuching.

“We sought jobs in Kuching and once we landed one, we brought our whole family to stay together. We could not leave our parents or children behind. Then one family followed another and over a period of time, the colony grew bigger,” he said.

Gani (without shirt) with a few residents speaking to DayakDaily.

Due to poverty, those who died also ended up being buried on the same piece of land.

They are unable to send their deceased loved ones back to their respective home village, so they bury them next to their house.

Many old and relatively new graves can be clearly seen from the main road and entrance to this village.

According to Gani, those who are buried here are a mix of their village folks and outsiders.

Apparently the land where they are staying on now belongs to Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU) and it is meant to be a burial ground.

But over over the years, Gani said those from rural village slowly moved in and built makeshift houses next to it.

“Some of these people (the dead) are not from this village. They come from other parts of the city, but they are buried here,” he said.

Lack of access to sanitation infrastructure and services pose a hazard to residents.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) Sarawak commissioner Associate Prof Dr Madeline Berma, who recently described Kampung Chawan as an example of urban poverty asked, “Is this what we call development?”

“We are not talking about just the Ibans, but overall the Dayaks in Sarawak. They migrated to the city in search of a better life. Ironically, the hope for better lives in the city is now forcing them to share the cemetery with the dead.

“We need to create a consciousness for all. This is not just a problem for the government, but everyone in the community has the role to play, to help address urban poverty,” Madeline said when contacted.

She promised that she will look into this matter and discuss it with relevant authorities including non-governmental organisations.

There are several squatter colonies in the city, such as those at Kampung Siol, Kampung Kudei, Kampung Chawan, Segobang Batu Kawah, Kampung Surik Stapok and the Desa Wira riverbank area.

As DayakDaily toured the village with Gani, it looked very much like the embodiment of the saying that ‘a city is a great place for the poor to seek better opportunities, only to end up poorer’. — DayakDaily