In the centre of the big hall, the monkeys congregate. They circle their latest victim – a boy – and lure him in with promises of acceptance and fun. At the front of the room, a different scene unfolds. Young elephants stand in a line, reluctantly listening to yet another lengthy recollection by one of their elders.
In a corner of the same hall, three young boys in matching green school T-shirts and black tracksuits sit in a small circle, engaged in conversation with a young university student. Here, it’s just another night of rehearsals at the School of The Arts in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang.
From something that started out as a short-term grant by USM to introduce arts and culture to refugee children, a huge, full-scale musical production of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved classic The Jungle Book has taken shape.
Project director Dr Pravina Manoharan herself is amazed at how big the Jungle Book, The Musical project has grown.
“In July 2017, I received a grant from the university to introduce music, arts and drama to Rohingya refugee children – to give them a platform to express themselves and find their voice,” says Pravina, who is also the Music Department head of the School of Arts.
“The outcome was always aimed at being one production and we initially planned for it to be a Rohingya-based work that told their story. That idea has morphed into a grand musical with 12 original songs, celebrities attending and 34 people on stage!”
After months of research, Pravina and two colleagues began weekly and bi-weekly visits to Penang Peace Learning Centre (PPLC) in Minden Heights – a school for Rohingya children who are all unable to enrol in mainstream schools due to their refugee status.
A few short months later, the team began bringing the students over to USM for their scheduled meet-ups, as both space and facilities in PPLC are severely limited. Sessions started with the very basics of music and the arts as the children and researchers got to know one another.
“We started with movement and rhythm and moved on to language with rhythm, and then, eventually, dance,” says Pravina.
This progression may sound logical and simple, but working with the children revealed unique challenges. Their ethnic music, culture and even native language have long been suppressed by the Myanmar government so dancing was quite foreign to many of them.
“Generally, they have very little exposure to the arts. Although they do have songs and music in their homes, it’s not something that they are actively involved in. So their bodies are not conditioned to remember the moves. Compared with Malaysian children, it takes them a bit longer to remember routines,” she says.
Every step in the dance sequences had to be broken down to their most basic level.
Language and insecurities
Teachers at PPLC agreed to the project on one main condition – that English be given a priority in the collaboration to raise the children’s proficiency in the language. Most Rohingya children here speak their native Arakan language at home but are taught Bahasa Malaysia in school and speak it with their friends.
“Some of the kids, especially the younger ones, can’t read yet. So when it came to the script, it was done by rote – imitating how my mouth is shaped and where the tongue is positioned to say the words,” says Pravina.
The painstaking process has paid off, however, to the delight of Pravina and project artistic director Dr Mumtaz Begum Aboo Backer.
“Some of the Rohingya kids pronounce English words better than our USM students!” says Mumtaz, adding that they sometimes had to instruct the older kids to imitate the pronunciation and diction of the younger ones.
The steady exposure to English has also given an amazing boost to the children’s confidence in speaking the language. Many can now understand and answer simple questions in English, as well as the instructions called out by stage hands, makeup artists and other members of the crew, and the cast.
Putting the musical together
Unlike many school projects where parents diligently send their children for rehearsals (and sometimes, wait outside), transport is fully borne by Pravina and grant research assistant Melissa Gomez, who take turns fetching the Rohingya children from their homes for practice three times a week.
“Our wonderful media team from Alpha Seed, who have volunteered their services to this project pro bono, arranged for a van for us to pick up the children,” says Pravina.
“We still have to be extra careful security-wise, because God forbid if something happens or we are stopped, we have to be able to explain why we have a van full of refugee children.”
PPLC staff also played a crucial role by – at the request of the parents – sending a teacher to supervise every rehearsal. On top of all these extraordinary challenges in producing a stage production, the issue of overcoming the children’s inherent cautious streak needed to be factored in.
“They are very introverted and acceptance is a big issue. Even when these children go to the local playground, they are not accepted and have been asked to leave. Malaysian kids actually tell them: This is not your playground,” says Mumtaz.
The idea that they don’t belong follows the children constantly. “When they first came to USM, they were very, very cautious about whether they would be asked to leave. They constantly wondered why they were being accepted here,” she adds. Over time, those feelings have diminished.
Penang Peace Learning Centre
In many ways, it’s hard for these kids to not feel different. Their school – an old double-storey house in Minden Heights that is in dire need of repairs – is located directly opposite a towering public school.
Sights and sounds from children running around the vast field across the street cannot be missed by kids at PPLC who play in a small compound, which has just two old footballs.
Muhd Zulfadhly Zainal, one of two full-time teachers at the centre, says the school was first established in 2013 by Prof Dr Kamarulzaman Askandar and a team of students as a project under a course offered by the School of Social Sciences in USM.
From a weekend school, classes opened full time on weekdays in just under a year later and is registered under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur.
It is one of about only eight schools in the state to be formally certified, though about 50-odd learning centres for Rohingya children are believed to be operating in Penang – many as tahfiz or religious schools.
Only one refugee school in Penang offers a secondary school syllabus (Rohingya Education Centre, or REC, in Permatang Pauh), so older students tend to abandon schooling early.
The PPLC currently has children aged between five and 14, with the majority of students in the eight to 12 range; all were born on Malaysian soil.
Muhd Zulfadhly, who came to work at PPLC after doing his university internship at the school, has been here three years. Pursuing a masters degree in USM under Kamarulzaman’s supervision, Muhd Zulfadhly admits that times are tough for PPLC.
With four classes and only two full-time teachers, the centre is grateful for the help of five volunteers who teach the children English. More part-time teachers are at the top of the school’s wishlist, second only to aspirations of a more stable financial situation.
With the centre running solely on donations, its accounts are often in the red as it struggles to come up with the monthly RM5,000 needed to pay for rent, utilities and school supplies.
“Rent eats up the most of our expenses. The greatest gift would be to get a permanent place for the kids,” says Muhd Zulfadhly.
The house they currently operate in contains four rooms upstairs – one store room, a small library and two classrooms. Downstairs, aside from the living room which has been repurposed for learning, there is also a kitchen with cupboards and bare shelves.
Food is not provided for the kids here as there is just no money for it, and lunch – either at home or in the case of a sweet 13-year-old girl seen at the centre cooking one precious packet of instant noodles in an old ice cream container – is prevalently the first meal of the day for the children.
“When they’re able to pick up the studies, I’m happy. A lot of the kids here want to learn, they’re just not always given the opportunity,” says Muhd Zulfadhly.
As refugee children are not permitted to enrol in public schools, a path towards better employment and adequate living conditions is hard but not impossible, he expounds.
The bare necessities
Jungle Book, The Musical by USM, the final product of a two-year grant by the university, could not have come at a better time for PPLC. Faced with severe financial constraints, the centre was holding on until the end of the year to see if it could continue to operate.
Muhd Zulfadhly says aside from the proceeds of ticket sales that will be channeled to the school, the centre hopes to use the musical as a platform to create awareness on PPLC’s existence and hopefully, set the ball rolling for other fundraising endeavours.
“When the children get to go out and learn and experience new things, you see a personality change in them. They’re proud to be able to do things that they previously thought they couldn’t do,” he says.
In terms of Jungle Book, The Musical, those things include dancing, singing, acting and even rapping – a newfound talent that caught the attention of USM researchers.
A total of 12 PPLC children will perform in Jungle Book, The Musical, alongside USM staff and students and a number of outside actors.
Two Rohingya boys – Muhammad Ramadan Hashim and Ahmad Ali Hassan – will play the principal role of the man-cub Mowgli on the first two days while a young Malaysian girl, Angelina Deborah Koh Ze Tyng, will fill the role on the final performance day.
“Gender equality! When we were casting Mowgli, we felt that the Rohingya actor playing the part would need to work with someone his or her own age to interact with, understand the role and learn from.
“Many of the other Rohingya children also have speaking roles and each is accompanied by an older actor who trains them and will be nearby on stage for support,” says Pravina.
Surprise support from outside is also flowing in, with actor and TV host Elaine Daly and former beauty queen and activist Deborah Henry set to attend the Sept 6 show, while legendary singer-composer Datuk Zainal Abidin is also voicing his support for the project.