Hands that Tell a Story
Who are the grassroots of Malaysia, and do they matter? We took a 10,000-step journey to find the grassroots of Malaysia and learnt some lessons
from different people.
WE RUDELY WOKE A MAN UP from his slumber on a blistering Monday afternoon in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. Clad in an orange jersey and jeans, he was taking a nap on a concrete bench under a shady tree next to a mosque at the busy intersection.
“Sir, can we take a photo of your hands for a project we’re doing?” He opened his eyes gently. We thought we rudely woke him up.
Instead, he sat up calmly, although his box of cigarettes tumbled off his lap. He could have chased us away, but he smiled and listened.
“We’re from an NGO, and we would like to take pictures of the different hands and palms of people in Malaysia. This is to show what various hands look like because everyone has a different job, and we want to show what different hands look like.”
“Sure,” he said and gladly offered his hands for the photo. Razif worked as a road sweeper, and today was a rest day from his labour.
We are from Akar Umbi Development Society. We are a new organisation that aims to work with the marginalised grassroots communities that lack equal opportunities in society. Today, we went out on foot to speak to people at the grassroots level.
Hands that care for others
A man in dishevelled clothes, long unkempt hair and holding two bottles of what looked like ice tea stood outside a stall by the main road. We paid some attention to him, and he was noticeable.
We approached the stall to take a photo of one of the three ladies manning the operations. Packed with customers, the ladies were on the beat, busy making drinks and plating nasi lemak. Hana, however, was willing to model her hands for our photoshoot. She was the owner of the stall and made time for us.
My colleague and I decided to sit and order drinks while we planned the rest of our day in Kampung Baru. Suddenly, we heard a little commotion. A man on a motorbike pulled up, asking the unkempt man to stop bothering the stall and get on his bike to go home. It was his brother on the bike. But Hana and the ladies hollered to the brother and said, it’s okay; he is thirsty, and we’re just preparing some drinks for him. Just let him be.
Within that few minutes, it hit us. Hana’s stall wasn’t just the place that sold good nasi lemak and iced tea. It was a place that served anyone in need. Caring for someone different from you even when they cannot return the favour demonstrates genuine empathy and care. Hana’s hands showed us what hands that care for others look like. If we took photos of the other ladies’ hands behind the counter, I’m sure we would have seen identical prints.
Hands that build others
Several thousand steps later, we met Zab. He was interested in our work with marginalised communities. He shared about how he hires people from marginalised communities to work with him. But because there is no legal framework that recognises their rights to work for some, he has had several challenging encounters with the authorities.
“How can they survive, if they cannot work?” he laments.
Asylum-seekers and refugees are examples of marginalised people because they have no legal status here in Malaysia, and as a result — no safety and means of supporting themselves. Many refugees in Malaysia covet documentation from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) because that is the closest thing to being legally recognised here. With documentation from the UNHCR, at least they have some freedom of movement.
The photo of Zab’s hands gave us a glimpse of his heart. Like very few others, he was doing something to address the problem of unequal opportunities. Refugees can work, but they are denied their rights to work and not given the opportunities to do so.
Zab showed us what hands that build others look like.
Hands that serve others
Our feet killed us, and our thirst grew. But a crate of 150 coconuts caught our attention. Arif was operating the coconut stall and sold a cup of cold fresh coconut water for RM3. For RM5, the whole coconut — scraped and emptied of its flesh and juice, packed into a plastic bag, ikat tepi.
“It takes 2 days to sell a crate of 200 coconuts,” he said. But when the Covid vaccinations were happening nearby, he could easily sell all 200 coconuts in a day because people would buy the drink right after taking their jabs. Coconut water is believed to increase one’s immunity.
Two hundred coconuts in a day would mean a revenue of RM1,000 daily.
“We pay about RM2.50 per coconut from the supplier, but it’s still a profit. How can you run a business without making a profit?” He laughed away. Yes, it would be charity in that case.
Arif showed us the hands that serve. These hands are industrious, enterprising, and ready to serve others with a smile.
Hands that make change happen
Hamid is a 34-year-old gentleman who obliged us when we asked to photograph him. He is from Myanmar and works to support his family. He has three children, and the eldest is 14 years old. Hamid sells vegetables. He was one of the few non-Malaysians we met who didn’t shy away from us. Instead, he was confident, contented and readily laid his palms for us to photograph. Here are a pair of palms that made change happen for himself, his family, and others like him.
Razif was another Malaysian who participated. When we spotted him, he was donning a road sweepers uniform and was filling a pail of water at a house next to the walkway. We interrupted him and asked if we could speak to him. Razif acknowledged us but disappeared into a pondok as if to avoid us. But then he emerged holding a broomstick and dustpan and started to sweep the leaf-laden walkway. He wanted us to take photos of that. He may have assumed we showed up to look into the cleanliness of the area.
It was clear that Razif took pride in his work. He swept for a few minutes, cleared up a mess of dried leaves, and we chatted a little about life and family. Keeping the streets clean was how he used his hands. Both Hamid’s and Razif’s hands tell us that change is possible when you keep working at it.
When we started our journey this morning, we didn’t expect to interact with so many interesting people with a lot to share. Many nuggets of wisdom were lavished on us, but so little time to take it all in. One of the lingering questions that remained was: “What about our hands? What are we using it for?”
Like some of the others above, we want to use our hands to help others. To build people up, to care unconditionally, and to make change happen. We have an opportunity presented to us in the form of Akar Umbi, our new organisation that aspires to develop stronger communities. But the starting point is not about us and what we want to do. It is about the communities and what they aspire to become. Today was the start of that journey.
Not everyone we spoke to or photographed were marginalised or deprived of equal opportunities. Nonetheless, they were people at the grassroots level who were merely carrying out their tasks, duties, and daily jobs and were happy to talk about it.
I realised that people have a story to tell. Perhaps, everyone has a way of making sense of their everyday lives and about matters that impact others.
Some resonated with the vision of eliminating marginalisation in society when we talked about our new organisation. Some demonstrated it live before our eyes — without realising we were taking notice. This simple adventure has undoubtedly strengthened our resolve to develop stronger communities through Akar Umbi.
We learnt that the future is in our hands, but so is the present. What we do with our hands today makes a difference today and tomorrow. The 10,000 steps today were steps in the right direction.