Visiting young friends in the plantation

Children Human Rights Living

The heat wave is stifling hot in Malaysia. My friends in Thailand report the same, though the humidity here is crushing – suffocating which drains the energy and leaves one hallow. My journey took me to a plantation, some 17 kilometers from a small town called Bagan Lalang. The palm oil plantation was almost in the middle of nowhere, the weather was terrible.

Surrounded by tall trees and ferns, I walked with my young guide, armed with a backpack and my mobile phone. Wasn’t much to see if you’re comfortable with the luxury of the city but I have always been fascinated with the rural environment. Swarm of insects accompanied us, must have been a few species united in a buzzing harmony. Thirst followed suit.

What trives in a plantation are the workers who break their backs in hardship and extreme poverty. Little do people know that the small community have no place to go. They live, they work, they eat, they bathe, they die in the plantations. Regardless of what you might have read, rural poverty starts in the plantations, the fishing villages, and the indigenous homes. These days many Malaysians employ migrant workers from South Asia and also from Indonesia – labour is cheap, the work is brutal and thus the locals avoid the hardship.

I visits two makeshift huts where out-of-school, marginalized young people live and work. Child labor is common in isolated places in Malaysia – whether urban or rural – life is tough for the kids. They appeared dirty and tired but greeted me with smiles and firm handshakes. That was my sixth visit so I recognized them but detecting a couple of new faces in the background. They are not only caught in the vicious cycle of poverty but also many are using drugs or substances (sniffing glue). Smoking heroin was their drug of choice. Why are the kids in such a dump? Simply because society doesn’t care enough about ‘troublesome kids’ especially adolescents who were taking drugs.

The huts were in terrible condition, and clean drinking water was in short supply not to mention their lack of capacity to buy food. I believe in harm reduction principles and practices and thus my presence at their turf was merely to check on their health, make referrals, counseling and talk about addiction. I do what I can to equip them with life skills, and help them problem-solve on financial and family related issues – many still want to go back to their families but are unable to do so because of societal prejudice and the stigma.

They are responsible young people, the youngest being 15 years old and the oldest at 23. They divide responsibilities, look after each other the best that they can. So far so good. Spent hours talking and laughing with them. Enjoyed the moments despite the blistering humidity. I do what I can but lack resources to effectively improve their quality of life. Social work has always been my passion, a calling, the need to help the poor, the vulnerable and those damned by society because of ignorance and prejudice.

I left their homes, engrossed in my thoughts, always with the feeling that I could do more for them.


An avid blogger, twitterer and photojournalist, Zashnain Zainal suffers from an incurable addiction to social work, helping marginalised communities since 1989. Nowadays he travels from the plantations of Malaysia to the slums of Thailand. He can be found at and @bedlamfury

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