Team yuKnights is made up of 20 student volunteers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National Institute of Education (NIE). Sponsored by the Youth Expedition Project (YEP) and the National Youth Council (NYC), the team made their way to a rural settlement of Yunnan, China in 2011 as part of a humanitarian and cultural exchange expedition in June.
This expedition lasted for 10 days and was part of the yuKnights’ initiative to improve and alleviate the living and learning conditions of the inhabitants of Yang Tzai village, a rural, inland Muslim village, about five hours’ drive away from Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan. During the 10 days, the team focused mainly on three key areas – education, construction and cultural exchange.
For education, the yuKnights conducted basic English, Arabic and, also, hygiene classes for the children of Yang Tzai. The children were taught simple English conversational phrases and skills such as saying “Hello” and to answer the question, “How are you?” with the appropriate response of, “I’m fine”. The children were especially receptive towards the hygiene classes where they were taught how to brush their teeth and the importance of hand sanitisation.
At the same time, the yuKnights distributed teaching aids to the local teachers and shared with them methods which may improve their students’ engagement in learning.
Initially, there were communication barriers that the yuKnights had to overcome, by virtue of the lack of English that the villagers possessed as well as the generally-low Mandarin proficiency levels of the yuKnights members. To exacerbate matters, the villagers had their own local intonation and unique dialectical phrases which made even our few proficient Mandarin speakers in the group confused!
However, this communication barrier did not prevent the villagers from reaching out to us and us to them. Indeed, the universal values and understanding of respect and love for your fellow Man are understood in all languages and by various other means. The happiness and simplicity of their lives shone through their smiles and was seen in their sincere greetings of “Assalamualaikum” (May Peace Be Upon You) to the team countless times over the span of a day.
The yuKnights construction team were pleasantly surprised by the quality of work done by the village’s own construction and painting team on the village’s school building. They were initially apprehensive about the management of work and time for painting during the short 10 days, but to their surprise, the school had already been nicely primed. All the team had to do now was to paint the walls of the three classrooms on the second level and to create murals for each classroom.
Although there was a need for a major change in design for the exterior wall mural, the process of drawing and painting for the classrooms went smoothly, with minor modifications made when needed. In fact, the villagers who trooped upstairs to sneak a peek at the team’s work often gave thumbs-ups and huge smiles to the painters who were hard at work, giving the team a sense of immense satisfaction in being a part of this change in the villagers’ lives. There was also a need to impart Islamic aspects into the design of the classrooms. Hence, the team did stencils of “Bismillah” above the classroom blackboards, and painted Arabic numerals, alphabets and the Ka’bah, among other designs.
As for the cultural exchange, the yuKnights introduced to the village children simple games such as Zero Point – which the children actually knew prior to our introduction and were quite an expert at! The team also organised a carnival for the villagers, which included stations on balloon-making, henna-drawing and hijab-donning. The buzz created for the carnival meant that the team had to move the event to another village which had a bigger school compound to accommodate the higher number of visitors from neighbouring villages.
The carnival on the whole, had both positive and negative impacts on all the teammates. The stations were hugely popular among the villagers, and the audience enjoyed the team’s dikir barat performance. The downfall of the carnival came from the distribution of donated clothing. Miscommunication, inadequate planning, the unexpected high number of visitors and perhaps most importantly, not understanding the culture of these underprivileged villagers were possibly what caused the carnival to spiral out of hand. Despite these shortcomings, the team emerged stronger than ever, with an increased appreciation of the plights of the villagers and the intuitiveness of the team members.
On the last day of the team’s stay in Yang Tzai, the team initiated an aqiqah sacrificial ritual and served the villagers one of Singapore’s local dishes, mutton curry, together with an assortment of kacang and other snacks in the traditional Indian cone – both of which were great hits with the villagers. A skit of the legend of The Legend of Redhill and a repeat performance of the dikir barat were presented to the Yang Tzai villagers.
The yuKnights’ farewell with the villagers was a very bittersweet one. The villagers of Yang Tzai had created a huge impact on the team, and they had imparted, “the Islamic values of life and the appreciation and love for humanity”, as what one member, Nur Syazwani Bte Sadan, noted.
The team hopes that the villagers too, have a better understanding of Muslims in Singapore. As for the team members themselves, this was what some of them had to say about their experiences in Yang Tzai Village,Yunnan, China:
“Optimism is important, because it gave me the drive to continue with what was planned or smile and keep calm in the face of setbacks. To always have a sense of curiosity is important because it allows us to explore and learn more about a culture. Where possible, always ask questions to the locals or guides to learn more about a culture.” –Nurul Wahidah
“The sight of kids brings joy. They are soothing to the eyes and soul. Seeing them play and learn makes me hope one day that they become fine Muslims.” – Muhammad Asyraf Bin Ahmad
“Setbacks are inevitable, but there is a need to receive them with an open heart and mind and to create the best learning point out of them.” – Nur Shahidah
“Despite the huge gap in income per person, the villagers are generally happy with life. As Singaporeans, our lifestyles are very different because we are generally living in a knowledge-based economy in which our income is driven by our level of skill and knowledge. Looking back at the lifestyles of the villagers in Yang Tsai is refreshing and I tend to be grateful for any single luxury which I could have overseen back when I am in Singapore.” –Zameer Nasir
“I felt the silaturrahim between the team members when we lived and worked together for the whole 2 weeks and realise that in such a big group, every person still plays an important role.” –Rasiah Kamsani
YuKnights is a group of undergraduates from NTU/NIE who embarked on a journey to Yang Tzai Village, China in the quest of igniting dreams, uniting passions.