Danish Teacher Runs 56 Schools on Borneo

Ii is another busy day for Torben Venning. Driving a beaten up four-wheel-drive on roads which snake across vast oil palm plantations, Venning visits a school to see for himself if students are learning what they should, and if teachers need anything extra to make their lessons fun under difficult conditions.
Venning, a Dane who was born in Valby, Copenhagen, is half-the-globe away from home, putting his experience as a teacher to good use in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the northern part of Borneo island.
The year-long tropical climate with its blistering heat and high humidity does not stop Venning from pushing on and from finding ways to set up more schools, or learning centres as they are known, for the good of children of foreigners who toil the soil in Sabah.
He has been the backbone for the Borneo Child Aid Society, also known as Humana, for the last two-and-a-half years although his involvement dates back 16 years when it was set up in 1990, opening its first schools a year later.
“I took over from a friend, Peter Mathisen who needed to return to Denmark. I had been teaching immigrant children from Turkey and Somalia back home, and raising a family at the same time.
“I made up my mind and moved here to Sabah. I am happy here although it requires a lot of work, more so than a normal teaching job. My wife and two older children are in Denmark and I am in Sabah with the two younger children aged three and five years,”said Venning.
The 44-year-old Venning who studied Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, first developed an interest for community work when he went to Africa as a 20-year-old to work on a project.
The path of life eventually led him to Sabah, to help with the setting up of the Society.  From its humble start with three learning centres, the Society now runs 56 centres for the benefit of more than 3,500 children. In September alone, the Society opened five learning centres.
About 90 per cent of students are Indonesian, with Filipinos making up the rest. A small fraction of Malaysians whose parents work at plantations have also chosen to send their children to learning centres run by the Society, due to distance factors.
“Our challenge is to continue our work and to develop it further. We need to reach more children and to make sure they get quality education, and to encourage teachers continue to educate the children. 
“We don’t have the resources to monitor our teachers. Their motivation comes from the children who come to school every morning, and who expect the teacher to be there, to give them something. If the teacher is not there, there is no education. In our set up, there is only one teacher for about 50 children. Their ages vary, so teachers are also expected to educate up to six different levels within one classroom. They have managed to do a good job. I suppose when you have to, you find a way,” he said.
The Society only had about 70 teachers, a majority of them Filipinos, until recently when the Indonesian government agreed to send 51 teachers to help out.
“It is a big help for us now that we have the extra Indonesian teachers. It means that we can open up more learning centres, of course provided we have enough funding from corporate bodies and support from plantation companies,” he said.
He is keeping his fingers crossed on the promise that another 58 Indonesian teachers will arrive on Sabah’s shores by early next year, which on paper will give the boost to the Society to open up another 29 centres.
He said children are given reading and writing skills, and are also taught Science, Malay language, English and Mathematics. In fact, many of the children speak fairly good English, a bonus factor of having Filipino teachers.
“We educate our children based on the Malaysian curriculum and we are now integrating some subjects so that children can learn about the country their parents come from and where they are officially citizens. Even though many of these children are born in Malaysia, they will return home at some point with their parents.
“It is good for them to have some basic knowledge about their home country and what it means to be a citizen of Indonesia and the Philippines,” he said.
A plus factor for the Society has been the encouragement it has received from parents who come out in droves to help out in whatever way they can, especially when learning centres hold sports events.
“The first thing plantation workers tell their consulate officers is that school is priority for them. Our teachers maintain contact with parents so that they know what is happening at school,” he said.
And a far cry from the about USD7,500 it costs to educate one child in Denmark and the United States, it takes only USD75 to send one child to a Borneo Child Aid learning centre. This translates into a hundred children who can be educated at remote plantations for the price of one child in the two countries.
Wiping sweat from his forehead after visiting two learning centres, Venning said he hoped the work done by the Society would inspire others to do the same.
“I really hope our simple yet unique project will get others to do the same for marginalised children and those who may have been forgotten in other areas. We also hope we will continue to see good support from the private and corporate communities to further develop this project.
“What really matters is that children in plantations will have better opportunities in future,” Venning said.

To contact the Society, please email

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