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  • Writer's pictureNeill Mckee

Russell Johnson, the Oldest Malaysia CUSO Volunteer, 1974

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Excerpt on Russell Johnson from Chapter 13 of Finding Myself in Borneo

Canadian volunteers usually took two-year assignments. One of the most interesting short-term postings we made was Russell Johnson, a 75-year-old hardwood sawmill expert from Northern Ontario. We sent him into the West Malaysian highlands to help the Orang Asli (aboriginals) set up and operate a sawmill donated by the Canadian government. He had retired and was seeking adventure and relief from boredom. His wife, Maud, wanted to stay put in Sault St. Marie. He already had been to East Africa on a similar mission. Surprisingly, I don’t think Africa was quite as tough as the highlands of West Malaysia, where he spent over a month.

The Orang Asli are Proto-Malays—Austronesians who arrived thousands of years before the Malays. It’s not really known, but they probably came to the Malayan Peninsula around the same time as the Kadazans, Muruts, Ibans, and Dayaks reached Borneo. When the Malays arrived, they killed or captured many OrangAsli as slaves and drove others deep into the highland jungles. Like the story of aboriginals all over the world, they remain near the bottom of the economic ladder in Malaysia. Enter Russell Johnston and the sawmill.

I arrived at Russell’s highland station one cold and drizzly evening. After talking with him for some time, I learned he was making slow progress. All sorts of bureaucratic impediments had been placed in his way. He also looked a bit gaunt, so I enquired what was ailing him.

Russell answered, “Well, you see, Neill, I haven’t eaten much in days. I feel kind of weak, actually.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Well, the food ain’t so good. In fact, it’s pretty godawful.”

“What are they feeding you?”

“Same old thing, day after day. Some rice and a few fried vegetables and some meat that’s hard to chew. I think I’m losing weight.”

I grew concerned. “No variation at all?”

“No, in fact the lady, or maybe it’s a man, not sure, who brings me the food never changes the rice.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it comes to me cold and the first time it came I wasn’t hungry enough to eat much. I just took a few spoonfuls off the top. Then it came back the next day with the same spoon marks. I knew the dents I made. I thought that it was queer but then, by golly, if it didn’t come back three days in a row. Same bowl of rice!”

“That’s awful,” I sympathized. Just then, the cook came in with drinks. Right away, I figured she was an Orang Asli transgender person. I asked her a few questions and quickly established the problem. She spoke little English, so Russell couldn’t complain directly and he didn’t want to offend—a good Canadian. I decided to take Russell back with me to KL to restore his health and negotiate with the Orang Asli administration for better food and support for his mission.

We had a great week with Russell as a guest. He gained weight and we gained many stories on his work in the Northern Ontario bushland and in Africa. He went back to the highlands to complete his mission successfully, taking along a carton of food in case he had to face more bowls of stale and dented rice.

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