Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Traditions endure in the Sarawak jungle

In colonial times the tribes of the Sarawak jungle, Malaysia, were known as fierce warriors.

The Iban people in particular were feared headhunters, keeping the heads of those they killed, and a successful warring tribe.

They lived in traditional longhouses; wooden buildings on stilts made up of one long communal room and several smaller rooms.

Each small room was home to one family and it was not unusual for 100 people to live in a single longhouse community. Although today the tribes no longer practise headhunting, many Iban people still live in traditional longhouses deep in the rainforest, their lives steeped in superstition.

These are the people I was about to meet, deep in the Sarawak jungle.

I set off on a journey to one of the most remote tribes by longboat, a wooden canoe holding three or four people with a driver controlling an outboard motor on the back.

The simple boat is the only way to reach the longhouse, which is surrounded by thick jungle and has no road access. The boat winds along the Engkari River and we eventually stop, clamber out and walk up a hill to the main longhouse.

Along the way there are chickens in wooden cages, a man making a fishing net by hand, rubber trees and fruit growing wild along the path.

Our guide Edward, who grew up in a longhouse, briefs us on rules to follow while we are there. There can be no taking photographs of children who are too young to have teeth, no shoes inside and no refusing to taste the local rice wine. He has also warned us beforehand to bring a gift the people here will love - lollies. Lots of lollies in fact.

The Iban people share everything between everybody who lives in the longhouse, so that means bringing enough lollies between us for 30 families. It is 10am and we are welcomed with smiles, friendly faces and shots of homemade whisky. We are invited to sit down and handed a glass of local rice wine to drink. It is thankfully nowhere near as rough as the whisky.

Next, the chief of the tribe appears, wearing a traditional costume with a shield and a sword. He welcomes us to the longhouse, with Edward acting as an interpreter, and performs a surprisingly elegant warrior dance. His slow graceful movements seem to be something from a time gone by. Other people in the longhouse perform music and a woman in traditional dress dances a similar routine.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Traditions endure in the Sarawak jungle

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