LONG ago, while looking for game deep in the jungle, an Iban hunter saw a pair of orang-utans on top of a tall tree called perawan.
The female orang-utan was giving birth while the male was crushing the roots of some plants.
When the Iban hunter passed under the tree where the orang-utans were nesting, some chunks of roots fell on him.
“What are these things?” he asked.
He took a sniff but could not tell what the roots were.
The hunter was not put off, however. He took the roots back to his longhouse and planted them. And in time, the roots yielded what is known ginger.
When the hunter’s wife gave birth, he applied the ginger on her body — like he saw how the orang-utan was doing.
According to Kebong Manggum of Rumah David Ujan, Ng Sepaya (Ulu Engkari), that was how the Ibans learned about the medicinal values of ginger and the knowledge was passed down and is still being used to these days.
The story of how the Ibans learned to use ginger as a medicine is featured in one of the 37 folktales of Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang, collected in the book titled Ensera Mayas Enggau Bansa Iban — Orang-utan folklore and the Iban Communities.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in its involvement with the Iban communities and conservation works at Batang Ai, discovered that not only the Iban communities in the two areas — Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang — are different, their folklores handed down the generations are also distinct from other Iban communities in Sarawak.
While the Ibans from the other areas may regard orang-utans, especially those encroaching onto their gardens, as food, their counterparts of Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang treat the primates as relatives and forefathers.
This is one of the reasons a significant number of the great apes is still found in the two areas.
Folktales in Iban
The book was produced after many interviews. All the 37 folktales, presented in Iban language, depict the close relationships between the orang-utans and the Iban communities of Ulu Menyang and Ulu Enkari, the two tributaries of Batang Ai.
According to the folktales, the Iban communities in these two places not only learned how to use ginger from the orang-utans, but also let their women folk give birth naturally.
Before this, husbands used to cut open the stomachs of their wives to deliver newborns. So for every new life, a mother had to pay with her life.
“There are also tales of orang-utans changing into men and women and married the local Iban folks. It is, thus, not surprising the Iban communities here regard orang-utans as relatives or ancestors.
“It is also the belief of the communities that whenever their ancestors passed on, they would reincarnate as orang-utans and come back to visit them as orang-utans.
“So unlike the Iban communities in other areas, those in Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang have for centuries lived side by side with the orang-utans. It is taboo for them to hurt or hunt orang-utans,” said Now Sidu, one of the four writers of the book.
Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Keeping alive folktales of orang-utans.