A day in the life of a longhouse

Maxine Rose Schur spends an illuminating day and a night with the former headhunters of Borneo.

Published June 2, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Suddenly the Engkari river becomes shallow. Our pelvis-wide longboat is wedged between rocks with turbulent waters eddying all around. One good bang against these rocks would capsize us. At the back of the boat, the pilot cuts the engine and at the bow the barefoot oarsman stands and pushes his pole against the rocks to free us. With a gondolier's grace, he prods and pokes us slowly through the passage. With the motor now silent, we can hear the electric buzz of insects and the musical calls of the broadbills ringing through the jungle like doorbells. When at last we're free, the pilot restarts the engine and our narrow ironwood boat weaves through the sun-sparkled river -- a needle through silk.

We're a small group of adventurers -- a photographer named Patrick, myself and our tribesman-guide -- sailing into the heart of Borneo. This morning we are heading toward the Stamang longhouse, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, where we are to be guests of the Iban tribe, Borneo's former headhunters. I don't know exactly what to expect, but I have heard that these people once infamous for their fierceness are now renowned for their hospitality.

The narrow green river is sinuous as a snake. Above us the hills loom lush with a thick green rug of secondary rain forest: red-bark meranti, eutika, ironwood, rattan and palm. Some of the hills show the legacy of recent logging: a scattering of tree stumps rising up haphazard and gray as old tombstones. Other hills have been terraced in semicircular green steps and planted with mountain rice. Along the river's edge, large ferns tangle mysteriously, and every now and then we pass enormous red blooms of rhododendrons and the beautiful pianggu fruit whose heavy pink-orange globes bow their branches nearly into the water.

We round a bend in the river and are greeted by Iban children in prim blue school uniforms washing their white enamel lunch plates in the river. In the shadow of their wooden schoolhouse, the children smile and with suntanned arms wave their plates in greeting.

The river narrows even more and gleams like glass in the dappled sunlight. The air is sweat-hot as we glide through a tunnel of foliage. From the highest branches creepers cascade to the ground like waterfalls. I'm so enchanted with this unfamiliar tropical world that I lose track of time -- and all of a sudden we dock.

We're face to face with a man in a loincloth whose body, except for his chest, is blue with tattoos. Dragons, scorpions, crocodiles, prawns, ferns and flowers flow over his throat, back, arms and legs. He appears to be in his late 50s, although his toddler mouth shows only two lower teeth. I know at once that he is the Tuai Rumah -- the chief -- for he wears a headdress of pheasant feathers and is followed by an assembly of royals. The entourage includes his sister, a plump woman in a black flowery sarong whose royal status is evidenced by her gold necklace and the tattoos that encircle her elbows; the chief's wife, a thin, quiet-looking woman; and the shaman, a lean, older man, small as a fifth-grader.

"Hallo!" the chief calls to us.

"Hallo!" we call back.

"Hallo," he calls again, making the greeting sound like a command. "Hallo! Hallo! Hallo!"

Leading his retinue, the Tuai Rumah turns and ascends a notched tree trunk up to the bamboo verandah of the longhouse, where straw mats are piled high with peppercorns set out to dry. We follow, climbing the trunk and leaping over the peppercorns. "Take your shoes off," our guide whispers. We do and enter. Slowly my eyes become accustomed to the shadowy air and when at last I can see, I'm overwhelmed, all my senses assaulted. Trying hard not to stare at anything, I stare at everything.

I am standing in the wide hall of a wooden house as long as a city block perched on stilts 15 feet above the ground. I feel I'm in a never-ending tree house. As far as I can see, there are people sitting about on mats -- although some have now come to stand at a polite distance to look at us. Aside one whole wondrous length of the hall runs the bamboo verandah. On the opposite side, behind a hanging jumble of masks, tops, drums, blowpipes and baskets, stretches a row of 34 doors. And believe it or not, one of the doors has a cardboard sign that says "Chief."

Our little group stands about awkwardly. The chief and the royals stand about awkwardly. We say nothing. They say nothing. There's a slight tension in the air. What's going on, I wonder. Then our guide nudges me and I realize that I am the cause of the awkwardness. I am standing on an intricately woven flax mat -- the royal mat! I jump off, allowing the Tuai Rumah and the shaman to take up their places cross-legged on it.

"Hallo!" the chief calls, beckoning us to sit.

We sit on the plain mats, and at once the women bring in a tray holding a large aluminum teapot, sugar, plastic cups and saucers, small glasses, and a forbidding old soy sauce bottle about two feet high.

The chief takes this bottle and pours glasses of tuak, the tribe's homemade rice wine. He lifts a glass and downs the entire amount in one go. This is the signal for us to drink too, but it's not easy. The brew tastes like industrial-strength sake and I can only sip it demurely.

"No time!" the chief warns me. "No time!"

I smile, not knowing what he's telling me. The women
laugh and after a few moments I realize that "no time" means "no
stopping." Drink it up in one fell swoop. I am a bit nervous because most
of what I have read about visiting a longhouse emphasizes the Iban's love of
aggressively urging visitors to get dead drunk. But mercifully, the
attention is taken off me and the tuak ceremony is replaced by a cordial
serving of tea. We all share pleasantries with no words in them. We smile,
nod heads, clink cups, laugh. Our guide hands the chief the gifts we have
brought: two bags of school notebooks and packages of pencils and pens.
The chief does no more than glance at the bags, immediately handing them to
his wife. Dealing with presents seems to be "women's work."

With sudden determination the chief rises. A young man
brings in a live chicken and with one lightning stroke of a knife,
slaughters it. A dab of blood is smeared on our hands to welcome us before
the executioner takes the
sacrifice off to the kitchen. Then our guide gestures for us to sit on a
long bench and, as if everything that has happened so far is familiar and
ordinary, he whispers, "Now you will see something interesting." A group
of men, nearly as tattooed as the chief, moves to the gamelan instruments:
brass gongs and deerskin drums. The welcome dances will start and the
villagers crowd on the floor to watch. The chief, holding a painted shield
and a large knife, dances the Ngajat, the warrior dance. Bending low,
crossing one leg over the other, the chief is the supreme stalker of prey
-- a hunter, leaping with focus and force, swift as a tiger.
Then the shaman steps forward, cocks his head, crouches low
and pivots his body slowly around to the intense, jangled music.
Extremely slowly. With his knees bent low, he curves his back and arches
his arms until it seems he has sprouted wings. The shaman is called the Tuai
Barong, which means Guardian of the Birds,
for he alone has the power to read omens in the flights and calls of the
jungle birds and to set the longhouse's rituals accordingly. This lithe,
solemn man has somehow taken on the spirit of the sacred hornbill. Now he
is both bird and man. His sensual, hypnotic movements remind me that hundreds of
years before Darwin, these people understood
the biological kinship between animal and
man and recounted it in religious ritual. The ceremony disturbs and fascinates. It is
no wonder that the longhouse people who have seen the shaman dance all
their lives still watch, mesmerized.
Next a young woman appears wearing several belts of
silver coins, an elaborate beaded yellow blouse, silver anklets and a
silver headdress like an upside-down candelabra that jingles with her every
"She's a deaf-mute," our guide whispers.
Fluttering her fingers, this glittering girl turns
softly and slowly in perfect time to the music, moving to the vibrations of the gongs coming through the hollow bamboo
flooring. As I watch her, an elderly white-haired man sitting next to me
smiles at me, as if to say, "Isn't that some dancing!" I smile back, trying
not to stare at his ears -- or rather, his earlobes, which are pierced so large you could pass an orange through them.
We're rushed at by short squat creatures in bulky burlap
flannel shirts, baggy pants, socks, gloves and crudely carved wooden masks
with smiling faces. Looking like crazed trick-or-treaters, they pull us to
our feet and exhort us to dance with them. They tug, twirl and tease us
into dance. The music races. The drums boom loud as thunderclaps. The
jangle of the brass gongs is
both beautiful and disorienting. We're in a frenzy of goofy dancing,
slightly scary and enormously joyous, a delirium where host and
guest -- performer and spectator -- are wonderfully blurred.

The music stops and the masked ones vanish. The
welcoming ceremony over, the rest of the day is ours to enjoy. Strolling
the longhouse, we are treated not as tourists, but as guests. We're greeted
with smiles and invitations, yet we're also "given our space" when we just want
to rest or merely observe.
The longhouse is truly an indoor village, an aggregate of
individual family units, and the hall, wide and shadowy, is like the main
street of the village, both a social center and a place for occupation.
The men are away working the rice and pepper fields or on logging
contracts, so I observe the women and oldest men engaged in a
variety of traditional activities.
The equatorial air hangs hot and wet. Despite the
industry all around, there is languor to the longhouse. On the verandah the
long-eared man sits in a black peppercorn sea, sorting the good from the
bad. Behind him, two women rhythmically winnow rice in shallow baskets.
Again and again, the rice flies skyward like an offering to the gods.

Inside the hall, the women sit on the floor in groups as
they work. In one small group, a girl crushes dried herbs in a stone
mortar, another braids a basket and a third weaves palm leaves into a
mat. A woman who looks old enough to be a great-grandmother is nursing a
baby as she fans herself with a banana leaf. Beside her, another baby
sleeps in a sarong hung by a spring from the rafters. Over the baby's head
hangs a small empty bottle of Johnny Walker to ward off ghosts. Never
left alone, the toddlers are continuously indulged -- teased, kissed,
passed from lap to lap, hugged extravagantly. The women laugh and chat as
they sit on the flax mats in their floral sarongs -- I've entered a
Gauguin painting.

To cool off, the women bathe in the river as often as
six times a day. When the afternoon air has turned to steam, we too walk
down to the river, and soon we're joined by a gaggle of preschoolers
accompanied by an elderly woman. The most patient of baby sitters, she
squats on her haunches, chewing nuts as she watches them frolic in the
river -- splash wildly, scream with laughter, dive off rocks. When she
rises and turns toward the longhouse, without a word of protest her
charges leave the water and follow her in single file like ducklings.

And so the day passes. We spin homemade tops with the
children, delight the chief's sister by our exaggerated wincing at her
soursop fruit, and in the early evening, eat a tasty meal of mountain rice,
jungle ferns, tapioca leaves, bamboo shoots and telapia fish all steamed in
bamboo. While we eat, the chief's sister tells me a secret -- she and the
other ladies were the masked dancers. "You!" I say in exaggerated
surprise. Exposing her gold teeth, she laughs gleefully at her revelation.
I am moved by the fervor of these people. They work with
intensity and take pleasure in music, animated conversation, storytelling
and laughter. Their intensity was perfectly described by Tom Harrison,
author of "Borneo Jungle," who visited Sarawak as an Oxford student in 1932: "Living always in deep greens and teeming tropical life, the
Bornean natives see the whole world, both of reality and dream, in terms of
twisting, tendulous, exuberant vitality."

Nighttime. Patrick and I are sitting on the hall floor after the
evening dances, drinking tuak with the chief. Up and down the dark hall,
groups of people chat around tiny yellow circles of candlelight.
The Tuai Rumah now wears sweatpants. He's been showing us
several rope-untying tricks, and Patrick has taught the chief how to hang a
spoon on the end of his nose. Once again the gamelan music starts up
softly. The spicy scent of the drying peppercorns floats in on the warm,
black air, and beyond, the jungle is so alive with the pulsation of insects,
it seems to be breathing. With our guide translating, we ask the Tuai
Rumah what it's like to be chief. His mood turns abruptly serious.

"I knew my life would be a good one," the chief says. "When I
was 21, my grandfather came to me in a dream as a good spirit, as
the Owner of the World -- a Pulang Gana. 'You will become the Tuai
Rumah,' he told me. 'You'll be a good chief and your family will have a
good life.' He was right."
The chief explains that being Tuai Rumah is
a big responsibility: He oversees the financial, physical and emotional
well-being of 34 families. He must never show favoritism because if he's not
fair, he will lose his people's support. Above all he must be strong and
make hard, even unpopular
decisions. In his time he has made many hard decisions, yet again and again
he believes he has been proven right.
"When the government built the Batang Ai dam, they
offered us a concession for taking our land, but I would not let my
longhouse accept it. Some thought I was foolish, for we were offered 30,000
American dollars. When they went to Kuching they were unhappy, for they
could afford only to drink coffee, yet they had to see people from a longhouse
who had sold their land, drinking beer. But today the other longhouse is
poor! They were not used to money so they bought too much on credit and
gambled too much on cockfighting. Now their money is gone -- and their
land is gone. But we still have our land."
"What is your hope for the Stamang longhouse?" I ask.
The chief considers the question for several moments as he plays idly with
the rope at his feet. At last he responds and his answer surprises me.
"To have a road running from here to Kuching, for we're
very isolated. And also to see the children educated. Education is
important! I've sent the children who are more than five years old to the
boarding school up the river -- the one you saw. And I welcome tourists
not just for their money,
but for the opportunity to see people from other countries. This way we
learn about them."
As the chief talks, I am distracted by the sudden appearance
of his wife, who enters carrying the two plastic bags of school supplies we
brought. She takes out the 40 notebooks and places each one on a space on
the longhouse floor -- each one about three feet away from another -- like
stepping stones. When she finishes, she lays one pencil and one pen smack
dab in the middle of each pale blue notebook. Then, quietly, she walks down
the hall and taps a group of waiting women to come take the books. These
are the mothers of the children in the boarding school. Silently and
swiftly each mother picks up a number of notebooks equal to her number of
children. In less than a minute, the floor is bare.
It feels late now, yet beneath the longhouse, ducks and
chickens still cackle and quack. The fighting cock tied up outside the
chief's door crows now and then as if it were dawn. We see again the man
with the elongated earlobes talking in one of the candlelit
groups. We've since learned he has the curious name of Goon and is the
chief's older brother.

"If you're the younger brother," I ask the chief, "why were you made
the Tuai Rumah?"

Our guide translates this question, and after thinking a
moment, the chief answers: "When my older brother was a young man, he decided
earth was flat. He was convinced that if he could only get to the end of
the jungle, he could look over the edge of the world and know how big it
is. He had such a great desire to look over the edge that, without telling
anyone, he walked into the jungle.

"For three weeks we did not know where he
was. Finally people from another longhouse came upon him walking in the
jungle and brought him back here. After that it was thought he should not
be chief."
"Because he thought the world was flat?" I ask.
"No, because he walked through the jungle alone. We do not do
things alone."

We sleep in the longhouse that night, settling down just as a
thunderstorm breaks. The rain pounds like horses' hooves on the tin roof, and
beneath the longhouse dogs howl so mournfully that the canine chorus rising
up through the floor is like ghostly wailing from the nether world. We
sleep like babies.
The next morning, we leave. "Come back!" the chief's sister
says to me warmly. "And next time bring your family!"

It's been a month since I visited the longhouse and I want to
go back. In fact, I surprise myself
by how much I think of these people. I want to live with them, know their rituals
and their festivals -- know more about who they are.

I want to go back -- but can I? I wonder about the
proposed Bakun hydroelectric dam on the Rejang river. The last dam
project, at Batang Ai in 1985, flooded 21,000 acres of land,
submerged 26 longhouses and displaced 3,000 people. The Bakun one, which
could supply one-fourth of Malaysia's energy, would flood 200,000 acres
-- about the size of Singapore.
Logging too has made its impact. The $1.5 billion
in yearly timber exports has not only propelled Sarawak from an exotic
backwater into the modern world, it has devastated an enormous area of
rain forest, home to 23 tribes. Today one-half of Sarawak's land is zoned
for logging.
I've been thinking about these facts a lot. I think
about them because I now know a little -- and care a lot -- about a people whom a
month ago I hardly knew existed.
That's what happens when you look over the edge of
your world.

By Maxine Rose Schur

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