Our time amongst the Penan
Having a first awkward meeting is the norm in any occasion and this was no exception for university students Jillian Sow Yuee Ling, 23, Thanaraj Murudi, 24, and Lorna Taro Ringgit, 24.
When they first arrived at a Penan settlement at Long Jaik, Ulu Belaga as part of their research internship, they had anticipated what to expect, but could not escape the language barrier.
“We had read about the Penans from articles online and in the newspaper, but we never met one in person before, so we felt excited and apprehensive at first because we did not know what to expect,” Thanaraj admitted.
Learning the language
With little activities and interaction with the local community on the first day, the three however decided to forget their awkwardness and try to engage them in small talk on the second day.
Located about three to four hours’ drive from Bintulu, there are 231 Penan settlers at Long Jaik.
“Lorna was more comfortable talking out of three of us and after she started talking to them, only then did I force myself to talk to the kids,” said Jillian.
Starting small by asking the children their names and introducing herself, Jillian admitted that there was a moment of silence as they all tried to figure out what to say next. When she asked them if they could teach her some Penan words, however, that was when everyone started to become enthusiastic.
“After that, everybody started to be excited and they started teaching me. So, within that one day, I wrote down a lot of words,” she said.
“Whenever I went to visit them, the topic of conversation would always be how do you say this and how do you say that and from there, everyone would gather around and teach me,” said Jillian.
For Lorna who is of Iban and Bidayuh descent, it was easy for her to learn how to speak Penan as most of the older Penan were conversant in Iban.
“They would also sometimes correct my Iban,” she said with a laugh. “Aside from that, I also got to learn a lot of Penan words as well. Bennet, one of the settlers there would always teach me new words every day and that was how I got to polish my Penan language as well as my Iban.”
Out of the 231 settlers at Uma Penan, 91 of them were children. Although none of the children attended school, they showed an interest in learning. When the three visited the Penan longhouse, they would sometimes teach the children to read and write.
Some of the adults who knew how to read and write – mostly self taught- would also teach the children the alphabet. The three observed that not only were the children enthusiastic to learn but were also smart and fast learners.
While it may have been easy for Lorna and Jillian to learn the Penan language, Thanaraj said that it was difficult for him in the beginning.
“When we first arrived there, they were staring at me because I looked different. It was hard to talk to them at first as I didn’t know their language and most of them don’t speak Malay.
“But there was this one man called Alex Tugang with whom I became very close throughout my whole stay at Long Jaik as he was one of the few able to speak Malay and from him I learned how to speak the language and a lot about the community,” said Thanaraj.
Within a few weeks after learning the language, the Penan started conversing fully in Penan with them.
What’s in a name
Not only did they learn another language and were exposed to a different set of cultural norms apart from their own, they would sometimes address each other by their Penan names given by the community a month later.
“I think the first time we heard our Penan names was when we were at our house. If I remember vaguely, I think Laga was the first one I heard,” said Jillian or ‘Leme’ as she came to be called.
It was Thanaraj who would come to be affectionately known as Laga Petawang (in which ‘petawang’ means missing). The origins of his name was quite a traumatic ordeal for both him and the Penan people.
“I once got lost while gathering plants with them. I told them to go back without me since I was confident that I knew my way back,” said Thanaraj.
“When they found me few hours later, they were not angry, but they did give me some advice after that and I felt ashamed for being irresponsible. They left everything they did just to look for me,” he said regretfully of the incident, but it did bring them closer.
His name then, is more of a gentle reminder to not repeat his mistake.
For Jillian who was fondly called ‘Leme’ among the Penan community of Long Jaik, she became known as Leme Melau, where ‘melau’ meant hungry. While the story of her name is less dramatic, it is nonetheless amusing.
“During the early part of the interning week, I would go to the longhouse up at the hill and by 12 noon, I would tell them I was going back to our quarters because I wanted to eat. So by then, they all knew my schedule and since then they called me Leme Melau,” she said with a laugh.
For Lorna, she may be clueless to how she ended up with three Penan names – Sevung, Lirek and Lapá – but appreciates them all the same.
“They called me Lirek Besu, where ‘besu’ means full. Every time they asked me if I wanted a second helping during meal time, I would tell them I was full, so that was how I got my name,” she said.
She also noted that her name Taro was also a Penan name, which she shared with a woman at the Penan settlement.
“So, in a way, I felt like I was Penan myself,” she said.
The Gift of the Forest
As one of the indigenous tribes in Sarawak, there are about 16,000 Penans and up until the 1950s, most of them were predominantly nomadic, inhabiting the most interior of northern Sarawak in the headwater of two major rivers, the Rejang and Baram.
While most of them live on a settlement now and only about 200 are still living nomadic lifestyles, the Penan in Long Jaik still hunt and forage for food in the jungle as they are reliant on forest produce.
Known as hunters and gatherers, the Penan know their way around the jungle, possessing intricate and extensive knowledge of plants and animals and are highly skilled in using ‘keleput’ (blowpipe) that they made themselves along with poison darts laced with the milky extract of the ‘tajem’ tree to hunt wild animals.
As the three of them would sometimes tag along with them on their hunts or foraging expeditions in the jungle, Lorna said that they were each given a traditional antidote.
“They called it ubat serungo which is said to be discovered by Penan Selungo,” said Lorna.
They would travel by boat for three to four hours from the longhouse to the jungle to gather plants or hunt wild animals.
Thanaraj said that the experience taught him to identify some of the jungle plants although it took him more time to locate and gather them compared to the more experienced Penans.
With a diet of mostly vegetables such as kangkong, and tapioca, Jillian said their favourite dish was sago, commonly known as ‘linut’ in Sarawak.
A famous Sarawak delicacy, sago flour or náu, is made from the ‘nangah’ tree or sago palm and they were fortunate enough to witness and experience making ‘apu nangah’ (sago flour) firsthand.
While the process of making sago flour was interesting, it was also laborious and time-consuming as it could take about a day to complete.
Starting off with the sago trunk, they would cut it into several parts then hack the fibrous core with a large stick into pulp before mixing it with water from the stream.
The fun part of making ‘apu naga’ is when they have to step on the mixture to extract the final product.
On average, they could produce up to 20 kg of flour which would then be shared among the community.
But according to the local settlers, it is seldom for them to find and produce sago flour as the naga tree is depleting around the area.
The Penan Culture
From hunting animals such as wild boar and squirrels to gathering bamboo shoots and ferns, everything that is caught is equally shared and distributed among the Penan. As an egalitarian society, sharing is considered of utmost importance and failure to do so is considered a serious offense.
Asides from sharing, another notable trait of the Penan is ‘molong’, to preserve.
According to local researcher, Jayl Langub, ‘molong’ is the practice of laying claims to all sorts of resources in their surrounding environment. The practice of ‘molong’ serves as a monitoring device to account for the quantity of resources in the forest where they exercise stewardship and prevent the over exploitation of their resources.
‘Molong’ is applied to various types of fruit trees and sago clumps and is actively practiced even among children to adults, said researcher Peter Brosius.
While the Penan would rely mostly on forest produce for food, they also have other sources of income such as making malat (parang), bukui (weaving products), and selling wild boar they catch in the jungle.
Respecting the jungle
Respecting the jungle is also part of the Penan nature. For most indigenous tribes in Sarawak not only is it an essential provider of food and other resources, they also believe it is the dwelling of numerous forest spirits.
Recalling her experience looking for bamboo shoots in the jungle with the Penans, Lorna remembered a startling incident when she encountered an ‘assen silek’ which refers to cobra in Penan.
“Actually, I was not aware of the ‘assen silek’ but it was not until they (the Penan) told me to run, then I started to run away laughing in the process because I panicked,” said Lorna whose unexpected reaction to the situation provoked laughter from the Penan.
Instead of whipping out their machetes to kill the cobra, Lorna recalled how the Penan talked to the snake instead.
“They talked to it for maybe about a minute, telling it not to harm us as they believe that the ‘assen silek’ is their ancestor, so they cannot harm or kill it,” said Lorna.
Among the Penan, they are prohibited from saying ‘assen silek’ out loud in the jungle.
Like most of the native tribes in Sarawak, the plants and animals are viewed as sacred and like all living things are the embodiment of spirit and souls.
Showing not only a high tolerance and generosity towards nature but also among themselves, there aren’t even any words for thank you as it seems to be an unspoken agreement for them to help each other.
“Whenever we asked for help with something, there would not be any indication that they were annoyed by you, unlike most city folks,” said Jillian.
With their community has no social stratification, the Penan are a peaceful good-natured society, and do not discriminate against women and children as everyone is considered equal.
During their stay at Long Jaik, Lorna observed that the men were extremely attentive towards their wives, especially when they were pregnant. They would not be allowed to do heavy chores around the house as their duties were taken care of by their mothers or mother-in-laws.
This act of affection between family members may explain why the Penans are very attached to their children.
Gentle and peaceful in nature, if there was anything that the Penan taught the three of them, it was the culture of sharing and caring. Although poor in the conventional sense, their generosity with others showed them to be extremely rich in heart.