Life and Time of a Penan Selungo between two “worlds”

By Apang (Hornbill Unleashed)

Anthony is just such a humble and quiet person whose shy nature would not stand out in a crowd. He has no reason to want to stand out in the first place. He is a Penan from Ulu Baram, Sarawak, a home to him but a wild jungle to most of us. While his identity card lists him as being born in the year 1965, but that is just a year created when applying for his identity card.

Anthony, like so many of his fellow Penan Selungo (there are also Penan from Lapok and Silak in the Baram, and also Penan from the Belaga District and their languages all differ from one another) had existed long before there was any need to have a paper as identity.

So, the calendar was an alien concept to the very people who live for generations with their natural environment. Unlike other Dayak people who are subsistence farmers that use crop-farming cycle as concept in time, the Penan would be using fruiting season in dating their time.

Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that Anthony was in no position to apply the Calendar year concept of time to fill in the form with the year of birth as how the registration system assumes that all should know. So, when asking Anthony to recall more accurately his actual year of birth, he just can’t associate it to any particular year. He struggles, and can only recall that when he was in Primary One, it was year 1973.  Anthony applied for his IC in 1977 and he got it the following year, when he was in Form Two in a school in remote Baram of Sarawak.

squat 10Anthony couldn’t finish Form Two as transport to school then was near impossible and at the beginning of his second term of school, he couldn’t find any transport to go back to his school in SMK Long Lama. During his time, he would have to walk for some six hours through jungle tracks to reach Lio Mato, the nearest place that would be called a town. However, it would be very wrong to associate the then Lio Mato with the understanding of the word “town” as how it would be associated by urbanites. From Lio Mato, he would need to take a longboat trip that would take about eight hours, on a good day when the water level is passable. On a bad day, he would need to stop over in Long Akah, as what it was called then but is now known as Long San, a similarrural outpost as to that association with Lio Mato. Then from Long Akah, it would be another 4-5 hours of boat ride.

The other “World”

Then time aside, there is the cost involved in traveling. For Anthony, cash still is an alien concept nowadays. Cash was not needed for a people for whom the forests are still playing ground, swimming ground, supermarket, hospital, pharmacy and the likes which urbanites must have money in order to gain access. However, as logging comes mercilessly deeper into the Penan territories, it is a struggle in which they cannot afford to lose. Losing just carry too heavy a price to them now, their kids and the future that is coming.

squat 1Anthony was married and has two children, all in schools in different parts of Sarawak. They are both in secondary schools. Anthony started getting a so-called “proper” job in Miri some 9 years ago. He had to leave his Ulu Baram “old” world behind and enter the “new” old world of Miri, a city now it seems and whatever that means to ordinary folks and struggling folks like Anthony. His kids need money for schooling even though schooling is “free”. Obviously the “free” schooling does not extend beyond the school compounds when to Anthony, there are other costs involved.

Anthony’s wife had just left him to fend for himself and his 2 kids. The wife, a Penan from his village, had gone off with an Iban to Mulu, Sarawak’s World Heritage site that is operated by Sarawak Chief Minister’s sister as the sole contractor to Sarawak Forestry. Both Anthony and his wife had been working in Miri as security guard and cook respectively when they were together.

Anthony wants his kids to excel in school and not be limited by the severe restriction he faced which resulted in him having to abandon schools at young age. In this sense, Anthony is no different from most parents. But there is a fundamental difference that differentiates Anthony from most other parents.

Anthony has installed into his kids their Penan roots as they grow up in the supposed “new” world. There is no shortage of idiotic statements from Sarawak politicians about the need for the Dayak to discard their “old” mindset as if all things “old” are not worthy of enhancing. Many of the “new” are actually not worth indoctrinations and certainly the very old politicians with even older mental sphere are not worthy of being remembered, least of all as representatives.

The struggle must continue

Anthony’s kids continue to want to help their Penan struggle to defend their rights, to be respected and they are certainly proud to be called Penans. They want to get involved already in the continuing struggle of the Penans in Baram, just like other Dayak NCR landowners, to defend their Adat. Theirs is a simple belief, too hard for the politicians to understand since these same Dayak politicians have abandoned their roots for richness and power at the expense of the very people who have existed for generations.

To the Penan and others struggling against loss of NCR lands, defending their Adat is not incompatible with progress. What they need is not the surrendering of NCR lands to companies for plantations and logging in order to progress, and be “developed”. They are very specific in their ideas of development, which benefits them as a whole, not asindividuals with political and or family connections that enrich few. But such idea of progress and development is just too incomprehensible by the government.

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