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The Peace Corps Stories:
The Christians and the Pagans

Peace Corps Stories Section:

Main Page (Introduction and Contents)

PCV FAQ, questions about my experience and the Peace Corps in general

I Was (Almost) Tattooed by Headhunters

Quentin, the World Traveler

Stalking Extremely Small Game

The Christians and the Pagans

We Visit the Land Dayaks


Maps of Malaysia and Sarawak

Related Sections:
Pictures of Sarawak
Peace Corps Links
Sarawak Links

Other Sections:
Christmas News Letters
Misc. Essays
Web Design

"Borneo? Did you meet any primitive people there?" People ask me that sometimes, when I mention where I served in the Peace Corps.

"Savages? Why certainly, "I answer. "In fact, I met one group of people whose practices were downright shocking. Let me tell you about it . . ."

I spent two years in Sarawak, Malaysia. I taught English and Literature in a small boarding school about four miles from Saratok, a town of 4,000. Malaysia's school year runs from January to the middle of November, so we had six weeks off at Christmas. I spent two of mine in the Kelabit Highlands, a plateau at the headwaters of the Baram, the second longest river in Sarawak. I thought it would be fun to follow the river from its source to its mouth, by foot and by longboat and I wanted to meet some Kelabits, a tribe of natives with strange customs.

I started by flying to Bario, a settlement of 700 or so in the middle of the highlands. They have scheduled air service (small and light, but scheduled) four times a week in the dry season.

Bario doesn't have a hotel, but I met a young teacher at the Junior Secondary School who invited me to stay with his family for the week. Solomon, fresh from teachers' training college, made an interesting contrast to his family. They were farmers, he taught. They were traditionalists; he was progressive. He was brimming over with good ideas; to plant tea in the valley, to organize a school band with bamboo instruments, to introduce goats to the farmers. We talked a great deal about teaching methods, changing the old ways, and the problems new teachers have.

Mr. Bulan, my host's father, was a classic Kelabit, a perfect example of the old ways. He grew rice in a field irrigated by a handmade bamboo pipe system, the way his father had, worked his farm with simple hand tools, and had holes pierced d in the tops of his ears. He told me about these one evening. When he had been a young man, Mr. Bulan had killed a leopard, with only a spear. By Kelabit tradition, he was entitled to wear the leopard's tusks in his ears. He only wore them on ceremonial occasions, he said, since they were more of a nuisance than anything.

My host's mother was as traditional as her husband. She spent her days helping on the farm, cooking over a wood fire, and raising children. She had dense tattoos, done with oil and soot, from the first joint of her fingers to her elbows. From a distance it looked as if she was wearing black lace gloves. At one time, she told me, all of the Kelabit ladies had their arms tattooed, but the custom was dying out. Mrs. Bulan and her daughter both had long ears, another custom that was waning

Ramy, the 15-year old sister, was in the ninth grade, and had a number of chores to do during her vacation. Still, she took time out each morning to teach me two sentences of Kelabit, repeating them until I got the pronunciation right, then reviewing that I'd learned before. One morning she explained her ears. When she was very small, she said, her parents had pierced her ears, then put in tiny earrings. They had gradually hung heavier and heavier weights on the rings, until her ear lobes hung almost to her shoulders. The Kelabits attach no religious significance to long ears, she said, but consider them a mark of beauty. (If you look closely at a statue of the Buddha, you'll see he too had long ears.)

That evening, watching Ramy and some of her friends practice a traditional dance, their ears swaying gracefully, I had to admit that the long ears did add a certain amount of charm, once one became used to them.

I spent a week in Bario, looking around, taking pictures, and trying to talk with the people. Many Kelabits spoke a little Malay, as I did, and they were all happy to answer my small stock of Kelabit questions. Sometimes a smile and a gesture would work better than either language.

At the end of the week my host introduced me to some Punans, a nomadic tribe. They were passing through Bario, going in the general direction I wanted to go. They said they would let me tag along with them through the jungle if I wanted to, so I joined them.

On the second day of our trip we came to Pa Tik, a small Kelabit longhouse. A longhouse, Borneo's version of the condominium, is just that, a long, narrow house. If you imagined a loaf of bread, each family's apartment would be one slice. Each family has its own set of rooms, but they all share a wide central hall, the "tawa." Travelers in the jungle who stop at a longhouse for the night sleep on the tawa, and by tradition the longhouse's eldest family invites all strangers to eat with them.

I'd taken some kitchenware to use as hostess gifts, and I'd asked my host, in Bario, if I should barter for the night's lodging. "No, no, no" he'd exclaimed gently; "that isn't necessary. Give the gift if you want to, but we Kelabits feel that when you return to your home, if you are friendly to a traveler there, then we have been paid back. That's enough".

As I sat on the tawa at Pa Tik, making idle conversation and putting antiseptic on my leach bites, a light plane appeared overhead. Pa Tik sees an airplane about six times a year, so everyone streamed out to the airstrip to see what was up. The plane buzzed the airstrip once to clear away the water buffalo, then landed. Out stopped a French filmmaker in bell-bottomed bush pants, followed byenough luggage for seven people. We greeted him and started carrying his things into the longhouse.

By the time we finished the plane had taken off. It soon returned with six more of his party, plus Jeffery Ngaring, a primary school headmaster I'd met in Bario. He had agreed to interpret for them. Jeffery and I talked a bit on the airstrip, then went in to see what was happening in the longhouse.

The filmmakers had taken over the tawa, and were telling people what to do. Whack! They nailed cords to the walls. Zip! Out came seven new mosquito nets, seven new cots, seven new sleeping bags, all fresh from the store wrappings. I winced, then moved my blanket and knapsack out of their way

After they had unpacked what seemed to be half of a bush outfitter's stock of newest equipment and togs, the men went down to the river to bathe. The two woman of the party either didn't know they were supposed to bathe in the river, wearing a swimsuit or an old sarong, or they didn't want to. Instead, the children of the longhouse went down to the river with teakettles and buckets, and filled a 55-gallon drum in the longhouse. The women dipped and splashed from it, behind a screen.

After their baths the filmmakers sat on the tawa, drinking scotch and listening to their portable radio. They were looking for a "real" longhouse, they said, to use as a set for their movie. Pa Tik had a tin roof, so it was too modern to suit their needs. They were going to do a World War II movie about a fearless white would resistance fighter who would become the leader of a native tribe by beating its best warrior in single combat and marrying the chief's daughter. He was to be revered as a demigod, too. I had the feeling they were going to ask that the local girls they used as extras go bare-breasted for the filming.

Dinnertime came. I was invited to eat with the other guests. The Kelabits believe in simple fare, cooked extremely well. As we went in I saw a large bowl of chicken in the middle of the table, and a plate of steaming rice at each place, with oranges for dessert. Chickens are expensive and hard to keep in Sarawak; if a snake doesn't get them, a mongoose will. Most families have six or seven at any given time. They save them for special occasions.

I asked Jeffery about the meal. He said that each family in the longhouse had contributed a chicken to feed the guests, and that some of the girls had helped Mrs. Aping, the headman's wife, cook. They'd cooked the rice in chicken broth, he added; was that good? Magnificent, I told him. Lunch, which had been a few cucumbers eaten on the trail, seemed awfully far away just then. I knew that the Kelabits held it a compliment to the cook for a guest to ask for second helpings. My mouth watered and I knew that from me, at least, Mrs. Aping would receive high praise that night.

Jeffery said grace, and we fell to. About halfway through my first plate of rice I noticed that the filmmakers were just pushing their rice around on their plates, and weren't touching the chicken. I hadn't expected them to eat soup out of the common bowl, but I wondered why they weren't eating anything. Maybe they weren't hungry, I thought. Halfway through my second plate of rice one of the filmmakers produced a tin of corned beef. He opened it at the table, helped himself, and passed it around. The others took eager portions.

I didn't need a translator for the humiliated look in Mrs. Aping's eyes.

I went back out to the tawa after my third plate of rice. It wasn't my place to tell other guests what to do, part of me said. Someone should at least make them aware of what they were doing, the better part of me admonished.

I'd start with a minor matter, I thought. "Ummm, hello there. Those mats you're sitting on are normally used for sleeping. If you hadn't brought cots, you'd be sleeping on them tonight. So it's customary to take your shoes off when you're on the mats, especially if you wore them when you walked through the water buffalo pasture."

"Oh? Well then, I'm going to take my shoes off," said the charter plane pilot. The others looked blank; they had never heard of such a thing.

Maybe a good introduction, to get them in the light frame of mind, I thought. "You people are guests here," I started out, "The Kelabits have just fed you, Even though you didn't eat it, they killed a chicken from each family, cooked it and served it to you. They did it without a thought of repayment, and it would have been courteous . . ."

"Oh," one of the filmmakers interrupted, "but we're going to pay them back! We brought some tinned food to give them."

I quit trying then, and went to find Jeffery. The few phrases of Kelabit that Ramy had taught me were totally inadequate for the occasion. I was going to need his help to explain to Mrs. Aping that some people just aren't civilized.

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This page updated: June 20, 2014