Lily’s Room

July-09-2009 Church in Borneo

The church in Long Siang, 8 July 2009

by Keruah Usit

The hamlet of Long Siang sits by a timber access road in Lower Baram. The nearest large town is six hours away, if the people of Long Siang are successful in hitching a ride on a passing timber truck.

Long Siang is a ramshackle longhouse containing some 20 pintu or rooms. Each is home to one or two families. There is no water or electricity supply. Most of the rooms are cramped and dusty, and contain no more than a few sticks of furniture.

Near the shanty, a small dirt track runs from the logging road to a clearing. The clearing is framed by secondary forest, mainly bushes and stunted trees.

A verandah runs the length of the longhouse. A small knot of Penan villagers sit on the floor of the verandah. The boards are rickety and riddled with holes. Broken planks litter the floor.

The children appear hungry. Their eyes are bright, but their hair is thin, and a rusty grey. Their bellies are protruding, possibly because of malnutrition or worms, or both. The children, and the young adults sitting around them, appear listless.

It is the middle of the afternoon, but there are at least half a dozen young men on the verandah.

When asked why they are not hunting or farming, they say the forests around Long Siang have been taken over by the big logging company, and most of the game has been shot or chased away.

“When the road came, many trucks came with company people,” one man says.

“They hunt even at night, with searchlights on the roof of their trucks. They killed most of the animals we used to hunt.”

The villagers have no suitable land to farm. They settled down in Long Siang over 20 years ago, after the logging company moved in. The company had built the longhouse in return for access to the Penans' forest.

Borneo's best hunters

Penans love hunting. They are the best hunters in Borneo. The Penans of Long Siang are tired and despondent, because they have lost all they have. The company has brought in Iban and Orang Ulu workers from outside the area, to harvest the trees, and to operate and repair their giant trailer-trucks, diggers and bulldozers. The local Penan do not make good timber-camp workers.

Penans live in small shelters or huts when they are nomadic. They pack up the shelters after several days and move on, searching for game in the forest. They do not live in longhouses, unlike the Iban and Bidayuh.

The Penans of Long Siang have found it difficult to adapt to settling in the odd-looking longhouse.

Some floor-planks and doors have been torn away and used as firewood. The rest of the structure is shaky.

There is no evidence of any layer of paint. There are holes in the roof.

In contrast to the shabby longhouse, a smart wooden building stands at the far end of the clearing. There is a neat coat of white paint on the large, low building, and a few pieces of furniture inside it. Next to the longhouse, this building - a church - appears opulent, though it would look modest in any of the small towns of Sarawak, Sabah and Kalimantan.

There are countless, nearly identical small churches throughout Borneo. They bear witness to the flourishing Christian missions. Christianity was introduced by Francis Thomas McDougall in 1848, on the invitation of the first White Rajah, James Brooke. The Catholic Church and the Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Mission or SIB) are two of the major Christian denominations in Sarawak.

Churches in Sarawak

The SIB was started by Charles Hudson Southwell and a small group of Australian missionaries in 1928. The SIB has converted large numbers of Sarawakian natives, particularly among the Orang Ulu and Iban. Despite restrictions on alcohol, smoking and extramarital sex, the SIB has won support all over Sarawak, and has branches in Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia too.

The SIB transformed the lifestyle of many rural communities. Its prohibition of alcohol enabled the Lun Bawang in Ba'kelalan, for example, to double their rice harvests. SIB missionaries visit tiny communities such as Long Siang, in all corners of Sarawak.

Many of these missionaries have persuaded the settled Kenyah or Kelabit communities in Baram and the Rejang Basin to reach out to their newly-settled Penan neighbours and teach them techniques of rice farming, longboat use and animal husbandry.

The Christian missionaries also built schools, and opened doors to formal education. The Catholic De La Salle Brothers, and the SIB and Anglican mission schools, have educated entire generations of professionals. Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud was educated in St Joseph's, a De La Salle school.

All the Christian churches draw the line, however, at social or political advocacy. A SIB pastor in a remote Penan village says he was sacked as a minister, because he was a vocal opponent of logging in his area.

The Anglican, SIB and Catholic churches have also eschewed confrontation with the political authorities over controversies - such as the use of the word 'Allah' among Dayak Christians who use the Malay language in church. Other 'taboo' issues are political corruption and human rights abuses in Sarawak.

The Church in Sarawak, like the church in Long Siang, is stolid and well-kept. However, contradictions between the wealth of the urban churches and the abject poverty of many rural Sarawakian communities remain inescapable.

・KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia. His 'The Antidote' column, which appears in Malaysiakini every Wednesday, is an attempt to allow the voices of marginalised people to be heard all over Malaysia.


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