The Niah Research Trip Adventures
Kenneth, our team leader picked us (the research assistant team consists of 3 ladies) up from home as promised. As it was still early in the morning (around 7:45am), we stopped over at Morsjaya Commercial centre for breakfast before continuing our journey. Along the way, we chatted and I shared how I miss the old Batu Niah bazaar so after a round of drink at Simpang Ngu, we did a U-turn to Batu Niah bazaar before heading to Rumah Changgai, Ulu Niah.
A huge blue signboard with list of longhouses at Ulu Niah placed at a junction that led to Rumah Changgai can be seen from the highway toward to Simpang Ngu. The first kilometer of ride were smooth as it was tar sealed road but later the smooth ride turns into a bumpy ride (but not as bumpy ride along Lapok road albeit the fast driven huge logging lorries passing by). Along the journey, we get to see some construction were in progress for LAKU pipe installations. The longhouses here will get clean water supply soon.
It was indeed such a relief upon reaching the destination as my butt hurts along the way. :p
Prior my trip to the mentioned Iban longhouse, not many know or aware of Rumah Changgai. Back in the head, I thought it was due to the location deep at the interior area of Niah river. Apparently, Rumah Changgai was formely known as Rumah Ranggong. The late tuai rumah-Mr. Ranggong passed away recently and a new tuai rumah was appointed by the name of Mr. Changgai Dali hence Rumah Changgai. There are also few Iban longhouses along Ulu Niah river (can’t remember all of them, at times I have gold fish memory) and Rumah Changgai happen to be the second last longhouse along the river. Rumah Belilie is the last Iban longhouse along the Ulu Niah river.
Based on the longhouse profile (as shown by the Tuai Rumah himself), Rumah Changgai residents are originated from Babaloi, Sekerang (Skrang). To cut the story short, today, the mentioned longhouse consists of 70 bilek. In the old days, the main source of income for the villagers was cultivating hill padi and today, almost all of them spending more time on cash crop plantation-palm oil.
To me, Rumah Changgai longhouse reminds me of my maternal grandparent longhouse back in the old days. The villagers still depending on the river where they bath (I was told crocodiles still can be seen sunbathing along the river) and gets their water supply should the stored water supply runs out during the dry season. Every bilek had at least 1 water tank for water storage which normally used for drinking and cooking.
As the longhouse was located near the river, the longhouse has been flooded few times and the most recent flood incident happened last year where the water level was up to their living room. The folks had to make temporary stay (some even stayed at their ‘langkau’) on a higher ground for 3 days before the water totally subsided. Food and medicine aids were been flown by helicopter to the longhouse as the route to the longhouse was totally submerged by water.
As per told by the Tuai Rumah, they will move to a higher ground in few years time (within 5 years time) as they’ve just cleared new ground which is located right behind the current longhouse.
What is SLUSE?
Rumah Changgai was one of the three chosen Iban longhouse (the other two longhouses were Rumah Ulat & Rumah Muyang) in SLUSE project. SLUSE stand for Sustainable Land Use Systems and to find out more about it, click here and click here to give you a clear idea on what this post all about.
For the record, SLUSE project is Danish government funded project.
The Field Work
The field work conducted was by interviewing the tuai bilek of each bilek that looking at how the local communities manage their land, especially in relations to their traditional agricultural activities over the years and how this has been affected by external land development agencies. It sound easy as per say but it takes skills as in asking the right question. One need to be patient too as when they started to open up to you, they’ll get to reveal more information. The whole interview session was conducted purely on Iban language and for my first interview session, I was struggling as I need to use the proper Iban sentences. I have to admit that I learnt a lot from it. The first few interviews was held for 45 minutes, some even got drag to at least 1 hour but once I get the momentum going on, I end up interviewing a bilek within 35 minutes (stidi aku!).
As most of the longhouse folks are working at their farm during the day, we end up conducting the interview day and night. It may look and sound easy but it was damn mentally exhausting.
Rumah Changgai consists of 2 rows of longhouses. The first row consists of 51 bilek (two storey longhouse and bedrooms usually located at the top floor) and the second row consists of 19 bilek (single storey). The longhouse structure still consist semi traditional architectures where small ruai/patio located at the front entrance, followed by the main ruai, living room, kitchen, bathroom/washing area followed by an open ruai and lastly the toilet and some even had store huts. What amazed me is that one can still see belian roofing.
The longhouse had their own security system too. Each bilek nominated a representative (usually it’s the Tuai Bilek) and they will take turn to be on duty. The gate to the longhouse will be closed to outsider sharp at 10pm.
When I saw a telco tower nearby the longhouse, I was screaming in silence as I thought I can get myself connected to the world. Boy, I was wrong! The longhouse is conquered by the ‘Yellow Man’ and Telekom.
I considered myself lucky as Im not a picky eater especially when it comes to travelling to the interior. It was the ‘King of Fruit’ season and I pretty much stuff myself with durian almost every day. I felt fortunate too coz I get to taste some exotic food which you rarely get to eat it at the city and even if you can get to taste one, one have to pay a price for it and here, you get it for free and most importantly, it’s fresh!.
On my first day of arrival, I had ‘repung’ (the short tail python) and ‘payau’ (a wild deer) meat for dinner. The Tuai Rumah brought us to his farm and we gathered some ‘kulat sawit’ (a type of mushroom that usually grows at palm oil farm), fresh bird eye chilies, calamansi and ‘paku sungai/ikan’ (a type of wild fern that grows along the river bank).
The Pre-Merdeka Celebration
As we were the longhouse guest, we were invited to join the longhouse folks for a pre-merdeka gathering. The gathering was held right smack in the palm oil estate (no canopy whatnot, shades were just underneath the palm tree). It was organised by the nearby palm oil company for the longhouse folks. To me, it was a simple celebration yet very filling gathering.
SLUSE project offers interdisciplinary courses that include agronomy, anthropology, biology, development studies, development economics, engineering, forestry and geography. To be involved in this project mean so much to me as I believe it will add on some credential to my portfolio. I treat this as a baby step and I look forward for more challenging project to come.
Getting to meet, observing, studying people by learning their culture and heritage, getting to stay, get to share their meals and get to know their difficulties and joy is just the perk of the journey. I know that I still have long way to go.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed spending my 4 days and 3 nights stay with Rumah Changgai folks. 😉