blowdarts, bulldozers & broadband: hybrid life in a settled penan community

words rachael petersen  |  images peter gronemann & gido

“Where are you going?” a boy asks as we march off, single-file, away from the village of Long Lamai. “To the supermarket!” Diana cries over her shoulder, arms heavy with anticipation and fishing poles, back strapped with a rattan basket.

The “supermarket” isn't far. Indeed, it's omnipresent, advertising its wares in lush leafy greens and warm muddy browns.

To the indigenous Penan of Borneo, the forest—or what's left of it, at least—is the supermarket. They are traditional hunter-gatherers found mostly in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. They are the undisputed experts of the forest, exhibiting tremendous, age-old knowledge and respect for the natural environment. Or, they did; researchers estimate that out of nearly ten thousand Penan in Sarawak today, fewer than a hundred still lead a nomadic lifestyle.

Diana certainly doesn't. But today she is on the move.

“Why are you so happy?” I ask, trailing her swift steps as we navigate around houses on crooked stilts. She laughs at my ignorance. How quickly and often my young Penan host oscillates between a giddy best friend and sagacious cultural guide.

She refuses to speak to me in English. "Akep," she beams. “Because today we look for river snails...Lots of fun!"

Diana bears a soft wide smile as she, Afendi, Jessica, myself, and two others pile into the worn wooden longboat awaiting us by the shore. Our young boatman, a sulking teenage boy, cranks the sputtering outboard motor. The boat, too, sulks beneath our weight, sitting lower in the murky water. We arrange ourselves like well-ordered peas in the water-bound pod. I take a moment to douse myself in Deet before the longboat inches up the Balong river.

The Penan never used to use boats. But then again, they now do many things unheard of only sixty years ago, when the majority of them still dwelled in the rich forests of Borneo. For one, in Long Lamai, they use Facebook, thanks to a recently-installed Telecenter, which brings satellite Internet to the village for the first time. It's also allowed the Penan to document their traditional botanical knowledge—swiftly disappearing—on digital tablets that they take into the jungle.

Like all cultures, theirs is one in flux. I came to this village to experience that flux—the thrusting force that has taken the Penan from the last nomads of Borneo to digital natives in little over half a century.

The transformation has been rapidly accelerated by the destruction of the habitat upon which their cultural livelihood depends. Infamous for its rapacious development policies, the Sarawak government has leveled forests to cash in on growing regional demand for timber, palm oil, and hydro-power. While the former Chief Minister has claimed that seventy percent of the state's forests remain intact, satellite imagery reveals a figure closer to ten percent. I remember this as I fly over Borneo in a prop plane, a land riddled by the vast expanses of monoculture palm oil plantations.

The plight of the Penan received international attention in the '80s and '90s. The Penan became outspoken opponents to the logging that was threatening their villages and communal lands, even taking up blowpipes to blockade against bulldozers deep in the forest. They, along with their allies, have become symbols of the struggle for indigenous rights, forest conservation, and development with dignity.

Early accounts describe the Eastern Penan as peaceful, egalitarian, sun-fearing wanderers who were most at home under the expansive canopy of old-growth forests. They subsisted on the wares of the forests, collecting plants—over a thousand of which they can readily identify—and hunting animals, such as wild boar, with spears and poison-tipped blowdarts. Charles Hose, an early British regional administrator, described the nomads as "honest and unselfish people [...] undoubtedly the best-mannered people of any of the 'savage tribes' inhabiting the island."

But it is difficult to hit a moving target and to assimilate nomadic peoples who live above the three pillars of modern economies: wage labor, money, and private property. So, in the 1950s, the British authorities began settling the indigenous Penan into longhouses—structures customary to the neighboring indigenous Kelabit, Iban, and Kayan, but not the Penan—located in newly established villages.

Home to around 400 Penan, Long Lamai is one of these oldest settlements, dating back to the 1950s. The village longhouse, built in 1988, has never been repaired. The Penan here live an abridged version of the hunter-gatherer life. Many were taught how to farm rice and maintain paddies and crops across the river. Only vestiges of nomadic life can be found here, but the characteristic honesty and unselfishness of the Penan remain. Garen, a village elder with impeccable English and kind eyes, looks after the Telecenter with pride. The village youth take turns on the two functioning PCs, sometimes wandering on Facebook for hours at a time while younger boys form an informal audience, pulling up plastic lawn chairs and watching the activity over the older boys' shoulders.

Thus, I spend half my days in the humble "Telecenter," observing young Penan boys as they meander on Facebook; I spend the other half meandering through the surrounding rivers and forests, engaging in the everyday work—and profound pleasure—of jungle life.

Diana keeps a cautious eye on the bank as we putter along. Her love of Korean soap operas, her girlish laughter, and her longing for city life belie the authority with which she navigates the natural world. She identifies snail-ripe riverbanks—indistinguishable to the untrained eye—at a distance. She commands the boat boy to turn around and approach a shallow area shaded by the drooping branches of stoic, tropical trees.

We jump out of the boat and wade, waist-deep into the murky waters of the Balong river, groping with our hands at mud and roots. Diana inhales deeply, puffing out her cheeks before diving headfirst into the muddied water. She emerges triumphant with fistfuls of tiny snails, their onyx-black shells a currency all their own, rendering me the poorest member of our crew. By sundown, we return with food that will last us the week: snails, a few fish, a bird's nest, wild ginger, tapioca root, river fern, and the leaves of plants whose names escape me as quickly as I learn them.

Time in Long Lamai passes slowly. Garen tells me the Penan do not have words for time, for minutes, for hours. They also lack a word for "home," in the way that English speakers know it.

"Home," Garen tells me, "means 'the place from which one begins a journey.'" He has kind eyes, an agreeable demeanor, impeccable English.

Long Lamai is a settlement; but in a globalized world, all settlements are collections of congealed journeys. My host family's belongings—black rubber cleats that wash off mud easily, mosquito nets, generators, plastic packs of ramen noodles, and iPads—bespeak hidden costs in both time and money. Queen-sized mattresses, pulsating subwoofers, solar panels, and water filtering tanks all arrived here the only way anything can: taking a prop plane from the city Miri to Marudi, and onto Long Banga. Then one must travel an hour and a half by boat up the river.

"You brought that here? On a boat?" I gawk, indicating the prominent television displayed on the first floor of our open-air wooden house. "Oo'," smiles my host brother, triumphant. "Yes, yes. On a boat."

Even settled, they are a people of movement. Remote life demands it. A road to Long Lamai—as the government is proposing—would certainly make such transfers simpler. But it just might spell doom. "We want development we can control," says Garen. Boats, yes. Roads, no.

I depart late one evening from the Telecenter, walking a short two-minutes along mud trails to reach my homestay. The normal night silence is torn asunder by the roar of our generator—one of the few in the village—a sound rivaled only by the massive chorus of screaming Borneo cicadas.

A menagerie of shoes—flip flops, rubber bowler shoes, cowboy boots, rendered anonymous by a layer of mud—piled at the front gate announce a gathering. A soft blue glow illuminates the faces of dozen young Penan boys, assembled quietly in front of our well-traveled television. "Ka’au menyun," Diana says warmly, indicating a wooden armchair in the large, open living room, "You sit here."

It is Tuesday, but we are watching Monday Night Raw Live. Ox-shouldered men fill the screen. Monsters with modified voices body slam their opponents. All the eyes shift between the screen and me, the American in the room. The one who can speak to this strange cultural practice known as WWE. “It’s not even real,” I scoff, embarrassed, hoping no one asks me to explain.

Other neighbors pour in, quickly filling all the available space on our wood paneled floor. Nightly, flurries of insects congregate around the unnatural light—drawn, as we are, to the display. One boy, bored, captures a green cicada in his hands and carefully inspects his opponent. He shoves the creature into a small red toy plastic car on a nearby table. Trapped, the insect screams inside, beating its wings against the translucent plastic windshield.

Yes, tonight is a night for spectacle.

We are almost at the end of the match, when the boy turns to me, excitedly, and asks, "In the USA, do you swim in the river?"

I relax.

"Oo," I reply. "Akeu moro tong baa." Yes, yes. We swim in the river.

I excuse myself to go to bed. I fall asleep to the hybrid sound-scape of diesel generators and insects, dreaming of the hybrid landscape of oil palm and primary forest, and of hybrid cultures.

"I just have to accept the fact that this culture is vanishing," said a prominent linguist who studied the Penan extensively. "All I can do is build them a tombstone and write an epitaph to be a million words long. And I believe I will be writing it for the rest of my life."

Tonight, watching WWE amid a crowd of young Penan, electrified by the humid night air, doesn't feel like a eulogy. And if it is, it is not mine to write. There is an infinity between zero and one, I think. There are millions of possible futures between past and present, whole and broken, pure and contaminated. There are stories to tell and friends to make on the way from blowpipes to bulldozers to broadband.

Member Login
Welcome, (First Name)!

Forgot? Show
Log In
Enter Member Area
My Profile Not a member? Sign up. Log Out