Penan and a big snake

Posted on: October 15, 2008

“The Penans in Silat River didn’t eat chicken. Poultry was reared but only killed and cooked for their non-Penan guests to eat. Animal raised by the Penans were looked upon as member of the household. Sidi told me a fowl is a pet and Penans don’t eat pets. No argument.” – Christhoper K. Knight

Penan and a big snake
By Christhoper K. Knight

“O Penan – Jungle wanderers of the Tree
What would the future hold for thee?….
Perhaps to us you may appear deprived and poor
But can Civilization offer anything better?….
And yet could Society in good conscience
View your plight with detached indifference
Especially now we are an independent Nation
Yet not lift a helping hand to our fellow brethren?
Instead allow him to subsist in Blowpipes and clothed in Chawats
An anthropological curiosity of Nature and Art?
Alas, ultimately your fate is your own decision
Remain as you are – or cross the Rubicon!”
– By Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min

“Tei hinok kelok, sebile’ek?” asks the Kayan in his dialect as a small group of Penans crosses the stream.

“Melakau tong tana ju,” replied the Penan in his dialect.

“Su ya?”

“Juu, juuuuuuuu. Kelap penusah tana,” a Penan elder said regretfully. The Penans continue walking. Never again they come this way.

In English: Where are you going, brother? Walking to the far land. Is it far? Far, farrrrrrrrrr. Away from destroyer of land.

By ‘destroyer of land’ they meant bulldozers, excavators, chainsaws, 18-wheelers and loggers. It meant the destroyers had ate into their territory, muddying the rivers where fish are aplenty, disrupting hunts in the jungle where untamed animals live in abundance, altering the sensitive eco-system, forcing the Penans to abandon their homes in search of source of livelihood elsewhere, somewhere juuuuuuuuuuuu. The longer the juu the farther is that somewhere.

This article is not about Sarawak’s politics of development, for I am not smart enough to break the arguments of corrupt politicians. Neither I am smart enough to relate the Penans to environmental science or global warming or the plight of indigenous tribes around the world. But I’ve been with the Penans for a while. What they did not show to the politicians and the activists they probably had showed it to me. This story is about a group of Penan and what a snake did to their self-belief.

The Penan world
I was only 18 when I entered the kingdom of the Penans for the first time in 1989. That was also the first time, and the only time, I knew I was taller than everyone around. With a long sleeve Adidas shirt to go with my Levi’s 501 jeans, and a flock of hair fashioned by hardening gel, I thought I was the handsomest kid in the entire world. And I was the only one among the young men with a pair of shoes. I was curious about my new fame just as the Penans were curious about this visitor who was sadly overdressed.

As a teenager accustomed to life in the city, I followed, albeit grudgingly, a group of Christian missionaries to venture into the depth of rainforest in Upper Baram that year when the Penan Armageddon was already looming. The group, led by my father, a reverend affiliated with Ambassador for Christ International based in the U.S.A, intended to minister to the hundreds of Penans in Silat River, a tributary of Ulu Baram. That’s three days journey by boat from Miri.

The group was crazy about the Penans; my craziness was locked in the city. My father is religious; I was not. After a short argument between us, the Christian won. They needed me only to play guitar in the church every morning; after that, I can return to my ‘rebellion’ in the longboat.

The Penans came by the hundreds to converge on a small riverside village, Long Jekitan, for the two-week long seminar. The host village provided shelters for the travelling Penans from a number of villages in that area. While the women folks prepared food and did household chores, the men took turn to hunt animals for food in the woods nearby or fish in the river. Much to the joy of the missionaries, the Penans seemed trained for event management such as this. The seminar, now turning into some kind of a jamboree, was already in a good coordination right from the first day.

Everyone in that gotong-royong community knew their roles, except me. Unlike my father, I couldn’t even understand a Penan word. So, by the river I indulged in my boredom. As I slowly came to term with my ordeal, I crawled out of my idleness and started to befriend the Penans.

The Penans, as it turned out, were very friendly, cordial and sincere with what they meant. As I came to learn more about them later, I realized they could be the best of friend one can have owing to the fact they cannot hold grudges against friends. They often initiated the move to make nice. They may not used to the word ‘sorry’ but when they volunteer to do things for you to effect a similar purpose they surely can win you over.

The Penans are the type of persons who, although they can exaggerate, almost cannot tell lies to anyone. I guess they don’t know how to become someone else and I’m glad they didn’t try.

Sidi and the gang
Towards the end of the first week, three Penan girls joined me on the rocks-filled riverbank near the crystal-clear water almost everyday before sundown. They came to listen to the guitar playing although none of them can sing. They were probably in their early teens. The eldest of them was named Sidi. She’s also the fairest of the village girls.

“Masik pia ka, masik pia ami, atuk pia Penan Selungau,” Sidi told me. I turned to the girl next to her for the Bahasa Malaysia translation for she was schooled in Long Makaba, a Kenyah settlement downriver. Luna told me masik (fish) in Kayan is called masik in Penan Silat but atuk in Penan Selungau.

That was the beginning of my Penan language lesson on the rocks-filled riverbank near crystal-clear water almost everyday before sundown. While Sidi tried hard to have a conversation with me, Luna tried her speedy best to process and transmit all messages between me… and my girlfriend. The other girl chipped in with a line or two. Luna obediently translated that as well.

In the second week, I grasped enough vocabularies to carry me around in the village. Several young men eventually invited me to join them in the hunt. We didn’t have to go far before we found a group of pegem birds (distant family of pigeons, only fatter) resting in a treetop. Within range of 15 metres, the Penans shoot with great precision with the blowpipe. The air pressure exploded not from the man’s mouth but from the chamber in his stomach. The bird fluttered and dropped to the ground. They told me darts used for smaller targets are not tainted with poison but the penetration is enough to paralyze the bird.

When the target was far too high for a blowpipe, they turned to me. Quickly I picked up my father’s pump gun, eager to show off my skill with the heavy firearm. With a loud bang that startled even the trees, the gun discharged a cluster of pellets in the birds’ direction. I missed. They laughed at me. I laughed at myself.

Penan is a family, not a race

The Penans maybe reserved and appeared timid when in the midst of strangers but among themselves they’re the liveliest crowd I have ever seen.

The Penans grouped together around a gasoline lamp as one of them told a story from his adventure the other night. When a Penan narrated a story, his audience must participate in the narration. So when he said he aimed at the beast and cocked his shotgun, the audience cracked a sound like a gun being cocked. He pointed to a direction, all heads turned in that direction.

At any point in the story telling a suspense was making effect, the speaker would deliberately halted, lit a lutang (leaf cigarette), puffed up a few rounds, while his audience waited anxiously in utter quietness. When he finally dropped the bomb, everyone erupted like a group of turkeys (My apology, I couldn’t find other style to describe that in English).

There was a time I dropped to the floor laughing. Not that the anecdote tickled me as much as the humour did to them. It’s the plain sight of them rolling on the floor laughing…

If the story was funny, the laughter was contagious. If it’s sad, the look on his audience was even sadder. Like one big close-knit family, their reaction towards a situation was always harmony.

When the story was about troubles brought about by logging activities in nearby jungle, the atmosphere turned solemn. The people resigned into silent as if they have migrated into a deep thought over the matter, as if to mourn over their helpless future.

The big snake
There was this tale often told by their elders to Penan children in Silat River. I thought the story was another attempt at the hilarious moment, but this time not one Penan was laughing. Suspiciously, the story had become almost as revered as any stories from Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

A Penan told the Penans:

“Once upon a time before man come to live in this world, a big snake ruled over all things in the world. One day the big snake wanted to create man. The big snake coughed out a lump of venom from between its fangs and from that venom out come the white man (Caucasian). That is why the white men are the most intelligent of all men, because they are the first man created. The big snake coughed out another lump of venom and from this lump of venom out come the Chinese. Each time the big snake coughed out lump of venom, a creation of men sprung into life. Along the sequence, the concentration of the venom weakened and so was reduced the intelligence of the man: White men, the Chinese, the Malays, and the Kayan Kenyah. The big snake writhed, wriggled and rolled over several times to squeeze the last drop of venom its body can produce. When the big snake coughed out the last lump of venom, almost non-poisonous, out come the Penan. That’s why the Penans today are not intelligent.”

I remember seeing the fury on my father’s face when he listened to that story. Immediately the missionaries took great effort to quash the poisonous tale.

I remember asking Sidi if she believed that story. I was happy she didn’t know for sure.

I was also happy the Penans didn’t believe in the value boasted on the face of Malaysian Ringgit notes, otherwise many of their possessions could have been bought over. The Penans were faithful to barter trade but even that they did sparingly. A RM500 cannot make them part with their ornamented swords or precious rattan products but a box full of buckshot cartridges can – and only buckshot.

The Penans in Silat River didn’t eat chicken. Poultry was reared but only killed and cooked for their non-Penan guests to eat. Animal raised by the Penans were looked upon as member of the household. Sidi told me a fowl is a pet and Penans don’t eat pets. No argument.

The virtue of sebile’ek
After the Silat River, I had several other encounters with the Penans. My father adopted a young Penan man; I was glad he did. Surah was like older brother to me and we always ventured into the woods to shoot the squirrels. But I was angry with him one day. I got involved in a brawl with a gang of young men. Surah was with me but he merely pushed them away instead of whacking them as hard as I would I have wanted him to. My mother told me later it was only natural the Penan shun violence. They cannot hit someone without feeling overly guilty afterward.

I guess my mother was right. In fact, the Kayan plays the defender to the Penan, not the other way round. As told to me by some Kayan elders, barter trading in the old days was regarded as a lifetime pact between a Kayan and a Penan, in that the Penan must only trade with that Kayan and that Kayan must provide him shelter and protection when that Penan visited his village to trade with him. The scope of protection can also be extensive. When a Kayan and a Penan entered into such understanding between them, they become sebile’ek (brother) to each other and they will honour this vow until the day they die.

When I remember the blockbuster movie “Lord of the Rings” and recalled the scene when the Hobbits celebrated Bargin’s birthday, my mind brought me back to the Penan Silat many, many years ago. I remember the singing in the church. I remember seeing a large group of people eating and chatting happily by the riverbank. I remember Sidi. I remember how peaceful my world was then. I remember I loved everything around me. I remember I loved the Penans.

I can almost agree the Penans are living in a world of their own. In their world, where night seems longer than day, they don’t have much luxury to brag about but the joy from every little thing they do lasted a whole year round.

I can almost agree the Penans in their natural habitat are immune to despair and suffering and fear. But in everything that is wonderful in this life there’s always a Saruman somewhere. Now the ogres needed more wood to burn their ambition, the Penans are in great danger. Even great danger now all their allies forgot the vow they have taken.

My wish
I entered the kingdom of the Penans for the first time in 1989. 19 years later today, from what I saw on TV and news I read on dailies, I guess they have lost that kingdom.

Maybe the story of the big snake is true, after all. Maybe it’s true the last creation of man having sprung to life from the venomous mouth of the big snake are the Penans. But I wish you could see the story from my point of view, sebile’ek. I wish you can keep this story and tell it to your children and them to their children. I wish this story could strengthen you during your moment of trial and tribulation. YES, we agree, we agree wholeheartedly people in this world come from the venom of a big snake at the beginning of life in this world many, many years ago. People were made from the venom and that’s why they do evils. The white men do more evils than anyone else because they’re the first one created by the big snake. The Penans were created last. Because of that, you don’t do evil as much as anyone else. God loves the Penans more than He loves anyone else!


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About this photo:
Something touched me very deeply about this photo. It’s picture of Penan children in Long Tekan. Thanks to for this shot here. If I would describe in picture what I remember in Silat River 1989 this picture can give 99% of the actual scenario. The rocks-filled riverbank, the trees in the background, the happiness on people’s faces, the sweetness of the girls… it’s all very nostalgic now.

1 Response to "Penan and a big snake"

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