"He is Sa’ban,” said Ajang, my brother, to a somewhat bewildered Agriculture Department visitor to Long Banga. “He was born here.”
Me, aged 2, with my older sister Philippa and "brothers" Paulus, Deson and Ajang
His bewilderment was understandable. Though a little tanned, I am a middle- aged white man, a Mat Salleh, an Ang Moh. I may wear a Kelabit necklace and Penan bracelet, but so too do many backpackers. Not that many make it to Long Banga.
More strangely, I often forget that I’m white. In the days before digital photography there weren’t many mirrors in Long Banga either. Film was expensive.
Film was even more fragile and photos more precious in the 1960s. You carefully took fewer pictures and had them developed in town. Without mirrors and pictures I commonly forgot I was white and a whole lot bigger than everyone else! Until, weeks later, I saw the photos, in town.
My father coming out of the house the Sa'ban built for us in Long Banga.
My parents had opted out of the swinging sixties to come and help the BEM (Borneo Evangelical Mission) commit to written form for the first time some of Borneo’s esoteric languages. From Lawas, Tama Maria, a Sa’ban Pastor, invited my parents to Long Banga.
My mother had a PhD in Archaeology and a thorough grounding in linguistics; my father did his military service with the Gurkhas in “Malaya”, studied Civil Engineering and rowed for Cambridge: he was tough, practical and impatient. They went.
My parents with the translation team, including Tama Maria and Tama Kallang.
In 1967 Long Banga was a long, long way from anywhere. If they were lucky a small mission plane landed with supplies every three months. My mother - a keen photographer - only dared take pictures if she knew she could send the film out before it spoiled.
Few images survive from that time. In one, I am surrounded by fellow toddlers, the sons and daughters of Tama and Hnan Maria, who today I call my brothers and sisters: Martha and Maria, Ajang, Deson, Simeon and Paulus. And they call me “Parel”, the name of Tama Maria’s long passed brother.
I wasn’t born there. My mother was flown to the Shell Hospital in Kuala Belait, Brunei, to have me. Nor is it that unusual for outsiders to be “adopted” by these kind people. None of the tribes in Borneo has any native expression for “thank you.” The obligation in the highlands is to be hospitable. And they treated me as one of their own. I wouldn't make it back until 1988, many years after we had returned to the UK. There was no email or Facebook then, but remarkably a letter addressed simply to “Balan Seling, Kuching,” found him. He had worked with my parents in Lawas. Balan Seling and his family very graciously hosted me and my girlfriend in Kuching, and sent us on to Luke Southwell in Marudi.
Tama Pironet by an old stone grave, or dolmen, several centuries old.
Luke, a Kayan, had been properly adopted by Hudson Southwell, the founder of the BEM, and his wife had looked after me as a baby (so, seemingly, had half the village).
We flew to Bario by Twin Otter, joined a huge irau, or Kelabit naming ceremony, and followed the revellers home to Long Danau, Pa’ Dalih then Ramudu. In Ramudu I probably got malaria, and we faced quite a dilemma. No-one was free to guide us further and Long Banga was still 3-4 days walk away, through uninhabited forest and mountains.
We set off gingerly, foolishly, on our own. The first day we were lost more than half the time and wanted to turn back. The second day we were lost about half the time, should have turned back, but camped as dusk fell, exhausted and dispirited, scared to go on. By some miracle we emerged three days later from the forest and crossed a bamboo bridge into Long Beruang, much to the astonishment of the Penan settled there.
Travelling upriver, me in the very front.
By contrast we practically skipped our way to Long Peluan, a nominally Kelabit village, where we stayed, then joined the kids as they walked to the primary school in Long Banga, three hours away.
Pupils throughout the highlands faced this challenge and hardship. Some today will tell you it made them who they are, but they won’t deny how tough it was and how much they missed home life.
My mother, Dr Beatrice Clayre, in 2013, with the Sa’ban Association, managed to publish a preliminary dictionary, with help from The Foundation for Endangered Languages.
Half-way, a little old man met us. He seemed utterly delighted to see me. I hadn’t a clue who he was, but he insisted on taking my rucksack, almost as big as himself, patting me, stroking my arms and chattering excitedly in a strange tongue: Sa’ban.
Walking on, with the happy throng of children, we arrived in Long Banga. I don’t know how many people had gathered to welcome us, but it seemed like an awful lot of grinning faces and handshakes and hair-tussling by old dears with tears in their eyes. Again, they knew who I was, but I was at a loss.
We stayed with the old man, who turned out to be Tama Kallang. He was one of the elders who, with Tama Maria, had worked with my parents on the Sa’ban Bible translation.
We visited nearby Long Lamai, where the Penan first came out of the forest and settled in 1958. We danced with the Kenyah, swam with gangs of children who never seemed to cry, beneath forest- covered mountains. We ate fresh fruit, fish and game. The land was fertile and food abundant. People were cheerful and relaxed, even when we toiled on the hillside planting rice. It was, to me, heaven.
I rather let the side down however. Everywhere I went, people produced broken machines, expecting me to fix them, but I am not the engineer my father was. He had converted an abandoned Land Rover, left by British forces stationed here during Confrontation, into a rice mill! But there were anxieties in Eden. The children would next go to school in Bario, the same five days’ walk we had come, and continue on to Marudi, by the route we yet had to take: two days steep walk and three days downriver by longboat, past the rapids at Long San, if you were lucky. The higher up the education ladder the students climbed, the further from home they were stranded.
The community was busy, in between farming, clearing land for a new airstrip long enough to land a Twin Otter, hoping to prompt the government to develop it.
I was deeply impressed and moved. These were hard-working, self-reliant, independent people motivated to improve the lot of their children. How could I help?
I delivered a petition to government offices in Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, and in 1995 I landed in Long Banga on the first MAS Twin Otter flight. I was glad to see young people, who had not been back to their home village in many years, visiting their families, reinvigorating the community. A few years later a road arrived with the logging.
Today you can fly cheaply to Long Banga from Miri or drive (4x4) in about 8 hours, depending on road conditions. Here you can meet the Kenyah, Sa’ban, Kelabit and Penan. Take a longboat on the rivers, trek the forest, jump into waterfalls, discover megaliths or just slow down. If the road is in good condition - and it often isn’t - you can continue on up to Bario in about 3 hours, or trek out to Long Lellang in about 3 days.
There are many challenges facing the orang ulu, or “upriver people.” All over the world, people are leaving the countryside for towns. In many rural kampongs only the old and the very young are left. Long Banga feels a little different and makes me hope that we can come up with strategies to maintain our rural communities.
Among these communities are some of the smallest tribes in Borneo - and in the world. Sarawak may have over 40 ethnic groups, but the Sa’ban only number around 1000.
Bulan Balan (aka Pun Lio) in Long Peluan.
Among these communities are some of the smallest tribes in Borneo - and in the world. Sarawak may have over 40 ethnic groups, but the Sa’ban only number around 1000
My mother, Dr Beatrice Clayre, in 2013, with the Sa’ban Association, managed to publish a preliminary dictionary, with help from The Foundation for Endangered Languages. And I am now writing an ethnography of the Sa’ban at UNIMAS.
I am flattered to be considered a Sa’ban, but truly I need to get to grips with the language properly to feel more like one. It is notoriously difficult, with voiceless nasals and laterals, velar and bilabial fricatives (ask my mum), long consonants and vowels which can drastically change the meanings of words. Mercifully, some words, like life in the ulu, are simple. The word for “good”, wei, also means “fruit”.
Long Banga in the Marudi Division, Sarawak. Today you can fly cheaply to Long Banga from
Miri or drive (4x4) in about 8 hours, depending on road conditions.
It has become fashionable in recent decades to “adopt” orang utans and other cute, threatened species. How’s about adopting an endangered language? Let’s start classes!
In West Malaysia, I’m told that orang ulu is a derogatory term. But in Sarawak, though they make up a small percentage of the population, they grab a great deal of the imagination and are very much a part of our cultural heritage. The Pua cloths of the Iban are our calling card, the sultry twang of the Sape is Sarawak’s sound.
Alasdair grew up in Borneo and Winchester. He studied Theology and Anthropology at Cambridge and film at Columbia University in New York. He has mostly worked in travel, running tours in France in the summer and in Sarawak. Currently he is writing his PhD at UNIMAS in Kuching and still hasn’t worked out where he belongs.