Her massage is powerful; her hands are wrinkled with age but still strong. Starting at the base of your belly, just above the pelvic bone, she digs them into your softest spot. She lifts and rearranges, pushing your organs back into place, smoothing everything into the centre and upwards, undoing the work of gravity, poor posture, hard living and, in some cases, the rigours of birth itself. There are a couple of spots of excruciating pain. ‘Kembai urat,’ she states – swollen veins – and works even harder until the pain eases. Afterwards, there is a lightness there.

This massage is the cornerstone of the Bidan’s work. For the expectant mother, it prepares the baby for delivery, putting it into the right position and easing the pain of labour. For those post-partum, it returns everything to its original state. For those yet to conceive, it is a fertility treatment. The midwife is a common figure around the world, gradually supplanted by modern hospitals and ob-gyns, though now making a comeback in many cultures. In Sarawak, the position of the Bidan has been constant, especially for this massage.

Tebari Anak Landoh is 71 years old. She has borne 5 children of her own – two boys and three girls – the oldest when she was 18 and the youngest in her early thirties. She has also delivered over 30 children, including 10 of her own grandchildren, and provided massage to countless others as Bidan to family, friends and members of her extended community. Her mother was her Bidan. So effective was her massage that Tebari claims she felt no pain in any of her deliveries. In fact, her oldest and her second youngest were apparently born while she slept, while her oldest daughter popped out in the toilet, narrowly escaping an ignominious dunking, and her second son made his appearance in the belly of a boat, halfway to the nearest clinic. All those women who have huffed and puffed through their deliveries with epidurals may be feeling more than a twinge of envy at this point. She also claims that, in her 30 deliveries, she has never had to perform an episiotomy. If you know what that is, again the envy, if not, maybe it’s one of those secrets of womanhood best left unexplored!

So, Tebari learned the skill from her mother, who learned from her mother and now, she is passing the knowledge on to one of her own daughters. Her motivation is very simple. “I had many daughters, nieces and female relatives and I wanted to help them,” she says. “I didn’t want to ask anyone else.” It is not a profession, it is a calling. Payment is always traditionally pengeras (in kind) – a knife, a piece of cloth, perhaps RM5 or even a plate – a small payment for what can be days of work. For the Iban, the Bidan is a position of stature, up there with Lemambang (funeral crier) and Manang (shaman). But while the latter two can be male or female, the position of Bidan is the preserve of women. Rarely will the bidan start young. Tebari began her own education in the art in her fifties, once it was certain that she would have no more children of her own.

A traditional delivery starts with a massage, usually in the cool of the early morning, using minyak lala, coconut oil infused with buah kepayang and kunyit (turmeric). This will put the baby into position. In fact, she has on several occasions seen women scheduled for a C-section because the baby is out of position. Generally, she can reposition the baby and avoid a painful surgery for her charge. Once the baby is in place, she will mouth a puchau (incantation), kept secret from all but the initiated. She will help the woman push, if required, deliver the baby and then cut the umbilical cord with a knife. If the bleeding will not stop, there is another puchau, but Tebari claims this is very rare and she has never encountered a problem that she could not solve. Finally, at the risk of getting too medical and, frankly, gross, she will mix the afterbirth with ash and bury it under a banana tree to avert bad omens.

Her clientele is varied. She has massaged women of every race. Nowadays, the majority of women head for the hospital for the actual due date, which Tebari thinks is wise, but most still come for the massage – belly, body and feet – both pre- and post-partum, ‘to return the circulation and release the bad blood.’ Normally they will start to look for her 3 days after the birth, picking her up and taking her to the house for up to 3 days or even a week – all for the sake of a plate! Occasionally, she will even get advance bookings. During this time, she will bind their belly with cloth wrapped around ginger and turmeric pieces and advise them on what to eat – plenty of ginger and salai ikan (smoked fish), go easy on crab, prawn and ikan sembilang. Of course, this is much easier than the old days when the new mother was required to berkindu and bertangas – sit beside the fire and steam for 25 days with her belly wrapped with kulit kayu (tree bark)!

After 21 years of service to the women of her community, Tebari’s overwhelming feeling is one of pride that she has brought so many children into the world and eased the pain for so many other mothers. She says that ‘they are very kind to her because they are healthy;’ a statement that speaks volumes in its understatement. She is regularly asked to attend ‘makan selamat’ on the child’s birthday. As she puts it: “they remember me and their parents talk about me.” After all, she has been present for the most momentous occasion of so many people’s lives. Bidan is certainly a name to be proud of.

Karen Shepherd is 40 and has no children (well, not yet at least), though she treats her dogs like her children! As a staunch feminist, she has always been interested in female role models and their status in society.

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