A typical longhouse in Tabau, Saratok, Betong Division.

Nothing can rival the longhouse as a unifying factor for Iban community since time immemorial.

Apart from that, the community dwelling is the institution that decides the customs and traditions pertaining to agriculture pursuits, especially that of shifting cultivation, the traditional means of growing the subsistence crop of rice; related beliefs and practice of animism; dwellers’ welfare and security, community programmes, marriages; health matters, funerals and other daily chores of the longhouse residents.

In shifting cultivation, the practice of “beduruk” (scheduled mutual assist) strengthens rapport and unity of the farming families who usually comprised the entire longhouse in the past. Currently, some dwellers have gone slightly modern by indulging in oil palm planting and pepper gardening. This is an important unifying factor for family members and the entire units in any longhouse.

For the sake of unity, every longhouse dweller, young and old, needs to play his or her role to perform an obligation, namely by conforming to the norms of unity staying under one roof. Bonding among family members and among the entire longhouse residents is the strongest factor to ensure long-lasting happiness among residents.

Iban parents should be the earliest educators and role models for their offsprings. They are to instil in their kids the discipline of respecting each other, respecting parents, their own peers, the elders in the community and everyone else in their immediate environment.

Respect is a great virtue and vital in preserving as well as promoting unity that usually results in everlasting happiness and well-being of the
community dwellers.

It is therefore essential for every member of the longhouse to respect one another.

A modern longhouse in Sibuti, Miri Division.

“The younger members are always reminded and taught to show respect to their parents, grandparents, elders and everyone else in the community.

“They must help each other in times of need and celebrate together in moments of joy. That’s why during funerals, weddings and festivals, every family is involved. This testifies to the longhouse as a unified establishment. And for that reason, those originating from the longhouse but staying elsewhere always come back for such events especially Gawai Dayak, weddings and funerals,” said uncle Datuk Musa Giri, cousin of my late mom, the first from my longhouse Kedap to be bestowed a datukship during my recent discussion with him.

“Additionally, during the fruit seasons, longhouse folk usually share with each other their durians, rambutans, mangosteens and other local fruits,” he added.

Nowadays, there is still such sharing albeit to a lesser degree, understandably due to the value of the sales.

Joint hunting and fishing trips also unite the men. The womenfolk usually do things together such as looking for edible jungle leaves and shoots as well as going to the streams with pemansai (woven baskets to catch prawns and fish). Whatever they catch or obtain will be shared equally.

Stable and fair leadership is another attraction of longhouses. But a badly administered longhouse, especially involving a “tuai rumah” (chieftain) whose leadership is “bebelah pinang, bebelah nibung” (unjust), can lead to divisive factions in the community dwelling. Divisions under one roof are most unwanted. That is why the choice of chieftain must be made on consensus.

Of course, there are some cases of government appointed “tuai rumah” who are not fully supported by the majority of dwellers. Nevertheless this does not deter those from towns and cities to “balik kampung” for festive celebrations, other events and funerals.

Most longhouses have rules to regulate the presence of families during
important occasions such as funerals. This pertains to families who are not fully residential in their units because of job requirements in towns and cities. For example in my Saratok longhouse, some families are residential in Kuching, Miri, Bintulu, Sarikei and Sibu. However, they need to come back for funerals.

Now, any family absent during funerals and other relevant events in our longhouse will be fined a big sum, the proposed figure being RM2,000 but after an appeal RM850 was finally agreed. This “fine” will be shared by the entire longhouse units equally.

It is also a taboo for the “dapur” or kitchen of the longhouse family unit not to be warmed up by fire over a period of one month.

But taboo or not, every family is never forced to return for funerals or celebrations. They willingly come back because of their own love and obligations towards their own family units and fellow longhouse residents.