Grim reminder of sufferance


There is a secret in our culture, and it’s not birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.

— Laura Stavoe Harm, educator and writer

Despite my year-long absence (June 2019 to June 2020) from this daily newspaper, I was still very much involved in journalism.

Not only was I still contributing as a columnist — including doing observations, interviews and researches — but I also noted a few other aspects of Iban life (and recording them mentally).

One of them was the new eagerness to do vending acts, especially selling vegetables, fruits, edible and food-related jungle products, local pancakes and delicacies.

Then in the Saratok fish and vegetable market, a few women were those known to me, including some cousins and relatives. I saw in them the image of my late mom — her enthusiasm, flair for selling, kind eyes and a perennially smiling face.

Though mom was not directly involved in any public vend of such items, she certainly helped my dad to pack those items — including cucumber, vegetables, jagung and other products for sale in the 60s when dad was among the Iban pioneers to get involved in such sale (normally taken in one lump sum by a Chinese towkay/middleman for a subsequent sale to the public).

Upon further pondering, I became blurred with emotion when thinking about mom’s sickly look over so many years prior to her passing.

What affected me more were the scars on her back which were also my partial contribution, no thanks to the sufferance of bekindu (having her back turned to the perennially burning fire woods after childbirth for many weeks) — there were three siblings before me.

All in all she had to undergo bekindu five times as there was a younger brother after me who died when he was only 40 days’ old.

When I was younger and noticing the scars daily during our time together, I was not very aware of her pain and took it for granted. But in those days, every day was Mother’s Day as she never failed to show her love and care.

When I brought her lifeless body (wrapped in white Sarikei Hospital bed sheet) to the mortuary on the morning of Sept 1, 1988, I consider that was an act of returning her love to me over the 34 years of our co-existence.

Over the last 10 years prior to her death at the age of 72, I had done my very best to provide for her, my dad and maternal grandma to ensure they lived well without having to struggle with farm work and other strenuous acts.

Grandma departed seven months earlier than my mom on Feb 4 the same year. She was 97. Her back was also full of scars too.

These scars are truly reminders of the first Iban mother to survive childbirth many centuries ago. 

According to a story handed down from generations to generations, during the ancient days of Iban civilisation, all the mothers died during childbirths — for the simple reason that all the newly born had to be extracted from the mothers’ wombs by means of crude operation (caesarean section, also known as C-section).

It took one newly-wed husband Agut (whose wife was expecting) to discover a milestone in childbirth care — after observing a deed performed by a group of orang utans on one of their females who was giving birth.

This was when men were still close to nature and understood the languages spoken by animals, plants, birds and spirits.

Agut heard that the orang utans were using crushed ginger to apply over the woman’s tummy and body when giving birth to her baby. 

From his hiding place he also noticed the other females pressing the tummy of the pregnant female until she finally delivered via the birth canal.

So Agut made a mental note of the process. And he was lucky as some pieces of the ginger fell down from the tree branch from where the primates were attending to the mother and her newly-born.

He quickly collected the fallen ginger and brought it back to his wife who planted it at their backyard.

Months later when his wife was about to give birth, Agut repeated what he noticed in the jungle among the orang utans. His wife lived and so was their newly-born son.

By then, his ginger plants were shared by the other Iban families who also learned about caring for the mothers at childbirths — including burning some fire woods behind their (mothers’) back to keep them warmth and ensuring good blood flow.

Luckily, I learned timely (when mom was still around) about this episode. It was an old woman who shared with us teenagers the story of Agut and his wife who was the first Iban mother to survive childbirth.

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