My dad taught me from my youngest childhood memories through these connections with Aboriginal and tribal people that you must always protect people’s sacred status, regardless of the past.— Steve Irwin, Australian wildlife expert
At about 2pm on Hari Raya Haji Day on March 29, 1999, a pale and pint-sized native approached me at the padlocked front iron gate of the residence of the chief minister.
He was wearing shorts and a simple tee-shirt when he approached and asked, “Sir, I am Ezra and I want to study at Unimas. Can you help me?”
Ezra Uda was forthcoming when he showed me his STPM (A Levels) result slip with impressive results.
I then sat on the curb outside the gate and wrote a short note to the deputy state secretary and handed it to Ezra and left it at that.
A semi-nomadic Penan Ezra Uda, 21, had passed his exams but his application to enter Unimas was rejected, but the letter I wrote opened a new world for him.
I had first met Ezra 30 years ago while covering an official visit by the Minister of Penan Affairs Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari to the semi-nomadic village of Long Lamai in 1991.
Long Lamai was a role model — it had produced the first Senior Cambridge and Higher School Certificate recipients Henneser Uning Bong and David Kala.
A self-contained village with a primary school, Uning was its headmaster, whose students were both his nephews David and Ezra.
As a shy and reticent boy, little Ezra hated school because his classmates often bullied him.
But his doting father encouraged him and he learnt how to fend for himself and pursued his studies with renewed vitality.
Looking back and after almost 50 years, the village has come a long way.
In 2014, the Sarawak government created history when it established a leadership system which was similar to the other native communities.
“Pemanca” Uning became the first deputy paramount chief of the Baram Penan and seven leaders under him were appointed as “penghulu”.
The seven penghulus included my nomadic friend Tebaran Siden better known as Tama Ating from Ulu Magoh, Ajang Kiew (Apoh-Pata), Juing Lehan (Apoh-Tutoh), Daud Suok (Silat), Kule Jar (Ulu Baram), Larek Mat (Lapok) and John Bong (Ulu Akah) receiving salaries of RM1,200 each.
Another 80 Baram Penan chiefs were also appointed as “Tua Kampung” (headmen) and receive salaries of between RM800 and RM900. Their responsibility was overseeing the 10,000 community members in the district.
Said Henesser, “Our greatest fear is the Covid-19 virus. So far, we have been protected from it.
“But until today, we have no access to the Covid vaccine which is available in urban Sarawak,” he added.
In my last conversation with Tebaran Siden at his village of Long Balau in 2010, his prediction that the nomadic Penan would be transformed in one generation was proven true.
Since then, the number of Penan students has increased gradually from 50 to about 3,000 annually and the community’s children love to attend school.
Today, there are no less than 30 Penan graduates, some with masters degrees, many of them Muslim converts from the Bintulu-Niah coastal region.
Together, they form the core of the pioneering graduates such as USA-trained Serina Hasan, her sister Mareia and two siblings and another old friend Nyurak Keti, who is the first Penan Resident of Kapit.
Others are Philip Unga whose father was a key member of BMF’s anti-logging blockades, Zain Rocky, John Fery James and SAO Awi Abang from Belaga.
In the mid-2000s, Ezra graduated with an honors degree in Social Sciences, Politics and Government and was employed as a development officer in the Chief Minister’s Department.
In 2009, he was also involved in editing and updating the Penan Bible “Rengah Jian” (Good News) which first came into print in 1974.
Australian pastors Marjorie “Rinai” Britzer and Phil Webster were responsible for the initial translations which is now an important tool in educating the community.
Early this year, another Long Lamai villager, Frankling George, secured a Masters of Arts degree.
Frankling’s uncle is Jolly Jengan, the world’s first semi-nomadic Penan recording artiste who sings in Penan, Kayan and Malay.
In 2018, Franklin’s distance cousin Frecela Jane, a Penan music graduate from Unimas, was appointed as a field officer with a deputy minister in Kuala Lumpur. It’s been far too long that this gentle tribe has been left to fend for themselves.
But a new dawn is on the horizon and the Penan have broken out of their cocoon.
Now is the time to shine and take their rightful place in society.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.