The year was 1983. After serving for about five monthsin a rural secondary school as its youngest ever Principal – I was then a few days short of my 29th birthday – I was taken upriver for a longhouse visit, my first in the area. It was on the invitation of a fellow Iban friend Joseph Unting, who was then serving as the local Senator (Member of the Malaysian House of Senate). Prior to being a senator, Unting then aged about 65, was an elected State Legislative Assembly Member as well as Member of Parliament for Kanowit.
My school SEDAYA (Sekolah Datuk Abdul Rahman Yaakub), named after the Sarawak third Chief Minister and later fourth Governor, was located on the bank of the mighty Rajang River opposite Kanowit Town, midway between Sibu and Kapit – now the school has been relocated further inland, thanks to the new Nibong-Tada Road, making the school closer to Sibu Jaya than to Kanowit Town by land (I made a mistake for not purchasing these few lots of then ‘useless’ land when Unting whispered to me these lots would be developed in the ‘near future’ which was just a matter of 20 years later).
Unting’s only son Doubline fetched me and two male teachers and a female clerk from the school in his long boat powered by a 40 hp Johnson engine. His father, who owned a bungalow in Sibu, was already waiting in their longhouse at Sedabai, along the upper reaches of Pui River, a tributary of the Rajang above Kanowit. Our journey from the school to Sedabai took about an hour inspite of the powerful 40hp Johnson engine.
Doubline had to evade countless floating logs along the state’s longest river, not to mention manoeuvring skillfully the slick longboat through the rough waters, though it eased a bit as we entered the Pui estuary. At mid morning we made a grand entrance into the compound of the stilted longhouse, standing majestically by the river.
Unting was on hand to welcome us at the jetty. Sedabai, a 28-door longhouse was Unting’s birthplace. Its mainly belian posts, support, flooring and roofing had definitely withstood the test of time and certainly had seen better days. Nevertheless, Unting was very proud that everything was still intact despite its age.
“Take a seat at my ruai (open gallery) my friends,” the Senator happily said and disappeared into the room for a while. We did accordingly. Some eager shabbily dressed children stared curiously at us or probably one of us, the beautiful young lass Doris who was seated by my side. She was the only lady in our entourage. Among others, an old in black also gave us doubtful look and was seen whispering to her younger friends. Another man passed us by through the verandah a number of times for no obvious reason except for stealing some glances at Doris who was not amused at all by his antics.
Unting’s bilik (apartment) was at the middle of the longhouse, rendering us a commanding view of the other parts of the community dwelling.
I noticed two doors away to our left a few women stood inquisitively by, with babies-in-arm cradled in scarves around their mothers’ necks. Other ladies of the households were not seen outside, probably too busy preparing lunch for their families.
Some younger girls made shy appearances in the not-so-distant gallery, flitting from one room to another where they wished or pretended to fetch things, so that they might have another excuse for a surreptitious glance at us strangers. I was quick to note that two of them donned two different sets of attires within 30 minutes of our presence.
This concourse of human beings did not complete the company. Countless dogs scampered through the gallery, sniffing unceremoniously at the walls and at each other, a pack of flea-infested mongrels kept by the occupants for hunting deer and wildboars, which to according to Doubline were still abundant in the area’s thick jungles. The presence of those dogs was a reminiscene of our own Kedap longhouse about 20 years earlier (in the 60s).
By the time of this trip, we had already move to a more modern longhouse of concrete and bricks where cars were conveniently parked outside our own potion of the dwelling. Dogs no longer roamed the longhouse gallery n the 80s because it was the rule that no dog was allowed inside our longhouse. Some folk kept their dogs to guard their farms some distance from the longhouse.
Some doors away from Unting’s on both sides, a few pairs of splendid gamecocks were tethered by their legs. Doubline was quick to point out that these gamecocks belonged to his cousins, who unlawfully enjoyed the sport, not only popular among the Kanowit Iban but others too, particularly the local Chinese. I was informed that my friend Empeni Lang (now deceased), then the District Officer there was quite generous in granting cockfight licences as he was keen enthusiast himself.
This mixed gathering made a considerable noise, and to our own conversation, yapping of dogs, crowing of gamecocks, clucking of hens and even the grunting of dogs underneath the gallery was added the wails of infants from nearby ‘bilik’ apartments.
One of the two teachers Nelson (he is DCM Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah’s biological brother) who did not have enough sleep the previous night was close to slumber, oblivious of our strange surrounding. I felt a bit hungry in anticipation of delicious Iban dishes courtesy of Unting. An old man in his seventies, who did not introduce himself (typical of longhouse folk of old), joined us at Unting’s gallery bringing a kettle of freshly brewed rice wine ‘tuak’.
Doubline called him ‘Aki Igat’ (Igat’s grandpa). He wore short pants but was shirtless showing a fine tatooted back and limbs, not to mental the regal insignia on his throat which was said to be the most painful but the greatest source of pride among tatooted menfolk. I tried locating his hands and fingers for ‘tegulun’ designs tatoo but found none. Tegulun tatoo normally adorns the fingers and hands of warriors who have won head trophies. The number of tegulun designs represents the number of heads the man had taken. But Aki Igat had none, indicating that he was not one of those men. Out of curiousity I ventured to ask him whether he had taken part in any war party. Aki Igat said he joined a raiding party once but when they reached their target, all the occupants of the settlement had abandoned the place. Hence all of them returned empty-handed.
That was the end of one and only warpath he ever took. The jolly old man served us two rounds of tuak each before a charming lady invited us to Unting’s bilik for lunch.
My colleagues Nelson and Aaron (now Kanowit MP Datuk Aaron Ago Dagang) seemed quite mesmerised by the beauty of the anonymous lady. Doris seemed to be unperturbed by the sudden interest shown by the two gentlemen towards the charming beauty. I pretended not to noticed and pounced immediately on the delicious dishes laid out before us.
It was almost two in the afternoon when we were done with our hearty meal of wild ferns rambai or miding, fish and chicken cooked in bamboo and salai kijang (dried and salted barking deer meat). We shifted back to the open gallery ruai because Doubline said his father had arranged for some entertainment prior to us leaving in the evening.
Next door to Unting’s some men were busily positioning gongs and drums for a tabuh or gendang session. A middle-aged lady played the eight-piece mini gong engkerumung which was to provide the low to high pitch in the eight-ocave melody of the musical gendang instrument. They started by playing the ‘gendang ajat’with a slow tempo.
This was when a young maiden in full Iban costume started the ball rolling by doing the ‘ajat indu’. She demonstrated feminine grace and beautiful movements, transpiring a sense of exoticism with her delicate hand movements, which in my dreamlike vision looked like the quick brush strokes of renowned Chinese painter Fang Kuan. This time it was my turn to get enthralled.
Doubline notice my sudden interest and whispered to me the name of the girl which I don’t intend to share with readers (this was 35 years ago anyway). Meanwhile, Aki Igat who was a bit high after a generous dose of tuak and mixed with Martel, courtesy of Unting, took to the floor, this time donning his warrior attire of ‘gagung kulit remaung negung mua lubang, nangkin berangin pedang panjang, ngesan sempitan sumpit tapang (vest of tiger skin, hugging on his waist a long home-made sword, blowing pipe of tapang hard wood on his shoulder). He also put on a lelanjang headgear of woven cloth adorned by hornbill and pheasant feathers.
He was an awesome spectacle. His movements were splendid but there was a moment of suspense when he unsheathed the sword and held the blade with his mouth by ‘biting’ it. He ‘bit’ the blade for a minute or two and then made a bending movement while putting the sword on his back without holding it, demonstrating a perfect balance and agility. Aki Igat was a superb entertainer. At one time he made a jumping movement symbolising a warrior cutting an enemy’s head, poking pun at the audience. Others also took part in the show.
Unting put Aki Igat’s headgear on my head and asked me to perform the warrior dance ngajat which I obliged with humility. Aaron and Nelson had their turns too before we finally called it a day. By eight we were down at the jetty. A young man carried a pressure lamp to combat darkness during the short journey to the jetty.
I hanged on to the bottle of tuak that the pretty lass from Unting’s room handed over to me as a token to the chagrin of Nelson and Aaron. Aki Igat who only knew that I was the school principal of the only senior government secondary school in Kanowit after ny ngajat performance, said at the jetty that he thought all secondary school principals were ‘orang putih’ (white men).
He also added that I looked more like a schoolboy than a teacher. I told him the world had turned outside down. We almost capsized at Pui estuary, a wellknown crocodile-infested pool. So Aaron and Nelson had to keep on throwing water out of the boat till we reached SMK SEDAYA around ten. Two or three hours later I met in my dream the charming lady who handed me the tuak bottle as memento.