In the remote Bukit Kida watershed, two days trek east of the Mulu National Park, lives a cluster of about 300 forest nomads whose lives are being transformed by modernisation.
Known as the Penan, many of these people who have Mongolian type features, were once referred to by Europeans as wild hunter gatherers who could not differentiate between night and day or count beyond 10.
At the turn of the 20th century there were a handful of nomadic hunter-gatherers distributed in small pockets in Brunei, Kalimantan and Sarawak who eked a living through living off the jungle.
In the 1950s as the Sarawak interior began to open up under the British colonial government, the Penan from Belaga district decided to settle permanently and were taught by the Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang communities how to grow padi.
However, their cousins from the neighbouring Baram district who were “True Nomads” and hunter-gatherers, continued to live off the land—eating sago palm, their staple food, wild meat and jungle produce.
When Malaysia was formed in 1963, there were fewer than 3,000 Penan in Sarawak. But in the 1980s, the total Penan population of Baram, Belaga and Bintulu rose to 7,621.
By 2006 their population had doubled to 15,485 (Bibi Aminah Abdul Ghani, Terry Justin Dit and Mawi Taib in “People of the Forest” making them among the seven largest native communities in the State after the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kenyah, Lun Bawang and Kelabit.
Despite their large numbers, they continued to be poor and backward and a misunderstood community.
But change had caught up with the Penan with the establishment of more schools.
However, the handful of 300-odd Baram nomads namely from watersheds such as Ba Magoh, Long Melamun, Ba Lesuan, Batu Lulau, Ulu Tutoh, Long Kidah, Kubaan and Long Adang in Limbang, remained illiterates who lived a hand-to-mouth existence as they struggled to cope with the changing world.
But one Penan nomad Gerawat Megud from Ba Magoh decided to break from tradition of his 78-member group to settle near the Long Seridan government outpost.
To share with the process of this change, New Sarawak Tribune sent 67-year-old veteran journalist James Ritchie to visit Gerawat at his new settlement at the fringe of Long Seridan–a Kelabit
The nomadic Penan of Sarawak have come a long way over the last 30 years as they try to integrate with the other developed native groups.
Ba Magoh nomad Gerawat Megud is one of the brave pioneers who had once depended completely on the jungle but has settled next to a government outpost to enable his young children to have an education.
Originating from the deepest jungles of Ba Magoh, Gerawat is one of the community’s elders whose ancestors once foraged in forests.
However, 10 years ago Gerawat decided to break tradition and left his group to set up a small village next to the Kelabit outpost of Long Seridan, adjacent to the Mulu National Park in Northern Sarawak.
When the old chief Agan Polisi Jeluan died in 2004, Sayak took over as leader of the group of 39 tribesmen foraging in the Ba Magoh watershed, a two-day trek away from Long Seridan.
Gerawat who would have been chief had he chosen to stay with the main group said circumstances had changed his attitude towards life.
I first met Gerawat at a timber camp in 1986, when he agreed to lead me to his jungle camp of about 15 followers–living in the forests a day’s trek away. It was there that I met the Ba Magoh chief Agan Polisi Jeluan.
Over the next two days I told them stories about the changes that were taking place in the country and that it was a matter of time before their jungle paradise would be destroyed by the fast encroaching logging industry.
If they did not make a decision to settle, their children would suffer the consequences. Gerawat, then only 19, appeared to understand me but was reluctant to take that quantum leap.
But fate intervened when his young wife Busak and his oldest child, a son, were killed in a timber vehicle accident.
Twenty three years later in 2009, I returned to the Baram and was reunited with Gerawat.
By then he was re-married to Rina Jeraku, had six children, and had moved away from his nomadic tribe to live near Long Seridan accessible from Miri by a 12-hour long journey by rugged timber track or 45-minute flight by Twin Otter.
Gerawat told me that he had decided to settle near Long Seridan because it had a medical and health clinic manned by a hospital assistant and midwife; in the past the mortality rate of Penan children born in the forests was high.
Though his parents did not permit him to attend school, he wanted to make sure his children would not be deprived of this essential element which had helped other natives become important members of society and were able to determine their own future.
He found that the challenge of being a forest nomad in the fast changing world was not going to be easy.
Gerawat saw for himself that despite all their efforts to stop logging, the tide of development had swamped their community; many Penan youngsters had been influenced by the loggers to consume alcohol, and all the good Christian values they had been taught by the native pastors of the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) seemed to have gone to waste.
“We did not know what is good or bad for our children, so we had to listen to the government who said it is better to settle than to live a nomadic existence,” said Gerawat who decided to have a temporary shelter near Long Seridan 10 years ago.
However, four years ago he made the decision to build a permanent village on a hillock just above the Magoh River, about a kilometre away from Long Seridan.
Now 50, Gerawat’s jungle abode was typical of the home of a typical settled Penan village; it had solar power device which had since broken down, a TV set which was not working and lots of used clothes donated by well-wishers.
But now Gerawat had learnt how to cultivate his own food; the Kelabit had provided his family with land to grow hill padi and he now had stocked up enough rice to last him for the year.
Even though the medical and health authorities first visited his new home in 2014 and 2015 (their last visit was two years ago) to ensure the village is Malaria and Dengue free, they have not been there since.
Sadly, the authorities did not provide them with basic skills on how to build a toilet or material that came with it such as toilet bowls, or a flush system.
“It’s not that we don’t want to build a toilet, but we do not have the money to buy the materials to build bathrooms. If the authorities could provide us with toilet bowls, zinc and wood, we could build a proper toilet for visitors. But for now, we still use the jungle,” he quipped.
In the old days the domesticated pigs or wild boar would eat up the human feces deposited in the jungle, but Gerawat could not afford to rear pigs like his neighbouring Kelabit cousins, let alone feed his family. His dogs now do the cleaning up.
And there are no wild boar left in the vicinity, having been overhunted by shotgun-carrying natives and timber men.
But the Ba Buang settlement has an open bathroom–with water pipe stand- and gravity-feed piped water coming from a hill one mile away.
“It’s no problem because the males bathe in their underpants or shorts while the womenfolk in their sarongs, under the pipe, or go down to a stream 10 minutes walk away,” added Gerawat.
Over the recent years, a former Federal Minister (from the Malaysian Chinese Association) and some retired Chinese businessmen from Kuala Lumpur, Miri and Brunei have helped provide Gerawat’s family with building equipment or cash.
He said: “They also paid for the gravity water system by buying several roles of pipes which we were taught how to install.”
Despite having a relatively good life when compared to other Penan nomads, he worried for his young family because none of them are eligible to have an identity card.
The problem is that even though he had an identity card (IC), his wife Rina Jeraku did not. So his children were deemed “stateless” because the national registration department insists that both parents must have ICs if not their children are considered as “illegal residents”.
“It’s ironical because all my children were born in Sarawak and have birth certificates from the national registration department to prove it. But they are not considered as Malaysians,” he said.
Gerawat said: “My daughters Margaret and Johani completed their primary six, but when they discovered they were not eligible for ICs they dropped out of school. But through a good samaritan, my son Jonathan (14) and daughter Eliana (12) got sponsorships to study at the Marudi Secondary School.
“However, I worry that when the time comes for them so sit for their form three exams, they will be disqualified because they too don’t have ICs,” added Gerawat who has an eight year old daughter Ira at the Long Seridan Primary School.
He continued: “Even though all my siblings have ICs, our wives do not. For example, my brother Sayak has an IC but his wife Idi Buki does not. So their eight children Apui, Piyun, Timah, Limau, Luna, Lujan, Ranau and Diana are without ICs.
“Sayak’s son Apui does not have an IC, neither does my daughter-in-law Alice and so my nephews and neices, Bobby, James, Alinda, Bryan and Cecelia will suffer a similar fate.”
Gerawat is not the only Penan facing such a problem. In fact there are an estimated 200 nomadic and semi-settled Baram Penan children and youth, who have birth certificates but no identity cards because one of their parents does not have an identity card and is deemed “stateless”.
The last major Penan registration exercise in the Baram was carried out in 1994 reaching out to the semi-settled Penan from Long Itam (Sungei Patah), Long Beku (Sungei Akah), Long Sait (Sungei Selungo),Long Makaba (Sungei Silat), Long Luteng (Suungei Patah), Long Kevok Service Centre, Long Lamai, Bario, Long Lellang, Ulu Akah, Batu Bungan and Long Seridan.
During the month-long registration exercise by the National Registration Department an estimated 5,500 Penan, from 37 villages and longhouse communities in the Baram, were invited to register themselves.
While the children and Penan under 13 received birth certificates, there was little follow up and many of the same children were unable to obtain identity cards.
Gerawat was told that the problem of getting ICs for his children could be easily solved if he was able to bring his family to meet the authorities in Miri.
“The Penan are poor and we don’t have the money to fly to Miri or make our way there by car. It will cost me at least RM2,000 to pay for transport to Miri and for food and accommodation.
“Would it not be better if the government could visit us in the jungle and have another registration exercise to ensure that our children enjoy the benefits of being born in Malaysia,” he concluded.
(To be continued)