Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the face.

– Helen Keller, American author, political activist and lecturer

When I first travelled into the remote Baram interior and wrote about the semi-nomadic Penan of Ulu Baram 35 years ago, they were a small community of 5,000 poor and illiterate natives.

Hunter-gatherers who eked a living in the remote interior of the Sarawak jungle, many were not aware what the future held for the community.

However, a handful of the Penan nomads living in the vicinity of the Lamai River not far from the Kalimantan border had already started their march for progress.

Their story started in 1956 when the nomads of the Lamai tributary under their leader Lejau Jabu and his brother Belare visited the Saban community at Long Banga and came across a “magic” sound box — an old gramophone during Lahang’s speech.

After the hymns finished playing, some of the Penan moved forward to touch the gramophone and one of them even suggested turning it upside down to see who was singing inside strange square box.

In 1958 Saban preacher Lahang Apoi from the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) convinced the nomads to settle instead of roaming aimlessly.

After they became Christians in 1959, the people of Long Banga helped build a village followed by a Penan school at Long Lamai.

Under the supervision of the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM), the school — the first Penan school — had 21 registered students and two Australian women missionaries to help them.

Both trained nurses, Phylis Webster (fondly referred to Pendita Runggu) and Marjory Britza (called Rinai), stayed with the Penan for four years, helped translate the Bible into Penan called “Rengah Jian” (Good News) and created a Penan hymn book.

By the 1970s Long Lamei produced the first Penan with a Cambridge Higher School Certificate (HSC) David Kala whom I got to know well.

I was fortunate to have been invited on a helicopter trip to Long Lamai on a special mission on May 21, 1988 with Sarawak Minister for Penan Affairs Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg and his entourage.

During Abang Johari’s study-tour, Long Lamai had grown into a well-organised village of 96 families with 86 students under their own headmaster Henneser Uning Bong and five teachers Henneser and two Penan teachers were cousins of David who had a brother Yesiah and sister Mailin with the Sarawak Penan Volunteer Corp.

But the1980s was also a time of great change as the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers of eking a living in a forest teeming with fish, wildlife and jungle produce, was disappearing.

Even the landscape of Sarawak had been transformed with logging which had encroached into the deepest parts of the interior causing the Penan to set up a series of blockades.

At that time, one of David’s nephews Ezra Uda wa a young man motivated by his parents and uncles. After Ezra passed his Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan
Malaysia (STPM) — the equivalent of the HSC — in 1998, he applied
to join the newly-opened University of Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas). Initially Ezra was denied entry into the local Unimas until he raised the issue in Kuching a year later.

My meeting with the young man was at one of the most unlikely places — an anti-logging protest in front of the chief minister’s residence on March 29, 1999.

Joining a group of nomadic Penan and media covering the event, Ezra who was holding a file, came up to me and said: “My Ritchie … can you help me?

I’ve passed my STPM but Unimas won’t accept me?”

I broke into a smile when I opened his file to find he was from Long Lamai and nephew of my friend David Kala.

As the public relations officer in the Chief Minister’s Department, I called an urgent meeting the following day and within the year he was accepted as a student by Unimas.  

After graduating in political science three years later Ezra was taken in as a staff of the Penan Affairs Department at the State Secretariat — Wisma Bapa Malaysia.

Long Lamai’s progress has been emulated by other 15,000 Baram Penan tribesmen.

Recently Ezra established a Penan Graduates Association and hoped to drum up support for the youth. His biggest dream is for a Penan to graduate as a doctor and other members of the community joining the educated elite.

Looking back, thanks to the courage and determination of the pioneers of Long Lamai, Ezra and his people can hold their heads high and walk tall.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.