Longhouse economy

IT’S like the game of the Snake and the Ladder, except that it is not a game at all.

It’s the longhouse on fire, mate!

The longhouse fires happen again and again. There is a growing concern among many people here, especially among the Dayak Ibans. What can we do about it?
Whenever one longhouse burns down, the future and fortune of that whole community go with it. All the savings accumulated painstakingly over the years for the purpose of owning an asset have ended in flames. The priceless antique jars and plates and gongs are gone forever.

Unlike the proverbial phoenix, it may take years for the fire victims to rise from the ashes.

We are not saying that other types of building do not burn down. They do indeed, from time to time. It is a fact that a whole row of shop houses has been razed to the ground in the past, but the longhouses fires occur on a regular basis.

Fires have been one of the major curses faced by the longhouse dwellers in Borneo for hundreds of years. In Kalimantan the construction of new longhouses was officially ‘discouraged’ to avoid mass destruction by fire. Except for a couple of Maloh and Bahau houses no new longhouses have been constructed recently.

In Sarawak, we maintain the old and we keep on building new ones, some with financial loans from the government.

Along the trunk road from Kuching to Miri and along the spur roads in between, there are many beautiful longhouses, well-built and impressive when new.

These are well-built structures with bricks for walls and fire-resistant material for roof. One may think these do not burn down easily.

Whenever I see a solid looking one, my thought goes back to the time several years ago when I read in the papers that a conflagration had destroyed a magnificent longhouse on the left-hand side of the road as one goes to Lingga.

Think of those with timber walls and zinc roof. They are tinder dry. They are fire risks.

Recent fires

Within four months of this year alone, three longhouses of various sizes, ages and standards of materials used, met with similar fate.

Our stringers reported that on June 20, Rumah Sangga (27 doors) at Nanga Poi, in Kanowit, was razed to the ground.

Two months later, a longhouse (33 bilek-families), at km 36, Bintulu-Tatau road, went up in flame. All valuables — money, documents, building materials earmarked for another longhouse construction — went down the ladder with the snake.

A few days later, Rumah George (10 doors) at Nanga Yong in Kapit was in flames too.

Good Samaritans

There is no shortage of Good Samaritans in Sarawak. Help in the form of cash and kind would pour in to alleviate the problems of the fire victims.

That’s most commendable, but there is a limit to what others can do for you.

Enough is enough

It is high time some serious brainstorming was organised to find ways and means whereby the fire risks to longhouses could be minimised.

No one can totally prevent a fire, but in many cases it can be prevented, unlike an earthquake or tsunami.

Sensitive subject

This is not a new subject: it has been discussed from time to time by the Dayak NGOS for the past 20 years or so. However, at one stage, the views for the retention of the longhouse were so strong that it was best to douse the heat generated by the debate before it would develop into a political conflagration.

Many believe that “it won’t happen to our longhouse”.

While the problem is swept under the mat, the longhouses keep on burning.

Concerned with the frequency of fires, attempts have been made by the authorities to produce plans of the longhouses with safety features.

One model of a longhouse built for the Penans at the Mulu Resort is worthy of note. For every three or four doors there is a fire-break, linked by bridges. In case of fire in one block, there is time to sever the links and the rest of the house is saved. That’s the theory.

There must be other ideas. It would be a good exercise for the ministry of housing to run a competition among local architects to produce the longhouse model with the best safety features. And anyone wanting to build one may like to adopt the plan.

That is, if you must build a longhouse at all, for whatever reasons, cultural or otherwise.

Catch the bull by the horns

Now is the time to let loose the pigeons amongst the cats.

If we are really concerned with the regular occurrences of fires, let’s us brainstorm these questions: Should or shoud not the Dayak Ibans continue building longhouses? Will it not be more sensible or practical of them to opt for single houses?

In favour of single houses

1. Reduce the risk of mass destruction by fire

2. Easier to keep clean

3. Freedom of choice for the individual in terms of size of room

4. Freedom of choice of colour of the walls or the roof

5. Sufficient space for landscape suited to individual taste

6. Animal rearing and protection — fencing

In favour of building new longhouses

1. Cultural heritage

2. Ample space for observation of customs and traditional practices

3. Security of inhabitants under one roof

4. Close rapport among inhabitants

Hold seminars

Government should conduct a series of seminars during which frank views are allowed in respect of the merits and demerits of above questions.

Invite representatives of the victims of recent fires as participants, community leaders, representatives from the Ministry of Housing and the Bomba to these talks. Local architects and insurance agents may be interested to observe the proceedings.

During the seminars causes of fires in each particular case — human carelessness, defective wiring, etc may be disclosed. Their effects are not hard to imagine.

No new buildings

We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that the existing longhouses should be pulled down. We are talking about a ban on constructing NEW buildings.

A change must be made now

That’s the long and the short of this piece. For what they are worth, these are some of my views. Your ideas could well be much better than mine.

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