THE road to Karangan Ma is long and winding but the scenery along the way is breathtakingly natural – if you like greens, blue mountains and low mists.
Most of the road skirts around hills while at times, you are actually driving atop the ridge.
Passengers can look down – nervously – into the valley below. Eagles soar in the sky while a tall solitary meranti (valuable timber) pops up into the skyline once in a while.
John Denver’s Country Roads Take Me Home comes to mind when one travels in Ulu Limbang. That’s the tune you’d hum as you drive along the upcountry road.
Karangan Ma is a beautiful Iban settlement in Ulu Limbang.
Ten years ago, a trip to this once remotest Iban village on the banks of the Limbang River, would take three days from Limbang by longboat.
At times, passengers had to get down and pull the boat along, especially during the dry spell when the river was low.
The boatmen had to be very skilfull in order to negotiate the river bends, the shallow waters and the deeper parts of the Ulu waterway.
In the past, some people drowned when their boats mysteriously capsized. Their bodies were never found, according to the locals.
Today, it takes three hours to Karangan Ma from Limbang by a 4×4 vehicle. Boats are no longer used unless there is a need to cross a river to collect fruits – or for funeral purposes.
Although some families still keep their outboard engines and longboats, many have discarded them in favour of motorbikes or Hiluxes.
Some of the younger Karangan Ma generation own Kembara and Proton Saga cars which they can drive home when the weather and the road are good.
Most times, the farmers here can hitch a ride from the various companies operating in the region.
Karangan Ma was settled by the last batch of Ibans from Skrang. Their leaders are related to those who have settled in Pulau Brunei and Lower Limbang.
In the last 60 years or so, Karangan Ma had evolved from a small wooden longhouse into a fairly big settlement of concretised and wooden clusters of buildings above a river ford.
Today, the settlers cultivate pepper, rubber, padi and oil palm.
They live without electricity and water supply but are yet able to find a niche for themselves in one of the most remote places in Sarawak.
Women’s important role
A visit to Karangan Ma would reveal some exceptional micro-features of the Iban lifestyle in the area.
Like in many other Iban longhouses, the women here play a pivotal role in cultivating the land.
In fact, many of the women put the bacon on the table, according to Indai Mancha, a village elder.
She said many of the men who worked in Baram or Papua New Guinea sent some money home to their families regularly.
Even so, most of the women would sell their agricultural produce for cash. Those who are self-supporting have to look after their grandchildren as well.
Widowhood is common in Karangan Ma.
The men have to do hazardous work at timber camps (as tractor drivers) and road construction sites. They also work as offshore welders and handle chainsaws as lumberjacks.
A Karangan Ma resident Samy has been a widow for many years. Her husband died in a timber accident.
She put her land to good use while raising her children. She tapped rubber and cultivated pepper. A few years ago, she started planting oil palm.
Indai Mancha and her sister, Chula, co-own a farm given by their parents. Although the land is mainly kerangas or sandy secondary forest, they have been able to turn it into a fairly descent oil palm garden.
They have learnt how to tend to their oil palm garden and harvest their crop.
There is no retirement for the women here. Indai Lani continues to work her farm and land inherited from her parents.
In the Iban Adat, both male and female descendants can inherit land from both the maternal and paternal sides. Some get more, some less, depending on the graciousness of the parents.
Karangan Ma’s women pepper farmers continue to break their backs, cultivating this cash crop.
They are pleased to hear Tan Sri Alfred Jabu is encouraging the cultivation of the crop. Many continue to maintain their plot and have been able to sell their produce at the Limbang Tamu or to some middlemen.
“Grandmothering” is a social responsibility of these women.
Indai Saloma said like many educated Karangan Ma youths, her daughter works in Medamit.
Some are in the government’s nursing force while some in other agencies. Although these Iban youths have not bought any urban properties, they have ambitions to move further afield for the sake of their children’s children.
So when they are struggling with their career, the best carers for their young children will be their ini (grandmother) at home in Karangan Ma.
Karangan means river pebble beach.
According to the locals, many buah ma or buah maritam (or pulasan a type of rambutan-like fruit) grew near the karangan when the settlers first moved in. Thus, the area was called Karangan Ma. The longhouse there is called Rumah Sing after the present Tuai Rumah Sing.
The previous Tuai Rumah was the late Bilong. One of his daughters is the wife of Tuai Rumah Sing.
Before the present system was introduced, headship in an Iban Longhouse had always been through democratic election – or perhaps by evolution of leadership.
A man with wisdom and leadership qualities would slowly evolve and by the time the elderly longhouse chieftain was about to retire, his successor would have been identified.
The choice of the future Tuai Rumah was often unanimous and made with the blessing of the old chieftain. Indeed, some longhouses were happy that the choice of successor had become obvious even before the passing of the elderly Tuai Rumah.
Hence, it was a kind of Tuai Rumah in-waiting that had allowed for a smooth transition. An Iban chieftain selected in this way often had absolute followership.
“But that was a bygone age kind of selection,” Mr Steven, a teacher, said, adding that “today the government appoints the local heads and they earn a good salary.”
Young school boarders
Due to the very low population, many of the younger generation have to take special pains to gain education.
They are sent to boarding schools from a very young age (7) – “with milk bottle still in their bag,” according to a young mother.
The nearest is Bukit Batu Primary School, about three hours away. All the children here do not go to kindergarten.
Samy’s uncle, Lakok, became a legend of sorts when he was dubbed the Robinson Crusoe of Limbang in the 60’s for bringing his family to live in solitary hermitage with him in Long Selatong “because he wanted to live with the fishes and the animals.”
At times, he welcomed people to his humble dwelling but he never sent his children to school. Most people respected his wishes to be with Nature – so he and his family were left undisturbed.
Lakok passed away several years ago. And from time to time, people would tell stories about him.
It was about to rain when the group of visitors left the longhouse. All the women scurried to their pepper left out to dry on a mat.
The younger girls collected the laundry amidst shouts from their mothers. But these were happy shouts because the villagers had been short of water for a few weeks.
The winds blew very strongly along the river. Small waves shimmered in the fading sunlight.
Hopefully, the shallow river would soon swell so that the water could be pumped to the longhouse which is at least 150 feet above the river. Usually, a longhouse is built above the highest flood level.
In the past, without generators, the people at Karangan Ma fetched water from the river.
Even the smallest child would carry water in a small pail – or a carrier fashioned from a round gourd – to the longhouse after taking their bath. This kind of scene is getting very rare now.
The people Karangan Ma have been living in peace and harmony with their environment and will continue to cultivate the land their ancestors had opened up for them.