The longhouse bidan of Niah

A lush paddy field at Rumah Ranggong.

IN the 1950s, it would take a strong hunter more than three days’ walk from Niah to Miri on a rainy day along a small jungle path.

The then normal way to reach Miri from Niah was by a coastal boat sailing down the Niah River out to the sea and then to Miri.

Three coastal boats plied between Bintulu, Niah, Bekenu and Miri weekly. A boat would call at Niah, then proceed to Bekenu and from there, to Miri.

That too might take a day or more, depending on the waiting period.

If you were heavily pregnant and your time was near, would you walk that far and for that long, or would you take a boat, which might cost half a year’s income from selling rice?

Many sick people would go to Miri for treatment in the government hospital in the peninsula or what people referred to as the Old Miri Hospital in the 50s through to the 80s.

People who died while seeking treatment would be buried at Pendam Tekalong, below the present SIB church on Canada Hill. That cemetery was excavated not long ago to make way for a proposed hotel — which is still pending.

In those early years, many people perhaps had no choice but to consider seeing a traditional bidan, a godsend.

Rangayan Ayong became a ‘bidan’ or ‘birth assistant’ at Rumah Ranggong in Niah soon after marrying Tuai Rumah Ranggong Jenau in 1955.

For more 20 years, she helped deliver babies, never asking for a fee or a token packet of rice. It was out of her good heart or a dedicated mission in today’s language.

“She collected and kept all the small urns her patients gave her, they would line the road from the longhouse to Batu Niah,” recalled Chula, her eldest daughter.

The longhouse manang sports a handwoven pua, which is still made by a handful of women at Rumah Ranggong.

Knowledge from dreams

Rangayan married Ranggong when she was barely 16. She said she was given the knowledge to help deliver babies in a series of dreams.

Her hands were ‘touched’ by a spirit and that was how she started helping in deliveries at her longhouse and those nearby. From then on, she was the one to call to assist with births.

Amazingly, there were no reports of deaths at birth or deaths of mothers from Rumah Ranggong.

“Each delivery was amazing and I could feel the baby in the womb with my hands,” recalled Rangayan, also known as Indai Inggol.

Today, her memories are failing her as she has not been that well since her husband passed away.

According to her son Inggol, Rangayan has always been a very quiet woman.

She gets along with everyone in the longhouse because she is very patient, respectful of others, well versed in Iban adat and was the wife of a longhouse chieftain.

Besides, she is very confident in whatever she does. Now almost 75, she still has that hearty laugh which is very much part of her cheerful character.

Besides being a village bidan, Rangayan has always been a very good cook, and she has passed her culinary skills to her children.

Good pua weaver

Special dreams which visited her when she was younger also helped her to be a good pua weaver. Her fame has travelled far and wide.

The Ibans traditionally believe such dreams which visit Iban women help them to become the best pua weavers in Sarawak. These dreams would also teach them what patterns to weave.

From young, Rangayan has also been a good farmer, planting padi, maize and vegetables to help sustain her family.

Her late husband was headman from the age of 17. Together they contributed to the longhouse’s progress. They donated a piece of land to build a primary school and petitioned the government to help with the project and to send trained teachers.

Today, the primary school named after TR Ranggong is thriving.

SK Rh Ranggong, which was built on land donated by Ranggong in the 1970s, before the government planned to build rural primary schools.

Amazing birth stories

Inggol told of his amazing birth story. In 1963, Rangayan was due to give birth to him but still insisted on continuing to farm with her husband until her time came.

But Inggol decided to arrive sooner than expected. With no one to help her as they were at a farm hut, about two hours’ walk from the longhouse, Ranggong helped with the delivery with Rangayan giving instructions.

When the baby arrived, Ranggong cut the umbilical cord with a sharp bamboo. After an excellent delivery and a short rest, the couple walked back to the longhouse with their newborn son.

Others also have such birth stories to share. When Chula, her eldest, married and gave birth in the longhouse in the 1970s, it was Rangayan who delivered her babies.

In 1974, the first timber road was built next to the longhouse and that was the first time many of the residents got to enjoy rides to Batu Niah or Miri.

From then on, longhouse folk in the area also enjoyed government medical service — if and when they could reach the clinics.

“Even when the clinics came to Niah, many expectant mothers would ask me to go with them to see the doctor or dresser, just in case their time arrived unexpectedly and that was already in 1980s,” said Rangayan.

Ancient craft of midwifery

Indeed, every culture has an ancient craft of midwifery and the art of herbal healing. The word midwife derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘medwyf meaning wise woman.

In the same way, the Ibans have traditional beliefs that women like Rangayan who became midwives, were wise women who received their wisdom through dreams.

In her dreams, Rangayan said she received a jackfruit seed, adding that when she woke up, she had the seed in her hand which later ‘turned into a stone’.

She used the stone to massage pregnant women to help ease aches and pains and perhaps also with a safe delivery.

Vouching for this, Enjuai, a relative, said his wife who was expecting their first child, was experiencing a lot of pain and headaches.

Rangayan massaged her stomach with the stone. After that, the young expectant mother felt better and carried her baby to full term without any more pain or headaches. It was another safe delivery by Rangayan.

Timber trucks and roads brought transportation to the longhouse people.

Vital healthcare role

She was revered because the older people, especially before 1974, believed in her and they followed her advice on birth, women’s health during pregnancy and after birth.

Before 1970, the longhouse people in Niah actually had no health visitors or travelling midwives to help. Hence women like Rangayan played a most vital role in traditional healthcare of the longhouses.

Jati, Rangayan’s youngest daughter, who grew up at Rumah Ranggong until she went to secondary school, talked about their life in the longhouse and their farm.

“When I was in Primary 1, we stayed in the boarding school. There were like 30 of us from the same longhouse and we would leave our primary school to visit our parents at the little farms on Fridays.

“In this way, we would have family bonding time with our hard-working parents. My mum would be informed of the due date of a birth and she would walk with us back to the longhouse on Sunday. In this way, she would wait for the delivery of the baby. Sometimes her prediction was very accurate.

“My mother, from the time, received her ilmu: her hands became very special because she could touch the womb and sense the beatings of the heart of a healthy or a weak baby, or the throbbing of a difficult womb. Her hands could also turn a foetus around so that the baby would have an easier delivery.”

Longhouse resident Remi Kim said: “Many women feel anxious during pregnancies. I was one of them, so I cannot imagine how my grandmothers and their mothers had felt during their pregnancies if they had no one to talk to.

“Mrs Ranggong must have been very special — with only her hands and no academic knowledge of psychology and physiology, she was able to help a new mother calm down during birth.

“I must take my hat off to this special lady who has helped so many women in Niah. I know how difficult it is even for some gynaecologists today with all their qualifications and modern facilities.”

One man who wished to remain anonymous said: “Births or deliveries were the domain of the womenfolk. We were outside of the arena and helped in whatever we could.

“Maybe it’s because our women worked so hard that they seldom had birth difficulties in those days. They walked to their farms, miles away, without complaint.”

He added: “A shotgun was usually fired when a child was born to startle the child and to announce to the world a child had arrived. That was in the old days. Today, some Ibans may even let off some firecrackers at home. But in the government hospital, everything is quiet.”

In a reference book, it is related that “in the olden days, relatives present made noise with bamboo containers to frighten the child so that it will cry and become a bold man when he grew up.”

Traditional midwifery still amazes the public and these midwives have done well for the old communities.

Those women who have been helped by Rangayan continue to feel grateful to her.

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