Thinking of an option

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PLEASE let me get this thing off my chest – this frustration at not being able to help the problem, almost a phobia, go away!

ALL IS LOST: The charred remains of a longhouse destroyed by fire.

I’m referring to the longhouse fires in Sarawak. They happen too often, too regularly, especially during the hot and dry season. During the past six months alone, there have been 12 longhouse fires. One can almost predict which building will be next to go up in flames, in a matter of time.

The problem won’t go away; that much we all know.

For a long time, I have been sticking my neck out over my advocacy for single houses for the Dayaks.

For this, I have been under fire from some quarters, those who believe that doing away with longhouses would entail losing the culture of the people concerned. Unfortunately, my credentials in this respect are not that good. I wasn’t raised in a longhouse and by implication know little about its culture. However, during my travels throughout the state for many years as a civil servant, I spent days and nights in many longhouses and observed a fair bit of life there, both the good and the flip side.

As I have relatives and friends who live in longhouses, I do think of and fear for them whenever I hear of a longhouse fire, wishing that they would consider building single houses instead of continuing to live in those built of timber and flammable materials.

Sadly, there is nothing that I can do except pray.

However, I would be failing in my duty as a member of the Dayak Iban community if I did not express my concern at the frequency of fires that gut their longhouses and everything in them.

Not that I couldn’t care less for fire victims among other Malaysians; houses in Malay kampungs and Chinese bazaars – Sebangan early this year, Machan on Thursday — do get burnt from time to time, but it is a question of degree. In a Malay kampung it’s usually one house that burns down. In the case of a longhouse, the house IS the kampung. Within a few hours the whole community is homeless.

An option proposed

The long and short of it is this: do not build any more longhouses. It is my personal opinion; readers will forgive me for being so blunt and abrupt. I mean well. Fire me if you will but help, find or suggest an alternative to living in a longhouse as its present architecture and structure stands.

In a conflagration, within hours a whole community experiences an utter economic collapse, not to mention the trauma and the hardships that follow for many years to come.

I need not quote statistics to prove my point. You can imagine how painful it is to bear the loss of valuable jars and other heirlooms, important papers, everything; even cars parked in the vicinity of the fire are burnt. Thank God, not many human lives have been lost in the fires for the past 20 years.

I do not say that single houses do not burn down; they do indeed, from time to time, but the losses arising from the disaster are limited to the belongings of one family. In a village, help is easier to get because it is only one building that is on fire; in a longhouse fire, each owner of the room fights the fire on his own. Often the battle is lost and finger pointing begins as to the cause of the fire. Suddenly, everybody becomes wiser after the event, not before it.

Suggestions have been made that each longhouse should be equipped with fire extinguishers and the dwellers trained on how to handle them. Easier said than done. Often fires occur when the able bodied men are not at home; if there were fire extinguishers, they were so small and ineffective, good only for fire in a car. I saw several of those extinguishers burnt along with the remains of a house in Song in March this year.

Fire is preventable

Apart from the way the inhabitants of each longhouse handle its security, there is its physical structure or architecture to consider. Build the next one, if you must, with fire proof materials. I’m sure the architects have some idea about the quality and type of material to use in its construction.

Insurance companies may also have suggestions about the structure of the house before they even think of coverage of the property which is exposed to very real risks of fires.

Enemy is the mindset

In the past the longhouse was a necessity for mutual protection against enemy attacks. But times have changed. Today the number one enemy is fire. There is no more fear from the headhunters. They are long dead and buried.

Number two enemy is the attitude: keep the longhouse lest the cultural identity of the inhabitants is lost, it is often argued. Ironically, we would rather lose the valuable heirlooms than the cultural identity.

But the point is that we do not lose the culture which resides in the recesses of our being; it does not burn away with the antique jars or the beads.

If the cherished cultural traits – mutual welfare, love of children, love of oral literature, love of visitors, love of bravery and achievement in life — are lost, they are lost because of other influences.

I have seen signs of change recently, however. Many people have built single houses away from the main house. And talking about losing cultural traits, who says they are less Iban or Bidayuh or Kayan than those in the long building?

So what is the argument for more longhouses? I’m not advocating the present buildings are to be pulled down immediately, not by any stretch of the imagination; not to that ridiculous extent lah.

The move, slowly but surely, to avoid or prevent longhouse fires must come from the members of the longhouse communities themselves. Unfortunately, I find that people would only discuss this issue after the event, not before it — a sensitive issue, perhaps, best kept under the carpet.

This problem (fires) is not confined to the longhouse owners; there is public interest there. Many longhouses have obtained loans from the government’s housing agency which uses taxpayers’ money for the purpose. Five years ago, there was a problem with repayment of longhouse loans. What the position now is, I have not an inkling.

It may hurt the feelings of those who love the longhouses if a question is asked about the advantages and disadvantages of living in one compared to living in a single home. While I respect the views of the advocates, I would beg to differ for reasons herein given. Like I often say ad nauseam — let us agree to disagree without being disagreeable.

If that is agreed to, then this thing – helplessness — will be taken off my chest. After this, I shall hold my tongue for as long as possible.

Until the next inferno.

Hopefully, the burning issue at hand continues to be discussed rationally until an answer is found to prevent fires to the longhouses or at least minimise their occurrences. That is, if we must live in them, for the next century.

Repeat, for me, there is no other choice than a single house. Period.

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