THE Kelabits’ first contact with the outside world was a rather rude awakening for them.
It came at a turbulent time when Tom Harrison and his team landed in the Bario Highlands as a covet force to resist the Japanese ocupation of Sarawak during the Second World War.
It was equally a cultural shock – and language barrier – for Tom Harrison even after spending time learning about the traditions and customs of the Kelabits and picking up their vocabularies before he made the landing.
Tom Harrison wrote in his book World Within: A Borneo Story:
“The effect of my verbal attempts upon the good man were entirely negative. Indeed, less that that. For instance:
Me: Kita Kelabit?
Me: (Tapping his chest and looking winsome) Kelabit-kau Kelabit?
He: Ekor? (meaning you).
Me: (getting over-excited, thumping him and pointing all around) Kelabit? Kelabit? KELABIT?
We had a lot of that Bah, which I could not grasp was attached to several words – to mean the longhouse in which he lived, the plain on which we stood, the people around.
It was a five-dish meal served with rice. Two steamed fish in the menu was brought out in a fish-shaped plate.
The Belgian husband was quick to scoop a whole fish onto his plate – much to amusement of the BAT team.
Perhaps, the man was thinking the fish was the main dish. If so, and it looked pretty much like it, we didn’t really mind his apparent lack of meal-time etiquette as perhaps an infrequent traveller to this part of the world.
In fact, we were more concerned about the Belgian diner getting bogged down by the drudgery of dodging the small sharp bones in the Semah fish he was eating. After all, he could end up picking bones and missing out on what should be a delicious meal.
As he started to eat, his wife realised the fish was meant to be shared and began nagging him in their language but from the body language, we knew she was “teaching” her man a lesson in table manners.
Red as lobster, the man tried to put the fish back onto the plate. We quickly assured him it was completely all right for him to have the whole fish.
Then came the cultural shock! After he was almost done, the man put the near skeletal remains of the whole fish – head, tail and bones – back into the main serving dish!
Bah, the fish!
We shared a good laugh with Scott Apoi Ngimat, our homestay host. So far, Scott said he had not encountered any cultural shocks in his work.
“Travellers are meant to be adventurous and they normally do not pick on cultural differences.”
Scott, playing host to some 30 per cent of guests from overseas on average, advised: “Compromise in some ways to accept their cultures and adjust a little by both parties.”
After breakfast, we continued our journey to the Penan settlement. The 20-minute drive was bumpy and rough. As the terrain was not vehicle-friendly, we had to leave the 4WD behind and trek through the forest – for another 20 minutes.
We finally found ourselves staring at some wooden houses which seemed unfit for human habitation.
During our short visit to the settlement, we met a Penan man living with his younger sister and brother in one of these houses.
He said the settlement was actually a temporary place for them to stay when their children studied at the school in Bario or when they wanted to find odd jobs there.
He revealed the Penans at the settlement originally came from Pa’ Tik, a village that is a day’s walk away.
The Penan man’s right foot was injured and covered in blood. He declined to tell us how he got the injury and refused our offer to bring him to the clinic in Bario – the only one in the highlands.
He insisted he was fine and could attend to the injury himself.
On our way back, we met Sunto Ismail, a Penan from Mulu who is married to a Penan woman from Pa’ Tik.
The 25-year-old holds a degree in architecture from a university in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. He came to Bario to start anew after his original home was burnt down. His university certificate was among the personal items lost in the fire.
He said he liked Bario where he could lead a simple life.
He showed us the small stream behind his house where he washed his clothes. At the stream is a small hydro-electric generator, built by his father to supply power to their house.
We were also greeted by a group of young Penan men from the settlement. They were waiting at the entry point to the forest for some towkay to fetch them to Bario for some odd jobs from which they could earn RM30 per day.
Scott’s parting word for the BAT team was that there was no bad influence to the simplicity of the Kelabit community after their exposure to the outside world.
The Kelabits have no taboos after Christianity made its way into the beautiful highlands.