Wednesday, April 14

Resilient Kampung Menjelin folk


Timah’s house at Kampung Menjelin, Bekenu.

YOU can be a small person but still have a big heart.

That aptly describes Timah Seman from Kampung Menjelin, Bekenu. She stands less than five feet tall and weighs no more than 50kg but her diminutive size belies her ability to perform tasks many would find daunting.

The mother of eight is not only the breadwinner of the family, a do-it-yourself person and a good neighbour, but also a practised farmer in her own right.

Widowed more than 20 years ago, she has been able to raise her family on sweet young corn (sayur jagung) and other crops she plants in her garden, supplemented by seasonal fruits from her inherited land.

She has even built herself a wooden house and fitted it with electric and solar lamps.

“I need the solar lamps in case of blackout, which happens very often here,” she told thesundaypost.

A new road leads to a concrete house with an old shed in the foreground.

Almost every farmer in Menjelin uses some solar lamps.

Tima was born in Kampung Menjelin, 70 years ago, and never went to school. Back then, there was no school in the kampung and parents also never thought of sending girls to school.

She married when she was 16 and was widowed in 2005. She has 30 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Timah Seman

Timah has seen her kampung grow from a small Penan village into a large settlement with nearly 30 families, who grow a variety of crops.

She has seen changes in transportation and agriculture — from walking to riding in cars on the kampung roads and cultivating padi, rubber, and fruit trees to oil palm on the land around the village.

She has also witnessed the development of birdhouses and Chinese market gardening.


Timah’s friends

Two men came with Timah to help her speak with her visitors. With them was their neighbour, Wong Siew Yin, a farmer who has shown Timah and the farmers in the village the importance of being environmentally friendly.

All of them love their land and work hard to bring in good harvests. There is so much camaraderie.

Former village chief Dihi Mee and his successor Aman Tahar are full of praise for Timah’s diligence and neighbourliness.

“She’s a good farmer and good neighbour. We’re very proud of her,” they said.

Dihi, born 10 years after Timah, said he went to school in the kampung for three years. In the early 60s, the school had only one teacher. He later attended SK Bekenu.

Dihi Mee

He had to walk to and back from school, taking about an hour each way. He remembered in those days girls were not sent to school.

As the kampung school could not get another teacher after the original one left, it was closed down. The school had acted as an adult school, teaching the village children to read and write.

The more forward-looking parents sent their children to Bekenu Primary School linked to the kampung by only a small footpath. The children trekked along this makeshift jungle trail to and from school.

When Dihi and Aman went to school, they were already overaged — a common occurrence in those days.


Lessons on health

Timah sells the sweet young corn she has been growing for over 20 years at the Bekenu Tamu during weekends. Sayur jagung is a heritage crop grown in Kampung Menjelin.

She goes barefoot to her garden or if she wears her store-bought slippers, she will leave them on a small narrow bridge she built.

As a widow for more than a decade, she knows the importance of self-sufficiency.

She weeds by hand and if she needs to trim the tall grass in her garden, she uses a brush cutter. Even though now a septuagenarian, Timah still comes across as a strong witty individual with great clarity of mind and sense of humour.

Aman Tahar

She said she managed to stay in good health by eating simple meals — rice with some vegetables and some anchovies — and drinking coffee every day.

She recalled in the early days, there was no piped water and everyone in the village drank from the well without boiling.

“When I was expecting, I didn’t go to the clinic as it was too far away. When my children were young, they also didn’t go to clinics. Thankfully, they all grew up all right. We live a very simple life.”


No family planning

Dihi told thesundaypost traditionally, their ancestors used roots to help space out the birth of babies or to prevent more births.

They never practised family planning, unlike today, when young people may take pills, he noted.

Timah believes her children came at the right time as willed by God.

Dihi further explained that in the past, food for the villagers came from the wild woodland. They foraged for plants with home-made tools and hunted animals with blowpipes in the dense jungles.

Some had friends who owned guns and they no longer had to hunt with blowpipes. For religious reasons, the villagers don’t eat monkeys, bats, or monitor lizards. Today, many still trap prawns or use rods to catch fish.

“They seldom get to eat marine fish as the sea is quite far away,” Dihi added.

The past generations cultivated padi and rubber. Today, the kampung folk have started planting oil palm.

Both Dihi and Timah had tapped rubber for a living and they remember selling rubber sheets to the shops in Bekenu.

“Life then was tough. We had to do a lot of things in the rain and sun. But thanks be to God, we have been able to stay healthy.”


As a male descendant, Dihi was lucky he could go to school and got a government job with the Subis District Office until he retired.

Nowadays, the kampung children can even study in Bekenu, Sibu, and even Miri. Some ride motorbikes to school and don’t have to stay in boarding schools.

Although most of the villagers are farmers, there are several teachers, a few civil servants, a prison warden, and a soldier from the close-knit kampung community.

Dili hopes more would be highly-educated and return to serve their community and society at large.

The community hall of Kampung Menjelin.

A bit of history

According to Dihi, seven generations have lived in Kampung Menjelin.

The name Menjelin came from his ancestors. As the first inhabitants of Sibuti, they planted pepper, rubber, and padi.

There was so much latex pouring out of the trees into the river that water turned milkish, which is Jelin in Bakong language. The river was thus named Sungai Menjeli, meaning milkish river.

Dili and Ahmad Tahar gave us a vocabulary lesson in Bahasa Bakong and revealed how names in the area came about.

As no one lived in Sibuti before the arrival of the settlers, many of the rivers and places were named by their ancestors.

Timah trims her garden with a brush cutter.

Sungai Uban, for example, was so named because when the settlers first arrived, the men swam in the river estuary. When they surfaced from the water, their hair was covered with the white sand. So the name of the river became Sungai Uban or White Hair River in Bakong language.

Tusan was also a name given by their ancestors. Sien in their language means platform or cliff. Tu Sien means near the sea. Combine the words and you have Tusan.

Bungai is another Bakong word. Ongai means whirlpool. A long time ago, there was a vortex at the estuary and soon people began calling the area Ongai, which later became Bungai.

“In the past, we also had many old cemeteries but due to grave robbers, many of our buried historical artefacts had been stolen or destroyed. Coastal erosion has caused a lot of our landmarks to disappear as well.”

Dihi also shared a photo of a huge Chinese jar recovered from an ancestral tomb in Kampung Menjelin.

“If not for the grave robbers, the Penans would have more historical artefacts to show,” he lamented.

The Kedayans came later from Brunei and were allowed to settle in kampungs like Terahad.



The Kampung Menjelin families have upgraded their homes with good wood and concrete. They use their knowledge of woodcraft to collect the timber.

Now they make a lot of their furniture, using chainsaws in stark contrast to the axes and chisels used by their ancestors to cut the timber to build their houses.

The roads were first upgraded by the former assemblyman Datuk Aidan Wing, who looked after the kampung community very well.

Recently, the village’s multipurpose community hall was completed with a grant of over RM400,000 from the government. The kampung folk can now play badminton and hold other activities in the hall.

Timah and her fellow villagers are looking forward to a better future for themselves, their grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Perhaps even a dictionary in Bakong language can be written with some pages devoted to the origins of the kampung and accounts of its historical migration.