Sunday, 18 December 2011

Headhunters in Borneo

Back in 1987 I travelled to Kuching, in Sarawak Borneo. Kuching means cat and was at that time an undeveloped sprawling small city. Hotels and other concrete public buildings were surrounded by wooden houses and huts climbing up the hillsides. We stayed in a small guesthouse and ate at the local street corner stalls where invariably a woman of indeterminate age would be squatting over a wok on an open fire cooking up some super yummy mie (noodle) dish or the famous Sarawak Laksa, a divine non-curry version of the well known soup.
After some days exploring the city we decided to head off (pardon the pun) upriver in a longboat and stay with the native people of the interior the Iban people. Even by Malaysian standards Sarawak has an extraordinary mix of peoples: the largest ethnic group is neither Chinese (26%) nor Malay (21%), but the Iban (29%). The Iban have long since been acknowledged as the fiercest headhunters on Borneo. Back in the bad old days, an Iban lad couldn't hope for the hand of a fair maiden without the shrunken head of an enemy to call his own, and bunches of totemic skulls still decorate the eaves of many a jungle longhouse. Fortunately for visitors, headhunting hasn't been practiced for a while, although some of the skulls date from as late as World War II when, with British support, Iban mercenaries fought against the occupying Japanese. If you've seen The Sleeping Dictionary you'll get some idea of the feeling of the place. 
We stayed in a longhouse three days, learning how to use both bow and arrow and blow pipes and track the forest for game. We cooked our kill over large pit fires when it was wild boar and over the kitchen wok when we were unsuccessful and had to eat the village chickens instead. Every afternoon the tropical monsoon rain would pelt down and we were taught the rather neat trick of hacking of a super large leaf (like an elephants ear plant) with our machetes to use as the local version of an umbrella. 
Inside the longhouses women would sleep in one area and men in another. If a young man fancied a girl he would come and steal her away from the sleeping area and lay claim to her if you know what I mean ;)  The chief of the longhouse proudly displayed the skulls suspended in baskets from the ceiling  of the tribes past victims and showed of the tattoos on his legs marking each head he'd taken. Even though I wrote above that the practice was supposedly stopped after WWII, we noticed some of the younger men did actually still display two or three tattoos on their legs. When I asked one them about this he just stared into my eyes and his lips slowly curled into a smile. 

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