Thursday, May 31, 2012

More about the wild men of North Borneo

“Do you live on trees?”

It’s one of those questions people from WM are fond of asking us. If it’s a ‘valid’ question and is due to ignorance about the people of Sabah, we’re quick to answer them, “No”. If it’s asked because the enquirer is being mischievous, we’re also quick to humour him: “Yes… we have an elevator to take us up and down. And we use the telephone to communicate.”

It’s funny when one considers that we’re a small country, albeit separated by the South China Sea, but many people in WM know very, very little about Sabah. “Welcome to Malaysia,” they would say when we visit WM and we tell them we’re from Sabah. It’s as though they don’t know that Sabah is in Malaysia. Or if they knew Sabah is part of Malaysia, they’d think we’re on the East COAST where Terengganu is… or maybe even IN Terengganu itself!

Sometimes one wonders if they’ve ever seen a map of Malaysia where Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya are shown in the correct proportion. Or perhaps they’re only familiar with the  map of the country they see on TV, the one which is distorted and shows  Sabah and Sarawak much smaller than the ballooned up Malayan Peninsula!

Why the common assumption that we Sabahans live not in houses anchored to the ground but on trees tops—like the orang utans?
Photo: Philippe & Sons, Sandakan

Someone could have seen a postcard of long ago depicting a tree house, and later  generations take for granted that life hasn’t changed in the last 150 years. Actually, the tree house must have been built by people who lived on the flood-prone river bank—an ingenious way, I think, to avoid dangerous, wild animals and to keep safe during floods. And since much of NB was dense virgin jungle, it made sense to build houses near rivers for easy access to food and water. Rivers were also important for moving around in boats or rafts.
Google image

However, it must be remembered that there are more than thirty suku kaum in Sabah. Some, like the Bajaus and Bruneis, traditionally liked to live on river banks. They made excellent boatmen and fishermen. The Dusun people, on the other hand, were mainly tillers of the soil and did not necessarily live along river banks. They preferred the hills and plains where arable land was plentiful and clean water available in springs and wells.

Perhaps one of the reasons the Sabah natives got along well with each other was their trait of minding their own business—making sure that their families had enough to eat, a roof over their heads, etc and they had no time to poke their noses into other people’s affairs or to jaga tepi kain orang lain. They met regularly, of course, on tamu days to barter trade—the upland people with paddy, tobacco and forest produce while the coastal and river people brought their harvests from the sea and river and products—fabric, jars, utensils—they had obtained from other traders.
Google image

I haven’t met anyone who lives among the branches of a tree but I don’t mind living in a tree house myself… a tree house that has a great view, modern plumbing and utilizes solar power. Heaven on earth!

Wishing you all a wonderful Kaamatan celebration. Cheers!

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