WWF-Malaysia and Formadat compile stories narrated by highland people into a book
“LET me tell you a story about an ancient stone table,” began Jenette Ulun, a Kelabit woman from the Bario highlands. “This story was told by my grandfather while we sat by the fireplace in the longhouse.”
Wearing a traditional costume with beaded cap and necklace, heavy earrings dangling from stretched earlobes, Jenette proceeded to narrate the tale of how the batuh nangan served as important markets of ancient burial sites as these table-like stone monuments were often built to honour the deceased.
“There is a stone table known as batuh ritung in Bario which is said to be 1,000 years old,” Jenette told a rapt audience during a storytelling session organised by WWF-Malaysia and a grassroots highlands association known as Formadat, at ChinaHouse in Kuching this week.
She was one of four storytellers that evening who represented the Kelabit and Lun Bawang communities from Sarawak’s highlands.
Rigo Dawat, a Lun Bawang from Ba’Kelalan, told a story about how the highland folk discovered salt springs when a small animal, which had been shot by a hunter, fell into the waters.
“When they cooked the animal, they found that it was tastier than usual. After that, a pot boiled dry and the people discovered that the crystals left behind were tasty. This was how they learnt to make salt,” she related.
Adding that there were three salt springs in Ba’Kelalan, she invited the audience to visit her village to see how salt was made.
Another Lun Bawang, Nancy Buas from Long Semadoh, had a story about an ancient burial site where the remnants of skeletons and broken jars could still be seen.
She also ended her narration with an invitation to visit her community in the highlands.
These stories are part of a collection which has been compiled by WWF-Malaysia and Formadat into a book, Highland Tales in the Heart of Borneo.
The storytelling event was organised to promote the book, which documents the oral history of highland communities in Long Pa’ Sia, Sabah, and Ba’Kelalan, Bario and Long Semadoh in Sarawak, as well as places of interest such as megaliths, old burial grounds and settlements.
It also highlighted WWF-Malaysia’s conservation work in the highlands, which is aimed at sustainable rice farming and responsible ecotourism to improve the livelihood the local communities.
“This event is part of the eco-tourism objective. Through this book, we hope to create awareness among the public on the highlands as an attractive tourism destination,” WWF-Malaysia senior community engagement and education officer Alicia Ng, who authored the book, said.
In addition, she said it also standardised the stories told by the communities’ forefathers and preserved their cultural heritage.
Formadat adviser Jayl Langub said the tales included folklore as well as stories about traditional practices.
“Different villages would have their own stories about land use and changes in lifestyle,” he said.
He also told a story at the event about the six legendary people who left their mark on landscape of the highlands – Tin Brine, a powerful woman who carved the land; Asai, who carved the rivers; Lawi and Apui, who looked after the rivers; Puek the hunter; and Upai Semaring the carver.
The event not only brought the tales to life but provided a taste of highland culture. Accompanied by a sape musician, Jenette, Rigo and Nancy performed a traditional feather dance before the start of the storytelling. Guests were also served traditional snacks while Jenette gave a dance lesson at the end of the session.
This was a great example of how conservation could be done hand-in-hand with local communities to preserve their culture and promote a sustainable livelihood.
It certainly sparked interest among the audience, not only in the stories themselves but in the way of life of the highland communities and visiting these places.
As WWF-Malaysia Sarawak programme leader Jason Hon said, “The highland communities have stories which are related to nature and how they live and grow up in these natural surroundings. Having this properly recorded in a book gives recognition back to the communities.
“The stories in book form can be shared with a lot of people. At the end of the day, they will be able to maintain and keep what they have, including culturally and religiously significant areas, to be part of their livelihood.”