Living the dream at an Iban Longhouse

Published November 13th, 2013

When Nyindang, the chief of the Delok Longhouse, his wife Muyong and their daughter Susie invited me to stay with them as their guest my first reaction was, "Hell yes to the max."


Belonging to the Iban Tribe, Delok is home to around 15 families who are only one of four communities in their immediate area determined to follow the lifestyle and culture of their ancestors.


In the time before dorm rooms and bunk beds, wanderers around Borneo who were considered mates would be given shelter at a Longhouse. Today, travellers who would like to experience first hand the life of an indigenous Borneo tribe, generally need the help of a tour operator. I lucked out with Tiyon, who grew up in a Longhouse near Delok but who now works as a tour guide with the Kuching based outfit, Planet Borneo - he negotiated the deets.


 Approaching the Longhouse


Delok is located deep in the relatively isolated Batang Ai region of Sarawak, close to the Indonesian border. When travelling as a youngster, Nyindang met his wife, who also belongs to the Iban Tribe in a Longhouse in Kalimantan and brought her back across the modern border into Malaysia.


"If you can't access a Longhouse from the water, then I don't consider it a proper Longhouse," exclaims Tiyon.


We drove for four hours from Kuching to the Batang Ai Dam - a significant engineering feat that provided an interesting comparison to the village I was about to visit. The Dam, which was completed in 1985 to generate power, flooded the region and displaced around 3,000 locals who lived in 26 Longhouses along the banks of the river. A narrow trickle became an expansive waterway.


Our boat captain, a local of Delok, was waiting at the jetty to the right of the dam. If the boat was anything to go by, then this would be a very real adventure. This was a wooden vessel that sat particularly low to the water. It was essentially a canoe powered by a motor. There was no standing room - just two portable seats that raised Tiyon and I above the water that sloshed around our feet. The British knew the Iban as Sea Dayaks, so it’s highly appropriate that I too indulge in their water prowess.


For the next hour I laid back and soaked in the view. Famed hornbill birds flew overhead. As attractive and comfortable as the Hilton Hotel appeared – the structure had been built to recreate the Longhouse experience - I was determined to go authentic.


 The embankment


The jetty for the community was a simple platform that lay adjacent to a couple of fishing nets that held the day's catch for either consumption or sale. We walked from the river up a steep incline that's made easier with concrete steps.


My mind was still blown by the river trip that when it first came into view I wasn’t really aware. And then it clicked. There it was – unassuming yet proud, a modest wooden structure standing on stilts stretching around 75 metres in length. A wooden staircase led into the common area that was essentially one long corridor. I walked almost the length of the space when Muyong came out to greet me. Her English was minimal but she extended her hand to welcome me to her abode.


 The backyard with chickens and pigs

Chief Nyindang wasn't home yet. But that didn't matter because this was exactly what I had come to experience; the locals going about their day exactly as they would. Nothing was altered because of my arrival. There was no tacky cultural presentation with music and dance or a sumptuous banquet arranged  in my honour. This was the day to day lifestyle of today’s Iban - a community of families who lived under one roof but maintained their own independence.


Traditionally, the collective housing concept was designed for protection from other tribes who took a particular liking to heads, often deciding to souvenir them. The Iban were renowned as fearsome warriors. The White Rajah James Brooke outlawed head-hunting in Sarawak but the Longhouse concept continues today as a tradition. These families do not live together as say a kibbutz in Israel and contribute the community as a whole. They simply share a common roof.


I took my shoes off as was the custom and sat on the matting on the window side of the common area as Muyong brought out tea. Tiyon explained the defined roles within the family unit.


"Looking after the home is not an easy job for the wife. As a man, I am so proud that I can take care of my wife and I do the heavy jobs - cutting the trees, the farming. From the other side, the wife can look after her husband and be proud of what he does," said Tiyon.


"A chief is not necessarily the oldest person in the Longhouse but people trust him because he can show leadership. There is no privilege being a chief, unlike other ethnic groups around the world where the chief or the king sits and other people give him the food. In an Iban Tribe it’s an honorary role - he still goes to the farm and does the heavy roles. He is responsible for settling disputes. Anyone who visits a Longhouse, our culture says that they stay with the chief – that’s why you and I - are his guest."


 The communal area

The families at Delok earned their keep from agriculture - mainly rubber and pepper. Their food was generally self sufficient - the community had a machine to separate the rice from the husks. They fished in the river and each family owned chickens and pigs. In fact, one of the teenagers had his own pet chicken that he looked after, washed and entertained.


Nyindang arrived home and introduced himself.


The sun began to set, so the women of each family started to prepare dinner - individually in their own kitchens. Each family had their own unique space that was divided by partitions. From the common area, there was a private living room that doubled as a bedroom - mattresses were laid out by the wives when the family was ready to sleep. There was also a separate kitchen area and bathroom that was accessed via a couple of steps for each family. The community didn't eat together.


 The adjoining verandah space


As the guest of the chief, I ate with his family inside their private space but after dinner the community congregated in the common area to chat, drink rice wine and courtesy of modernism watch television. Tiyon told me that the Government gave the community a television that was hooked up to a satellite on the roof so that everyone can keep up with events around Malaysia and the world. However, the news had to wait for another night – tonight the football was on.


As was the role of the mother, it was Muyong who laid out my mattress in the common area and tied a mosquito net around the bed. After a busy day of farming, the community generally sleep round 10pm and after my long journey, I was similarly knackered.


There was no Monday to Friday work cycle here. They do what needed doing, when it had to be done. The only exception was picking up the children every Friday night from the jetty at the dam and returning them on Sunday night in time for school the next day. The kids attended boarding school.


It was the simplicity of life that makes the lifestyle attractive. The family units were tight and the community as a whole felt a bond of safety.


 With my host Nyindang


But times are changing - indicators of modern luxuries are evident throughout the Longhouse – and it was not just the plasma television. My host family had a generator-powered washing machine. There were fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling that were illuminated each night. The capital of Sarawak, at 200-kilometres away, was really not that far – the roads were sealed all the way to the Dam. Even some of the youngins sport blonde highlights.


One has to wonder how much longer the Longhouse lifestyle can exist? The culture of the Iban will go on with the people but it was the lifestyle connected with the Longhouse that is threatened as the next generation relocate to the cities in search of different opportunities. At school, the students are connected to the web and have all that knowledge at their fingertips – they’re aware of what’s out there and may opt to abandon their Longhouse for the bright metropolitan lights.


For the moment, however all was peaceful in Delok. The last family went to sleep and I closed my eyes appreciative of the humbling opportunity I was granted to share a day with a Borneo tribe.