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Life in a Longhouse Sungai Utik Village

“Spending time among the Dayak Iban is an awakening into a community very much in tune with its surroundings. Villagers welcome visitors into their fold, share space in Longhouses, take walks along the Utik River, long considered their source of life. The shared experienceboth by community members and visitorsis compelling.”

The Sungai Utik Iban people have secured their land in West Kalimantan from developers. Visitors can now enjoy the slow life and traditions from the community who invite them to stay at traditional longhouses. Here, retention of vast tracts of primary forests and secures the future of the Dayak community.

I entered Sungai Utik Village with quite a bit of fanfare. A delegation of young Dayak Iban dancers was anxiously waiting at the front entrance to the village, their glittery headpieces catching the afternoon light. With a few nervous giggles, they motioned for us to follow them to their home – a traditional longhouse. Inside, the entire village was waiting for us and gathered around excitedly, saying how happy they were to meet people who hailed from Poland, Australia and New Zealand. They were clearly amazed how far we had travelled to meet them.

With a tinkling of anklets and sweet voices serenading us, our small group was led along the side of the 214 metre longhouse to the front entrance, where we ascended an ancient, ironwood staircase. This consisted of a huge log with steps carved out in ornate designs. As we entered the longhouse we were instructed to spill some ijuk, a creamy white drink on the floor. This was for the ancestors, and the rest was for us as part of our welcome. All the families from the longhouse, which accommodated 318 people, sat waiting with beaming smiles. We were invited to join them on their rattan tikar mats and take part in the tolak bala ritual.

Bandi, the elderly Dayak Iban village leader, conducted the ritual. I could not take my eyes off his tattoo motifs, especially the flowers adorning the top of his shoulders and the intricate designs on his hands. His back, chest and neck were also tattooed. I soon noticed that all the men had tattoos, and later found out that tattooing forms an important part of the tradition for males, with the motifs on their shoulders symbolising strength and protection.

The ritual began with a live chicken being raised in the air and Bandi reciting mesmerizing chants welcoming us to the village. We were then treated to a beautiful traditional dance followed by a delicious afternoon tea. This was comprised of miniature rice flour pancakes, strong coffee and that milky drink again. Bandi explained to us that it was tapped daily from the ijuk tree, after which a piece of bark was added to assist the fermentation process, making it alcoholic. It tasted wonderful and was only mildly intoxicating

“You can call me Apay Janggut,” Bandi said. “That means the bearded one,” he said with a chuckle, pulling on his long white beard. “After you take a rest, you may go to [the] river and swim. Be careful, because once you swim in our river, you will return,” he said with a confident wide beam. It was very reassuring to learn that our invitation to visit this lovely community seemed to have already become an invitation to return and we had only just arrived. That is Dayak Iban hospitality.

We were shown to our room and met the lovely family who would be sharing their living space with us for the next three days. Surprisingly modern— and it was more than just a room—there was a large formal lounge, two guest rooms, a second lounge, a bathroom and a western toilet. It also had a TV and a washing machine. I was not expecting such wellappointed digs. The 28 rooms that stretched the length of the longhouse all provided a private dwelling for each family with bedrooms, a kitchen, a lounge and a little deck at the back for sitting and talking and for “office meetings”. Communal longhouse living is, by necessity, very organised. I noticed a village letterhead invitation had been tacked to all 28 doors advising of the upcoming village council meeting, which was to be conducted in the communal front verandah, which stretched the whole length of the longhouse.

The river became my favourite place to spend time over the next three days. In the late afternoon it became a playground for tag, jump, run, swing, as the village kids leapt from rocks and clung to vines. It was the most entertaining and lively scene. The forest that surrounds the village is now protected under customary law. Bandi told me this had involved a legal battle, won with the help of AMAN (Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago), who represented and supported Sungai Utik’s case for legal recognition of their boundaries. Through this means, the village had managed to keep mining, palm oil and other corporate interests out of their forests.

“I cannot read,” Bandi said, “but I got help from AMAN, and we now have title of our destiny. The sign at the front of our village displays the details of our legal title for all to see. No one can take it from us now.” He went on to explain the battle to protect these lands went back a long way. In 1979, a company called PT Benua Indah obtained a license to exploit land in the Sungai Utik’s customary forest. The company tried to harvest wood but was met with resistance from the local people. In 1998, with the help of NGOs including AMAN, the customary forests were mapped and ownership of their land was secured. The gateway that greets you at the entrance of the village was made by the help of university students from Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta in 2014. It has poems carved into the wood. One states, “From when we are born, to when we die, we must use our adat”. “Other people will know us by our attitude. This is the wisdom”, proclaims another.

Sleeping in the longhouse and living with the Dayak Iban was an awakening for us on many levels. We took walks to the rice field daily, met the farmers and were invited to sit in their rice house out in the fields and talk about village life. We moved at the slow pace of the women weavers, who ply their craft most days. We visited the families in their different rooms. We also got roped into 5 pm daily office meetings, which meant sitting on the mat out the back and drinking some ijuk!

It was a delight to feel so accepted and welcomed into village life and to discover more about the Dayak Iban world and their relationship with the forests firsthand. On our forest walks along Utik River, we learned that this river is considered Sungai Utik’s source of life. Our village guide pointed out a variety of medicinal plants like the kedadai leaf, which can be ground into medicine for breastfeeding mothers whose milk supply is low and raru bark, which cures stomach aches. Care of the forest and the river is a duty taken on by a different family on a monthly basis. This way, everyone in the village actively bears this responsibility. These river duties for example ensure that all water pipes are maintained, and that the river is kept clean and its surroundings well maintained.

The Sungai Utik Iban people’s customary forest covers 9,452 hectares. Protected forests cover 6,000 hectares of that area, and the rest is used for cultivation of orchards and crops, and managing their rubber plantation and swidden fields. Retention of such a vast tract of primary forests means animals can roam free and native plants can thrive. The source of life of the Dayak Iban is in safe hands.

There is clearly a natural balance which enables the local people to sustain their entire village through subsistence hunting, and gathering food and medicine from the forest. They also protect trees, taking only what they need for building a house or making repairs. No trees can be cut for commercial gain. Sungai Utik embraces longhouse communal values and a traditional way of living. It is impressive that, at the same time, they are so open to sharing their knowledge with visitors.

Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photo by David Metcalf

David Metcalf and Stephanie Brookes will lead a group to Sungai Utik, West Kalimantan on May 24-29, 2018

Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
Author of Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage

David Metcalf runs cultural photography tours in Indonesia and beyond. His photo gallery, Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali is a showcase for beautiful photographic work from the many islands of Indonesia.



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