Mahakam: Into the Heart of Borneo (4 of 4)

The Indonesian government makes all its citizens profess nominal faith in Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, all in the name of national unity. The Dayak are all officially Christian, but below the surface the old animist beliefs live on among many of the peoples of Borneo, particularly among dark-skinned tribes such as the Banuaq, the Buntian and the Tunjung. Some of the lighter-skinned tribes in more remote areas of the interior, such as the Kenyah and nomadic Punan, are more genuinely Christian, the result of intrepid missionaries during the colonial era.

As we watched the healing ceremony at Eheng two nights later, the traditions of the Banuaq seemed just as strong at this well-populated longhouse, home to 200 people. The drums had started beating outside at around 4:30 p.m., and before the light had faded, I’d inspected the modern, sculpture-like structures that had been erected outside for the ceremony.

By 7 p.m. the drums had moved inside, and circles of people had gathered around each of the three sick people: a man of about 40, and two elderly women who seemed to be dying of general old age. A traditional shaman and his assistant shuffled around an upright pole that was garlanded with flowers and rattan totems. They moved to the beat of four huge drums and the clanging music of Javan gamelan instruments: gongs, xylophones and a percussion instrument that sounded like a box full of tambourines. They would stop every once in a while for the shaman, clad in shorts and a T-shirt but wearing a head-dress, to incant a prayer while he bowed his head against the pole. Each patient had his or her own medicine man and band.

Around the longhouse there was a carnival atmosphere. A gambling table had been set up, and a couple of snack and soft drink vendors had tables as well. The village children watched their daily dose of Indonesian soap operas on the TV at one end of the longhouse. And the animal sacrifices (a pig and three chickens) were speedily dispatched, and their entrails were lengthily inspected for portents of the future. Everyone in the village, whether Christian, animist or Muslim immigrant, seemed to turn out for the occasion.

When we found out that one man had malaria, we offered to give the man a treatment dose of mephloquine, and our offer was accepted. As Junaid said, "They like the traditional ways, but they will use medicines too if they can get them."

After hours of watching the proceedings and taking a few photos (not many, as we all felt we were intruding on an intimate moment, although we were assured that no one minded), we went to bed.

Looking from our sleeping places at one end of the longhouse, the atmosphere of the scene was wonderful: pools of light from Coleman lanterns in the vast dark space of the longhouse, the thump of tribal drums, the hanging adornments and totemic symbols, and the warm tropical night outside. We slept soundly, awakened only a couple of times by really loud bursts of drumming. By 5:30 a.m., the ceremony ended as the patients were taken down to the modern sculptures, which were then burnt. (I think this is what happened. Junaid’s explanation was a bit vague on this point, and I was half-asleep at the time.)

The last two days were a bit of an anticlimax, as we drove back to the Mahakam, far upstream from where we had left it. We stopped in at a surprisingly good museum about the Dayak, their culture and their way of life, with emphasis on the ecologically sound aspects of their agriculture. It was the work of a visiting Japanese anthropologist who had spent a year living in this village.

Our last stop, at Tering, brought us back to the tawdry commercialism that "cultural tourism" often becomes.

At Tering a different tribe of Dayak, the Bahau, are among those tribes who have converted to Christianity in fact as well as in name. As a sign of their conversion, which took place about 40 years ago, the tribal women cut off their elongated earlobes, which had been formed by stretching pierced holes in their ears over the course of many years, rather like the Maasai warriors of East Africa still do. Only two women kept their long ears, and they live off the proceeds of tourists and film crews taking their picture in full traditional dress, dozens of earrings in each drooping earlobe.

We went to see them, but a French film crew was there that day and had the two women, along with two dozen village children and adults, decked out in spanking new traditional dress and dancing around for the edification of French TV viewers in a so-called welcoming ceremony. When the women saw the cameras around our necks they pursued us, demanding Rp 10,000 (at the time, US$4.50) per picture, although Junaid assured us that he gave a donation to the village chief every time that he brought tourists to town, which was supposed to cover such situations.

In the end I contented myself with photos of the film crew filming the villagers as they barked out imperious orders to them. There was a huge contrast between the packaged, made-for-foreign-consumption ceremony we were witnessing here, with crisp new costumes and choreography by the film crew, and the genuine expression of traditional customs and beliefs that we had seen the night before.

It left us with a sad taste in our mouths, as we boarded the ferry the next morning for the 24-hour journey back downstream to Samarinda. The sunset, amidst towering tropical thunderclouds over the vast muddy width of the Mahakam, was a fitting end to seven days of exploration at least a little way off the beaten track, and a view of a traditional culture not totally overwhelmed by today’s global village.