Where Hornbills Fly :
A Journey With The Headhunters Of Borneo
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Once headhunters under the rule of White Rajahs and briefly colonised before independence within Malaysia, the Iban Dayaks of Borneo are one of the world's most extraordinary indigenous tribes, possessing ancient traditions and a unique way of life. As a young man Erik Jensen settled in Sarawak where he lived with the Iban for seven years, learning their language and the varied rites and practices of their lives. In this compelling and beautifully-wrought memoir, Erik Jensen reveals the challenges facing the Iban as they adapt to another century, whilst fighting to preserve their identity and singular place in the world. Haunting, yet hopeful, Where Hornbills Fly opens a window onto a vanishing world and paints a remarkable portrait of this fragile tribe, which continues to survive deep in the heart of Borneo.
TABLE OF CONTENTS1. Peace-Making
2. From the Old World – East
3. Sarawak and Up-river
4. Longhouse Living
5. To the Hornbill Festival
6. Revolt in the Lemanak
7. Ancient versus Modern
8. Out of Jungle a Centre
9. Poisoning, Omens and Hope
10. Progress then Bad News
11. World Events Intervene
12. Fit to Survive
THE official launch by Datuk Erik Jensen’s book: ‘Where Hornbills Fly – A Journey with the Headhunters of Borneo’, was held on March 31 this year at the Tun Jugah Foundation. It is a book which those with an interest in Sarawak, and more importantly on Iban society, would find an excellent read.
Jensen worked in Sarawak from 1959 to 1966. He came initially through the sponsorship of the Anglican Mission to do research on traditional society’s response to Christian evangelisation. He was later drawn to the practical issues of traditional society and how it reacts to the inevitable need for change. In 1974, ‘The Iban And Their Religion’ — Jensen’s scholarly interpretation of the inter-relationships between social organisation, economics and religious belief among the Ibans was published by Clarendon Press.
‘Where Hornbills Fly’, on the other hand, is Jensen’s personal memoir as a young man of 26, who was filled with a sense of adventure, as he made his way by boat from London to Sarawak in 1959 and experienced the thrills of a new country, which introduced him to new cultures and landscapes.
He lived with the Iban in Ulu Undup for over a year before moving to Lemanak at Ridan. There, Jensen, who was no longer attached to the Anglican Mission, devised, organised and administered the Lemanak Development Scheme over a three-year period between 1960 and 1963. He picked up the language during his stay and eventually spoke Iban well and understood nuances of Iban words and proverbs, all of which he used effectively in his work at Ridan.
For those of my generation, those whose childhoods were centred around the longhouse, Jensen’s acute observation of life in the longhouse with the people of Ulu Undup and later Lemanak, serves as a refreshing reminder of what a longhouse society was like 50 years ago.
However, most of the rituals — taboos to observe during farming or childbirth or deaths and many others meant to protect the well being of the community — are now gone. Tradition beliefs dominated rituals and daily activities of living, but these began to be replaced by the modernising influence of education and Christian teaching.
Education, even then, was key to managing and adapting change. Dwen (Datuk Edwin Tangkun) had his basic education with the Anglican Mission in Simanggang.
He could see no future in perpetuating the practice of slash and burn farming. He planted rubber, wet padi and set up cooperative societies. Datuk Edwin Tangkin, as many would remember, later became a respected Member of Parliament.
While the Iban in Ulu Undup, enlightened by the leadership exemplified by Dwen, sought to adapt to the inevitability of change, those in Lemanak who were less exposed to outside influence, chose to cling to the ways of their ancestors. Their life was dictated by the circle of hill padi planting — jungle clearing, burning, planting, weeding and harvesting. The response of the Lemanak to the pressures of population growth and infertile surroundings was to follow the old solution of mass migration (pindah) practised by the Ibans over generations. Tuai Rumah Gasing of Ulu Lemanak tried to bring his people to the Fourth Division only to be sent back. He never recovered from this ‘loss of face’. There was no more land to accommodate the old ways. Pindah had been prohibited.
Jensen was asked to set up the Development Centre at Ridan as a way of addressing the dilemma of Lemanak. How he and his dedicated loyal staff — Nanyie, Ramping, Dundang, Jabah, Bidah and Kelunchai — persevered, forms the central core of the book.
The book is rightly dedicated to those who made Ridan. It is a classic case study of managing change, a model for rural development, which in the case of Ridan, proved to be a success. As one reads this account, filled with Jensen’s sense of humour and strengthened by his flair for the language, one senses a series of frustrations — lot of talk that leads to nowhere. Patience is constantly tested. Trust must be gained. This is a familiar feeling for those who were involved in rural development in Sarawak in the 1960s.
It was only after a year had passed that Jensen was able to write “a flight of hornbills … honoured Ridan with a fly-past. How could I ask for a more auspicious augury?” No prize here for guessing what inspired the title of the book.
A large part of ‘Where Hornbills Fly’ covers serious topics on societal adaptation. Jensen has deliberately chosen to present the story in the form of a personal memoir, with snippets of history introduced by way of anecdotal conversation, which makes for easy reading. It also includes observation of the more current changes in Sarawak, as seen when he revisited these areas some 40 years later.
It is a book with universal appeal. It should certainly interest the younger generation of educated Ibans who wish to know how their parents and the generation before them lived and practised their traditional lives and culture, and yet had to learn to adapt to the changing times.
Some, however, may quibble at the subtitle. The Iban never ‘hunted’ for heads. But, rightly or wrongly, the Iban had been branded as such, and the publishers’ mind sensed it as a slogan for effective marketing.
That aside, Jensen has written a memoir in the language of real literature. His observant eye and sensitive ear, attributes that were to serve him well later in his career as an international diplomat, have captured vivid images — of his journey from London to Sarawak, the open air market in Kuching, the rural shop in Sebuyau, the fighting cocks tethered along the ruai of longhouses, the time spent living with the people he has both sympathy and respect for, despite their foibles. Jensen captures well the Iban rendition of words such as Dwen, which in Iban means Edwin, Niggle for Nigel, Skin for Scheme.
In the words of the prominent development economist Sir Richard Jolly in the flyleaf of ‘Where Hornbills Fly’: “Every page of this brilliantly written book evokes the colours, sounds and even the smells of Sarawak in the 1960s.”
I enjoyed reading ‘Where Hornbills Fly’, and remembering those times, which are never to return. I believe Jensen’s observations remain valid in the continuing context of the challenge for the Iban to adapt to the contemporary world.
It is a book well worth reading.
Datuk Dr Erik Jensen was born on Dec 21, 1933. He was educated at St Paul’s School, London and holds a Master’s degree and doctorate from Oxford University as well as a Master’s degree from Harvard University. In 1992, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in Korea, and in 1993, an honorary Doctor of Letters in Connecticut.
He also initiated the Bukit Batu Scheme and many other subsidiary activities in different parts of the Second Division. From 1964, as divisional development officer, he supervised the movement of the Iban from Ulu Delok to the Skrang Scheme and planned a range of development projects, including the road which crosses the Lemanak to Lubok Antu as a means not only of improving communications, but also of opening up an otherwise inaccessible area for development.
After leaving Sarawak, he joined the United Nations, serving in various posts in New York and Geneva and on special political missions to Nigeria, Bahrain, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, East Timor, Chad, Central African Republic, Comoros, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea Bissau and Western Sahara, where for four years he was head of a major international peacekeeping operation. He retired as Under Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1998 and currently is Warburg professor of International Relations at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
For his contributions, the state government conferred the Panglima Setia Bintang Sarawak (PSBS) award to him in 2003.
Source;The Borneo Post BY Tan Sri Datuk Amar Leo Moggie.