Malaysian LONGHOUSES

Residents of Borneo's rural communities are trying to hang on to their traditional way of life as logging and modern ways encroach.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MANY young men have already left this vast longhouse, stretching along a river bank in interior Borneo, for the city.

But Lingam Aiyang stays on, collecting birds' nests for a living, living side-by-side with neighbors in a tribal cooperative and gathering food in the nearby jungle and river.

He says he wouldn't have it any other way. "In the city, I can't get much work, and housing is expensive," says the genial Mr. Aiyang as he ushers visitors to the rattan mats flooring this single-room abode in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. "But in the longhouse, I can fish and hunt and have my friends."

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Modern life and the lure of the city are changing longhouses, the pristine jungle hamlets that time, it seemed, had forgotten. But residents and expert observers say a strong core of young and old still cling to this traditional living, anchoring these unique tribal cooperatives amid rapid social shifts.

"There is a tendency to hang on to tradition and culture," says Jayl Langub, an anthropologist and a Sarawak state government official. "Among some young people, there is a revival of tradition. People are becoming more aware of their ethnic identity."

At Kejaman Lasah, where a forest thicket protectively encircles the village and obstructs the view from the riverfront, tradition is never far away.

Almost 1,000 people live behind 60 doors connected by a vast wood and concrete veranda. Many of the two-tiered homes are like Aiyang's: sparsely furnished with rattan mats, a bed, and maybe a rundown sofa or an occasional chair.

Aiyang supports his wife and four children in the manner of his father and grandfather before him. Each month, he and 200 others from Kejaman Lasah travel to caves around Sarawak, collecting much-prized edible birds' nests produced by swiftlets.

The longhouse residents can usually collect 130 kilograms (286 pounds) of birds' nests each month, with earnings of up to $325 per kilogram split among the 200 participants. Aiyang's family supplements its income by running a small shop tucked away in a corner of their single-room home.

A day's boatride up river at Long Geng, 1,500 tribal residents gathered for a traditional harvesting festival of music, dancing, feasting, and blowpipe competitions.

Along the lengthy veranda, sheaves of coconut palms, shredded like ribbons, hung among skulls left over from the headhunting days of long ago.

In the gallery outside his modest apartment, Lawai Laing, the 89-year-old longhouse chief, relaxed on a mat underneath a carved icon of a hornbill, a symbol of his leadership.

"For the young people, I can see a big influence from outsiders and by modern society," he muses. "But they still believe in the land; they live on the land and they still come back to the land."

"We love the longhouse," says the chief's son, James, who markets the longhouse fish catch in a down-river city. "We can eat and don't have to be the beggar if there's nothing to do in town."

But change is encroaching. Many longhouses, except the most remote, are lit by generators and tube lights. Air-conditioned motor launch taxis, featuring kung fu movies and videos of American professional wrestling, growl up and down the rivers.

At the Long Geng festival, music from the sape, a four-string, lute-like instrument, reverberated through an amplifier. The crowning point of the festival was a Rambo movie shown on the chief's video-cassette recorder.

Large-scale logging is transforming longhouse culture, scarring the expansive rain forests of Borneo. With the big timber money and the flight to the cities has come a new prosperity, but also growing materialism among the young and abandonment of traditions such as the stretching of ear lobes with heavy metal weights.

Environmental destruction also takes a toll. One morning at Kejaman Lasah, Johnny Tawai and a group of farmers prepared to cross the river and drive by truck to new farmlands 20 miles away.

Mr. Tawai says logging had forced the men to vacate their traditional tribal lands. "To hunt I have to go far because the logging companies have spoiled the land and all the animals have left [the area around] the longhouse," he said. "Some people from the longhouse have started new farms because the land is spoiled. They leave the longhouse on Monday and return on Saturday."

Residents of Borneo's longhouses have to find a new equation to survive, experts say.

"In the longhouses, life exists in a balance with the environment, the spiritual world, and individual relationships. You have to have a harmonious relationship to survive," says Mr. Langub, the anthropologist.

"In the future, there will still be longhouses, but life will be different," he says.

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