Saturday, December 27, 2014

Back from The Field: Reflecting on 2014

Hey ya'll

I have just returned from the field where I spent the better part of 2014 living with the Semai people. The Semai are one of the 18 officially recognized tribes of Indigenous Peoples living across Peninsular Malaysia and by far the most numerous and widespread. The people that adopted me into their village, and later on their homes, were from the Bukit Kinta Rainforest region of Gopeng in the state of Perak, Malaysia which is a stretch of forest that borders the Titiwangsa Mountain Range (upon which the famous Cameron Highlands is located). The Semai people of the Bukit Kinta Rainforest region were spread out over three villages, Ulu Kampar, Ulu Geruntom, and Ulu Geroh. The family that I lived with the most during my time there was from Ulu Geroh and I had been sent there by my University as part of the data collection segment of my PhD to study the customs and culture of the Semai tribe, as well as note their contributions to the conservation of local flora and fauna the most notable of which were the iconic Rafflesia flower (Rafflesia cantleyi). 

Rafflesia cantleyi is perhaps one of the smaller species of Rafflesia flower but what it lacks in size it most certainly makes up in color.

I was adopted by a small family whilst in Ulu Geroh and was welcome to stay with a warm and affectionate woman and her daughter in their small one room house (for ethical purposes I shall refer to them from this point on as my Foster Mother and Foster Sister). The women of the Semai tribe are worth mentioning as some of the most resilient and resourceful people I have had the pleasure and honor of interacting with and my Foster Mother was no exception. Even during the early weeks of my initial stay I could tell that this was a woman who was used to working for what she wanted without having to wait for the affirmation or assistance of others to achieve it. My Foster Mother lived alone with her daughter ever since her husband passed away (her oldest child, her son, had married, moved out, and had fathered kids of his own by then) and had taken it upon herself to give her daughter everything her own parents had taught her were important in life: an education, a goal, and a future. To put her daughter through school, and to ensure that she had enough money when the time came for her daughter to go to college, my Foster Mother moved out of the small town house she had been living in with her husband, and back into the village of her ancestors where she hoped she would be able to make a decent living off of the land to support herself and her children. From rubber tapping at the wee hours of the morning (sometimes, with my Foster Sister *then an infant strapped to her back ) to raising her own flock of chickens, to other odd jobs such as catching butterflies and other insects for collectors, my Foster Mother has done it all.  She was also one of the first members of the village to become actively involved in Nature Conservation and is one of the longest founding members of SEMAI, a coalition formed by the villagers dedicated to the promotion of community-based eco tourism and environmental conservation, that is active to this very day. 

My Foster Mother's house

A photo of the neighbor's house and the surrounding forests which would often be beautifully misty in the mornings.
Most homes are well equipped with a gas stove but many Semai people still prefer to cook their meals traditionally over an open fire from time to time. 

The implementation of community based eco-tourism and environmental conservation in the Ulu Geroh village is a fairly recent thing and can be traced back to just slightly over a decade ago. The efforts were first officially sponsored and supported by the Malaysian Nature Society, but has since received sponsorship from various other bodies including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The SEMAI coalition was formed as part of a then-radical movement to make indigenous peoples the main stakeholders and decision makers of how best to implement Nature Conservation strategies and eco-tourism within their ancestral home land and their community. Today, SEMAI operates completely independently from any official sponsor but do continue to enjoy the support of various educational institutions and non-governmental organizations. The full story of SEMAI's formation and the growth, trials, and tribulations of its implementation of eco-tourism and nature conservation in the village is a lengthy one which I will not discuss here but I do wish to note that one of the things that I stood out to me the most was that the Semai people have always had a close relationship with the natural objects in the world around them. This, in itself is not something that is particularly remarkable and indeed, I suppose the same is often said of indigenous communities world wide. But while I had always taken for granted the "spiritual"ness in which this connection might take place, the community surprised me by showing how even the most mundane things: like the act of eating, is intrinsically tied to the various features of their ancestral homelands and so, their identities as well.  Certain forest plants, for instance, that are consumed for food, are associated with various stories of the Semai tribe that have been passed down for generations. These stories have largely withstood the tests of time and have prevailed despite factors such as modernization and the conversion of many of the Semai peoples to Christianity. By consuming these plants instead of what they call "city-vegetables" (referring to commercially cultivated greens) the Semai people are able to reconnect with their roots by accessing some form of collective based memory/imaginary that reinforces their unique identities as members of a particular indigenous tribe.

The Community Eco-Tourism Center was constructed more than 10 years ago from what was an abandoned Surau  (Muslim prayer building) that was provided for the villagers by the government. It now also serves as the village's Community Hall and important occasions such as meetings with NGO representatives and "village trials" are commonly held there. 
Living out in the forests with the indigenous peoples was something that I have always wanted to do all my life, and though I expected that there would be certain challenges along the way, some challenges that I anticipated were a lot more difficult than others. Going to the toilet, for example, was something that was particularly tricky to master in those early days. Many Semai settlements are constructed alongside rivers or other such fast moving bodies of water. As such, there didn't seem to be much need for Semai households to construct bathrooms or other such areas where one might discreetly eliminate waste. I can attest to this: squatting in the middle of a fast moving river, in full view of any person who might potentially pass by, all the while trying to balance precariously on mossy rocks is not the most conducive environment for waste elimination. Particularly when nature decides to call in the middle of the night. There is nothing quite so "frightening" as squatting on a slippery rock in the middle of the river in the middle of the night in pitch darkness. There's always the constant fear of falling into the river and being swept away by the current (particularly if it has been a rainy day), or being attacked on one's sensitive areas by any number of wild animals or creepy crawlies that might be lurking in the darkness. When I was not watching out for my behind (literally), though, the river was a fun place where people commonly headed to to cool off, especially during the dry season when there was not a cloud in sight and the weather could be most unforgiving. Of course, as common sense would dictate, any frolicking or "bathing" in the river was done much further upstream, away from where any elimination activities might take place.

Some of my closest friends in the village were the children, who often knew the best places to go to in the surrounding forests, whether it be to find turtles of fresh water shrimp, or to see the most beautiful waterfalls.  Many of these children, I would be told later in my stay, commonly referred to me as their "big brother" and would commonly seek me out when they were on holiday from school. 
Being a nature lover and an amateur lepidopterist, I kept a field journal studiously and recorded the various species of butterflies, insects, and animals that I encountered there. Fortunately for me, my Foster Mother was a woman who did not shy away from animals and indeed, kept a small flock of poultry (a mix of turkeys, guinea fowl, jungle fowl, and domesticated chickens) around her house, as well as several ornamental birds, parrots, and cats. This collection grew steadily and remarkably during my stay there. My Foster Mother would later confess to me that she felt more confident raising a larger variety of animals because I was there to provide the information and show her how. Having learnt about my love for butterflies from some of my sketches, she would also invite me out into the forest (especially during the first few months of my stay) whenever we had nothing to do around the house to search for butterflies and other insects for me to draw. Along the way, she would also enlighten me about the various plants we encountered. In this way I quickly learnt which leaves could be used to stop bleeding, or which flowers when chewed, could produce a numbing effect not unlike that of a moderately strong local anesthetic. My Foster Mother educated me in the ways of traditional indigenous medicine and passed on to me, as it was passed on to her by her father, the herbs one might use to produce a soup to cure fever, and the roots and spices needed to form a poultice that is beneficial for women who have just given birth. She also enlightened me on the different leaves, fronds, and woods that were commonly used by the Pawang (shamans) for spell casting and delighted me with stories about the various kinds of spirits that inhabit the forest as well as the appropriate methods of avoiding their wrath or mischief. The Semai tribes have a very different view on spirituality than most as spirits are considered beings that are of this world and are as real as say a tiger, or a tree. They are often spoken of as a matter of fact and almost never in a metaphorical or symbolic sense and though the worship or petition of spirits is frowned upon by most members of the community who have converted to Christianity, belief in such spirits continues to this day and traditional indigenous methods and knowledge of dealing with malice associated with said spirits are sometimes preferred in lieu of a Christian exorcism or prayer. Such a concrete belief in spirits has a profound effect on the community, typically when community members' fears of having transgressed in a particularly spiritual or "haunted" area is manifest in a "possession" of sorts: often diagnosed by symptoms such as unexplained violent outbursts, sudden change in personality or disposition, and hysteria. During my stay at Ulu Geroh, I attended no less than 6 such sessions.

Some of the animals from around the house
The Malayan Lorikeet/Blue Crowned Hanging Parrot (Loriculus galgulus) is a very significant bird in the Semai people's spirituality as it is believed to be one of the "good" animals that wards off the "dark" creatures. Certain insects, such as butterflies are also considered significant spiritually because they are believed to be the "pets" of certain powerful entities that have control over natural phenomenon like the weather.
Saying "hi!" to a particularly friendly sunbird. 
Also, due to a combination of factors: and abundance of the right host plants as well as several mineral springs in the surrounding forests, Ulu Geroh is constantly visited by BUTTERFLIES!!!

MORE butterflies...

And more butterflies than I ever thought I could see in the wild, all in large numbers and in one place

All in all, I'm going to conclude with saying that 2014 is ending on an all time high! Sure I did not come out unscathed (indeed I don't think some of these battle scars will ever heal) but what is an adventure without a few bumps along the way? And to top it off, I think I just fulfilled my New Year's resolution: to be a stronger and braver person than I was the year before. Personally, I think that I have exceeded my own expectations and more! So on that note I wish you all a very happy new year and shall leave you with these pictures of some life long friends I've made along the way: 

Blessed Be

1 comment:

NickMorgan said...

What an interesting post. It sounds as though you had an amazing experience. I would love to visit somewhere like that.