Saturday, September 25, 2021

Floods swamp harvest festival at Sarawak longhouses

With their crops gone and food short in supply, the Kenyah community braces for a difficult season.

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Around the beginning of each year, the interior area near the Ulu Baram river in Sarawak would be filled with the sounds of singing and laughter as the Kenyah people celebrated their harvest festival.

The festival known as Mamat would usually take place between February and April, depending on when the padi or rice was planted.

It was and still is an important part of their culture although the years have seen a gradual shift away from the tradition among the younger generation. To the Kenyah people, a consistently good rice harvest is a reflection of the overall morality of a longhouse and a way for them to improve their social and economic status as well as their influence in the community.

During good times, it is the most eagerly awaited event of the year.

But this most recent harvest season was not a good time.

Kenyah women from the Lio Mato longhouse, dressed in traditional attire, celebrate the Mamat harvest festival during better times.

Last month, the longhouse of Long Moh which is home to some 200 Kenyah was pounded by torrential rain which hit the interior and upper Baram region particularly hard.

On May 18, the water level of the Ulu Baram river rose so high that low-lying longhouses in the area, including Long Moh, were flooded.

A house at the Lio Mato longhouse area stands partially submerged in flood water.

Alex, a padi farmer, said many houses were toppled but those living in the longhouses were not evacuated despite the floods which rose to a metre in depth.

“The next morning, the heavy rain continued, so much so that the water level reached Uma Kelebang, a longhouse nearby ours,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“The villagers could only watch helplessly as the rushing water carried away our boats and other property.”

A man stands on the roof of his porch as flood waters which have completely covered the lower level lap near his feet.

Needless to say, their padi fields were completely destroyed as well.

With no harvest, in addition to the constraints brought on by the health measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, there were no celebrations this year.

It was a double blow for the community as similar floods had also occurred in January.

Alex’s cousin William now works in Miri but he recalls the sound of people pounding the rice with wooden pestles on the eve of Mamat – a signal to everyone who heard it that a celebration was around the corner.

“On the eve, the women would sing to the rhythm of the pounding of the pestles.

“As with so many things in the Ulu, pounding rice is a communal affair,” he told MalaysiaNow.

But such activities are now a memory, thrown into sharp relief by the present reality.

Kenyah women at the Lio Mato longhouse make ketupat ahead of the harvest festival on a normal year.

For one, food supply has become a problem. At the Lio Mato longhouse, Johana Engge said essential items like sugar and salt are running low.

They can venture out for more supplies but the need for travel permits during the ongoing lockdown makes things more difficult.

“We need to prepare food, especially for our elders and those who are sick,” she said.

“Now we have to depend on our relatives and family members who work in town to deliver food to us.”

This is not easy as anyone looking to reach the longhouse must do so by four-wheel drive. Lio Mato is also a long way from the city of Miri – six to eight hours by timber road.

Beautiful but remote: it takes six to eight hours to reach Lio Mato from Miri by four-wheel drive on the timber road.

To reach Miri from Long Moh meanwhile takes nine to 12 hours of hard driving.

Back at the Lio Mato longhouse, Johana is worried about the well-being of the community.

“I hope the authorities can give more focus to people like us, who live in the interior and in remote areas,” she said.

Replanting their crops is about their only option but even this is made difficult by the persistent flooding in the area.

William and Alex said it had become easier for floods to occur due to the river’s water levels.

“It can happen twice a year,” they said. “It was easier back then for us to look for food. Now, the forest is being destroyed by logging companies.”

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