The way forward for Iban longhouses

Tr. Benjamin A. Kaboy

Rh.Benjamin Angki, An Exemplary Iban Longhouse

By Edward Subeng Stephen

KANOWIT, Nov 29 (Bernama) — Anyone keen on visiting an Iban longhouse? The 69-year-old Rh.Benjamin Angki in Rantau Kemiding, about five kilometres from here, is certainly worth a visit.

For a start, it’s one of the longest and oldest traditional Iban longhouses out of the 3,577 registered longhouses in Sarawak.

Among the Ibans, the size of a longhouse or ‘rumah panjai’ is measured by the number of its ‘pintu’ (doors or individual family units) and this one has 60 ‘pintu’ with its whole length easily exceeding 300 metres.

Presently, the 60-‘pintu’ longhouse is rare because a typical longhouse normally has between 20 and 30 ‘pintu’ only. Another unique feature is that the longhouses are often named after the chief or the ‘tuai rumah’.

So, you will definitely be able to guess the chief of this longhouse. He’s none other than Benjamin Angki anak Kaboy, an Iban with many feathers in his cap.

The University of Hawaii baccalaureate and retired Sarawak Shell Berhad executive is one of the two graduate Iban “tuai rumah” here and possibly in the whole of Sarawak.

Angki said although the present longhouse was built in 1937, its actual history stretched back to almost 100 years and in three different locations.

The all-wooden longhouse is the pride of the Iban community and this year’s winner of the coveted state-level “Anugerah Desa Cemerlang” (Excellent Village Award).

Most longhouses are now quite empty as the educated and the more able- bodied residents have moved to towns to eke out a living.

They only return to visit the elderly once in a while and during the Gawai Dayak festival in June.

This is the same problem at Rh.Benjamin Angki. Despite its legendary length, it has only 409 inhabitants. There are three families who have not returned home for a long time.

However, Angki believes despite the dwindling number, the longhouse being the icon of the state’s native lifestyle is still relevant and can be saved from extinction.

“The young may be gung-ho about town or city living with all the modern trappings. But not everyone can afford to buy a house there.

“It is only a matter of time when more roads and public amenities like water and power supply make their way to the interiors. My longhouse, for instance, has all these.

“So, I think then there will be a reverse in preference. There will be people wanting to come back to their roots at least during their retirement,” he said.

Angki believes that the great sense of cohesion, belonging and security are the factors that can save the longhouse from extinction.

He said providing economic opportunities could also reverse the migration trend in their own backyards and this is where he finds the commercial development of the people’s customary land pertinent.

Angki too believes in having an educated ‘tuai rumah’, especially the computer-savvy ones, in ensuring the continued existence of the longhouses through good grassroot leadership.

“Definitely, you need to have someone with some education more so now when we have all kinds of challenges from the outside world.

“If you are illiterate, your followers and your longhouse will be on the losing end when it comes to drawing up strategies or action plans for progress.

“These days we are often invited to seminars and courses organised by the government and if our level of understanding is low, there will be no impact on our followers when we return home.

“The Ninth Malaysian Plan is a good example. If we fail to understand it thoroughly, chances are that we will not be able to benefit from it as expected,” he said.

Incidentally, Angki is also the chairman of the first Tuai Rumah Association in the state.

Launched last April, it now has about 100 members all of whom have received their letters of appointment from the government.

“The association strives to unite all concerned tuai rumah with a view of working closely with the government in community development.

“Another important objective is for all its members to apply the Iban Customary Law 1963 in handling disputes. This is important in serving justice to all,” said Angki.

He said the days of the illiterate were numbered with the increasing pool of retired civil servants, especially teachers who could be appointed ‘tuai rumah’.

However, he is against the present group being condemned or brushed aside unceremoniously as they are knowledgeable in the old customs and traditions.

“They can still be advisors or even mentors. The educated ones can be their secretaries,” he said.

Back to his own longhouse, Angki said it had been quite a challenge in making it an exemplary longhouse.

The longhouse is a far cry from what it was 10 years ago. It is clean all over and has a very functional village development and security committee.

“My biggest challenge is in motivating the older and illiterate folk to work together in implementing our own action plan in aspects like the children’s education, economic activities, health and security.

“My approach is to encourage them into doing things like beautifying their front portion with flowers and shrubs in the interest of the whole longhouse and to avoid wanton littering,” he enthused.

Angki also ensures that the longhouse decorum is upheld. If a visitor unwittingly lights up a cigarette during any gathering at the longhouse, he or she will be politely told off. In-house smoking is banned during any gathering.

Another unwritten rule is that those below 18 years of age are not encouraged to consume alcoholic brew and neither will they be served with the drink during any festival or celebration.

There is also no forcing (although it’s more of courtesy than anything else) the guests and visitors who cannot handle such drinks.

A number of old taboos have also been dropped for good in line with Catholic belief. The majority of the inhabitants of the longhouse are Catholics.

Yet despite Angki’s optimism, it’s still a tall order for the longhouses in winning over their residents from the forces of modernisation.

Extract from:

One thought on “The way forward for Iban longhouses”

  1. Rumah Benjamin Angki is the most beautiful long house. I hope that u can keep the unique of ur long house. the traditional of ur long house can the sample for others long house at sarawak.

Leave a Reply