With the Christian Community at Long Singut, Sarawak, Borneo
Christmas on the Balleh river
It is about 11am on December 24th when we arrive at Long Singut, a collection of longhouses with a population of about 800 on the banks of the Balleh river far upstream in a remote area of the rainforest in Sarawak, Malaysia. It's been a long journey: four hours by express-boat and four hours by 4×4 pick-up, an overnight stay in a camp, and nearly three more hours in a canoe the next day. Amazingly we're still within the area of the parish of Kapit where I am the host of Fr Mathews Olili, a young Kenyan Mill Hill missionary.
I have come here in the company of Fr Andrew Tan, the assistant priest of Kapit parish, and three more visitors. This is going to be a Christmas with a difference. I am grateful for the invitation. In the minds of the local population remote Long Singut has an almost mythical ring about it. The elegant dances and distinctive musical tradition of the local Kenyah people are well known and admired throughout Malaysian Borneo.
Later on Christmas Day our longhouse host tells us the story of the arrival of the Kenyah people to this longhouse settlement. They migrated from Indonesia in 1967. He himself was seven years old then. It is a three days arduous journey from here to where they came from through virgin forest and occasional leech infested swamps. When they first arrived the government promised them citizenship if they accepted to become Muslims. But they refused. (Another group in similar circumstances did become Muslim). As a consequence many of them are still not full Malaysian citizens. They were already Catholics when they arrived.
The longhouse leader traveled all the way to Kapit to see the parish priest, Fr Tom Connors mhm, and invite him to come. At first he apparently did not believe them. They had to prove that they were Catholics. How? By reciting the rosary!
The elegant church built in characteristic longhouse style is absolutely packed at 8 pm for the Christmas 'midnight' Mass. We start by blessing the Christmas crib with its very European figures set in distinctly local palm-leaf surroundings. Fr Andrew's lively homily draws frequent reactions from the congregation. I wish I could follow! Not knowing the language is a real handicap. At the offertory a group of six year young women dressed in splendid traditional garb lead the procession of the gifts. The congregation sings a variety of European Christmas carol melodies and songs drawn from the Kenyah tradition. It' a heady mix. Fr Andrew makes a valiant effort to read the Eucharistic prayer in Kenyah, a language he does not master. The two prayer leaders present play a supporting role. In ordinary circumstances, which is 95% of the time, they have, of course, to lead the community prayer.
At the sign of peace the whole congregation bursts into a joyous: Selamat hari Krismas!! Happy Christmas!
After Mass it is time to celebrate the Kenyah way! We're all invited to come to the veranda which stretches the length of the principal longhouse. Fr Mathews had already forewarned me that there would be traditional dancing and that all guests would expected to show their dancing ability. Young and old start the celebration by moving around the veranda in a long snaking line moving rhythmically and stamping the floor in unison to the sound of the recorded music. Next the many young people who have come home from school for Christmas get their turn to it's the turn to take to the floor to dance in unison to a modern Indonesian pop song. 'The times they are a-changing'.
But after this appetizer the Kenyah cultural heritage takes over. Heads turn as the six young women in eye catching traditional dress whom we had earlier admired at Mass, enter the scene. They perform several beautiful traditional dances at a very distinctive slow pace accompanied by lovely tunes. This sets the tone for what is to follow.
The dance of the hornbill! This is an individual dance in which men and women each in their distinctive way give a performance of their dancing prowess in a style unique to the Kenyah tradition. To perform this dance the dancer dons traditional headgear with long hornbill feathers and a kind of leather cloak equally decorated with feathers. I look on in awe as the headman is the first to take centre stage. Everyone watches spellbound as he gracefully mimics the flight of the hornbill to the accompaniment of an entrancing Kenyah tune. Then it's the turn of a woman who dances with exquisite grace a feminine version of the hornbill dance. After another few such performances – I can't get enough of it – the dreaded challenge to the visitors to step forward comes! To the hilarity of all present I make a total hash of it – stiff, clumsy, tall European! It's great fun. And so the evening continues. After midnight the youngsters take over with modern dances more to their taste. I retire exhausted at about 1 am. Fr Andrew tells me that these kind of celebrations often continue through the night.
On Christmas Day 25th we celebrate Mass at 8.30 am. The church is again full to capacity even though celebrations last night continued well into the wee hours of the morning. The communal spirit of the longhouses is clearly in evidence everywhere.
Soon after Mass we are invited for food by one family. Then another, and another. I have never had so many Christmas dinners in my life! Fortunately I have a valid excuse to refuse any alcoholic drinks since I am on medication for an infection. It is a custom here for everyone to visit everybody else. Groups of youngsters trek from one family to the next all day. A snack here, a meal there. Rice wine and cheap imitation whiskey flow in abundance. By early afternoon I see several men and women already looking much the worse for wear. We take a break from visiting mid-afternoon to resume later. I am exhausted. Time for a little snooze. But outside the feasting continues and gets pretty raucous after a while. Then everyone trots off to a nearby playing field for a vigorous volleyball match, and community games. It's wonderful to see the whole community participating in this. Later that evening the whole community gathers again on the outstretched veranda for a shared 'makai' – festive meal.
The music and dancing continue through the night and only stops just before we depart from Long Singut at the crack of dawn waved goodbye by our generous hosts. We travel by longboat again all the way to Putai this time thus avoiding the long journey by road we made coming. Aided by the strong current our journey downriver is much faster and the rapids seem less daunting than when we came upriver two days ago. What a delight it is to see the familiar rainforest scenery glide past. I spot a flowering red orchid now and then, but it proves difficult to catch on camera as we are moving fast. Everywhere there are signs of erosion and the river banks are littered with logs and fallen trees, the logging activity's natural waste.
We arrive at Putai just in time to catch the 11 am express boat. From here on it is plane sailing to Kapit. What a uniquely memorable Christmas this has been!
Fons Eppink mhm