Alio binti Desan shuffles her stooped frame across the main room in her Kampung Sawah home, sits down in the corner wearing a smile ear to ear - for a 95 year-old she moves pretty fast.
Once seated, her youngest grandchildren demonstrate how to do a “thumbs up” for a photograph and she tries. It’s hard work for her - arthritic joints thwart the multiple attempts.
Again she tries, but it’s not to be, so she settles for a semi-clenched fist, much to the respectful delight and laughter of her large extended family, now crowding the room.
Thumbs up or not, nothing can stop her smiling eyes or the infectious, toothless grin lighting up the room, now full with other residents from the kampung.
Alio is a descendant of the earliest inhabitants in the Malay peninsular known as Orang Asli, the original first peoples that make up about 0.6% of Peninsular Malaysia’s population who tend to live mainly in rural areas near the jungle.
Orang Asli has a metaphysical and spiritual type of bond with the land that is best described by one of their traditional oral folktales, kaba, that warns about the social and personal consequences of either ignoring or observing the ethical teachings.
For Orang Asli to learn the names of all the rivers in their communities one such story tells of a man meeting a tiger that makes the man follow him to all the rivers in the community. As a result the man learned all of the names and shared them with others. The Orang Asli believes tradition is an important element in defending their land and indigenous culture. If this tradition is not continually told to younger generations the Orang Asli names of the rivers will cease to exist. All that will be left will be the Malay names erasing evidence of the Orang Asli names, erasing a part of Orang Asli culture.
In the home next door to Alio lives Achong and his family.
Achong, above, regularly fishes, hunts by blow-pipe and also forages in the jungle for plants to supplement the income he gets from tapping rubber on the communal plantation.
Holding up a plant he calls pokok kayas he explains how to safely extract the poison from the stem for his blowpipe darts, knowledge passed down to him from elders.
Care must be taken to ‘cook’ the poison, “no antidote, he says, …. you get it you die.”
Growing in a garden nearby is a shrub the Asli call butterfly plant, as the leaves look like small butterflies. It is currently being tested for using in the fight against the HIV virus-a plant his ancestors have used medicinally on themselves for centuries.
Chairman of the Kampung Sawah council, Sugeh anak Gawah, above, explains the simple Asli philosophy of hunting animals like tupai and monyet (squirrels and monkeys) as well as the foraging laws which have sustained generations of Orang Asli till today.
“We only kill it or chop it if we intend to eat it or use it,” Sugeh says.
“If you don’t want to eat it, don’t kill it because the animal wants to live too.”
Foraging these days is not as easy as it used to be as plants and roots required for traditional medicines are becoming harder to find with deforestation and land clearing. It can take a day or more trekking into deep jungle to locate the 7 or 8 roots and barks needed for the Asli version of Red Bull Red Bull-the native energy drink equivalent is a potion that also treats sinusitis and sells for less than ten Ringgit. (AUS$ 3.50)
Kampung Parit Gong
Twenty-five kilometres down the road from Kampung Sawah, near the small town of Simpang Pertang, Orang Asli men from the Parit Gong kampung return from the mornings work, collecting the tapped rubber. They smoke, chat and take a well-earned drink-break in a conveniently located warung, outdoor café, situated opposite the rubber-weigh station.
A single mum to six children, the gregarious Dara Masri binti Tiot, above, operates the warung on her own after her husband passed away nearly twenty years ago.
The grandmother of 20 said, “I’ll never leave here, this is where I will stay,” rocking her head back, laughing under the cool shade of a large tree.
Three of her children agree with her thoughts and choose to live in the community with their families but the other three have careers that have taken them away from “home,” to the city lights.
Masri visits them in Kuala Lumpur regularly but says she cannot live there, “it’s too hot and there is no jungle.”
It is from the jungle that Orang Asli have a source of income from rubber tapping which is weighed and categorised daily.
Father of six and teacher at the local school, Ayof Ekal Zaleha binti Bapat, below, is the Tok Batin, or headman of Parit Gong and responsible for the management and running of the 700 acres of rubber plantation and the community of families living thereon.
The village is home to about 500 people made up of approximately 120 Muslims, 25 Christians and the majority who hold to their animistic beliefs.
Ayof, above, surrounded by females, makes most of the decisions for the community that follows an age-old matrilineal system of governance adapted from the Minangkabau culture of Sumatra, Indonesia, called Adat Perpatih.
Under these cultural laws the women inherit all property, land titles and assets and headman Ayof is elected by a council of women who can also de-elect him at anytime.
“It’s a good system,” he says, smiling at his niece, who sits on the council with three other women.
Ayof explains how the Adat Perpatih looks after the needs of the women, who are considered as those who need to be protected and cared for more so than men, who are able to fend for themselves, especially after events like divorce.
“It is protection,” he says “for our community because we don’t want women struggling to raise families without a house over their head after a separation.” Men who marry girls from the village must live here and abide by the laws no matter what religion or belief system they follow.
Ayof hopes the children of the community will go the way of education to open their minds to possibilities and was delighted when one of the students received an engineering scholarship last year from one of the major oil companies in Malaysia to study in London, a first for the community. Seven other children were also awarded University placements.
Ayof is not afraid the children will lose their connective bonds with the land as educational opportunities increase and assimilation with modern mainstream Malaysia progresses.
“We give them the motivation to know where they come from, for example in our village we have a cultural group that teaches our dances, our music and our stories.”
“More importantly, we teach them how to speak to old people, so we hope they continue learning things like that. They should remember because we constantly remind them where they come from - the land.
We like development but we just need the connection with our land-we like balance.”