Daybreak at the Nanga Delok longhouse, and the morning’s work has already begun. Men are busily patching up their fishing nets, while their wives fry noodles for breakfast before strapping on rattan baskets, ready for another day’s work in the village rice fields. Outside, dogs stretch in the sunshine and pigs snuffle around the stilts of the house, while the cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters echo across the riverbanks.
The smell of wood-fires and charcoal hangs in the air. It’s a vision of village life that seems little changed in 100 years – and that’s just how the inhabitants of Nanga Delok want it. Situated on the verdant banks of the Jelia River, a 50-minute boat ride upriver from the nearest road, the longhouse at Nanga Delok belongs to members of the Iban, the largest of the 20 or so indigenous tribes that make up the population of Sarawak. The Iban are jungle-dwellers, living a subsistence lifestyle in harmony with the land, finding food, medicine and materials in the forest. “In the past, the jungle provided everything we needed,” explains Tiyon Juna, an Iban guide who runs expeditions exploring his indigenous culture.
“It provided us with food, building materials, and told us stories that helped us understand how we came to be.” He points to the tattoos covering his arms and torso; each one is inspired by an Iban legend, but also marks an important moment in his own journey through life. The most striking feature of the Iban lifestyle is their use of communal dwellings known as rumah panjai, or longhouses. Each includes private quarters for up to 50 families, as well as a shared verandah for storage and village meetings. Historically, longhouses were built from natural materials such as ironwood and pandanus, but most are now made of concrete and plaster. “All Iban people still belong to a longhouse, even when they no longer live there,” says Tiyon. “For us, the longhouse is where life’s big events happen – funerals, marriages, festivals. It’s part of who we are.” Nanga Delok is one of only a few in Sarawak built in the traditional way, using timber and thatch, supplemented by the odd patch of corrugated iron.
The villagers here spend their time as their forefathers would have – fishing, making crafts, tending to the rice fields – although, these days, they also have access to modern amenities such as running water, electricity and satellite TV. However, Nanga Delok feels a long way from the outside world, especially after dark when the generator shuts down and the air fills with the rasp of insects and the chatter of birds.
“Even though I spend most of my time in the town now, it’s in the forest that I feel at home,” says Tiyon, as he prepares an Iban barbecue of fish, chicken and ferns, steamed in bamboo canes. “I feel in touch with my ancestors here. It’s where I’m most alive.” He kneels and breathes life into the fire, sending spirals of smoke into the forest air.
As he works, an old boatman glides past, tripped to the waist, his wiry torso covered in tribal tattoos. He watches Tiyon for a while, then raises his oar in greeting and slips silently downriver, dissolving like a ghost into the morning mist.