TIME moves differently in the deep impenetrable forests of the Taman Negara National Park. For the indigenous tribes that live by the laws of the jungle, little has changed. Technology has little use for these gentle tribes, while the ways of the jungle has taken precedence over everything else. Living on the fringes of the national park, the nomadic community has been living off the grid as did their ancestors.
Whispers of a lost guide deep in the jungles of Kuala Tahan slowly snake through our group. “A guide got lost?” I ask nervously, careful to keep my voice low. A glimpse of the deep green trees that cluster together in a mysterious tangle across the Tembeling river seem to warn me not to be fooled by the serenity I see before my eyes. This place holds secrets that have yet to be unfolded despite its existence for millions of years. The 130-million-year-old virgin rainforest rises up intimidatingly, as wild and untamed as the animals that inhabit her domain.
“It’s been three days and a search party has been sent to look for him,” someone tells me, before adding thoughtfully: “The orang asal (indigenous people) should be able to help. After all, they know the forest better than anyone else.” I whisper a silent prayer in the hope that the guide would be found unharmed. There’s nothing more unsettling than hearing that a seasoned guide could get lost within the dense forbidding jungle — a place not unfamiliar to the guides who work there.
As we’re about to step into the boats that will take us further away — some nine kilometres from Kuala Tahan — where the Batek or “Bateq” community lives in relative harmony with nature, I’m wondering if the gifts that we come bearing will do them good.
About seven villages are located along the river stream, and the further they’re located from the more densely populated town of Kuala Tahan perched on the banks of the river, the more disconnected they are from the usual trappings of modern life, and the very things we take for granted — clean water and running electricity.
The boat ahead of us is laden with boxes of rechargeable LED camps powered by solar panels. The boats that chug along the rushing river are filled with young volunteers from two companies, architecture firm Veritas Design Group and construction firm Haskell Malaysia, that have sponsored these lamps.
Young Arran Rahul Hashim, a 20-year-old college student from Lewis and Clark College keeps an eagle eye on the pile of boxes. It was Arran who first initiated the idea to provide solar powered lights to the orang asal communities in Malaysia.
Reaching out to local non-governmental organisation, Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY), Arran and Andrew Sebastian, co-founder and chief executive officer of ECOMY teamed up to launch KampungKu (My Village) in 2017, a solar installation project to support the indigenous communities who live in and around protected areas in Malaysia.
THE BATEK COMMUNITY
“We’re here,” announces our boatman, as he slowly navigates our boat towards the riverbank. The boats are soon unloaded of its cargo, both people and lamps. And we stare at the little narrow slippery pathway that would lead us up to the village perched atop the steep slope. My heart sinks a little, while my knees seem to murmur a little whimper of their own.
The path is steep, sandy and my heart rate goes on an overdrive as I hoist myself up the ropes that are tied on spikes to help the less-than-agile bodies get up the slope. Before long (thankfully), the clearing appears and makeshift palm-thatched huts present a welcome sight to the group of visitors. The little village of Kampung Aur seems deserted on that sunny morning, but as we make away through the cleared landing, curious eyes from the shades of the huts seem to follow us around.
A cool breeze flutters past the verdant green that rustles in the backdrop, lush and inviting. It’s quiet up here, except for the hushed laughter of children who peer cautiously from the confines of their huts. We’re strangers here, bearing strange gifts they have little understanding of.
It’s unsurprising how reticent they are when it comes to meeting strangers. The Batek community have long lived within the rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. However, encroachment and excessive logging drove this nomadic group of hunter-gatherers to inhabit the national park reserve. The national park is home to an estimated 2,000 members of the Batek tribe, and while some of them have settled in permanent colonies along the riverbanks, there still remain those who practice the age-old nomadic lifestyle. Yet they’re never far from their “lifeline” — the Tembeling River.
The Batek is a gentle race of people, short of stature, dark-skinned with tight curly hair and they depend largely on forest produce for their food supply: fruits, yams and small animals which are hunted with blowpipes. They identify themselves as forest people, with the forest being their true home. Their shelters are scattered about wherever they decide to camp, with no symbolic defences from the forest. I’m told that there are few additional families who had just moved to Kampung Aur from their own village further down the river on account that one of the menfolk had been recently mauled by a black panther.
While their roof thatch is fresh and green, it’s difficult to spot the village from even a few feet away. They prefer the forest because it’s cool, and as they attest, healthier than living out in the heat of the clearing. It also provides them a refuge from outsiders.
The village Tok Batin or headman is soon found seated in one of the open shelters within the village. His name is Menderu, and according to our local guide Abdul Jalil Rahman or “Aki” as he’s known, the names of these village folk are usually derived from the place where they were born, and the circumstances surrounding their births.
Their names usually bear an intrinsic connection to the place and time when they were born. “Mungkin angin menderu apabila dia dilahirkan (Perhaps there was roaring wind when he was born),” Aki explains as an aside, while we greet the quiet village headman. Aki, a local guide and member of the Bird Group Taman Negara, is familiar with the Batek community at Taman Negara. “I’m quite close to them. In fact, I consider them part of my extended family,” he reveals as the headman smiles widely at him in recognition. They clasp each other in a hug and it’s clear that they’re as close as Aki attests.
The 56-year-old Menderu quietly welcomes us to the village and as we gather around him, he tells us shyly: “The lamps would make a welcome change from the oil lamps that we use at nights and make it safer for us to navigate through the dark.” He assures us that villagers are happy but adds that they’re still a little shy at meeting “outsiders”. “They need some time to warm up,” he says, smiling.
LIGHTING UP THE VILLAGE
The sun is now blazing overhead, and Sebastian rallies the group to get started on building a makeshift table where the solar panels will be spread out to charge under the rays of the sun. The villagers have prepared the basic tools — bamboo poles, pared down branches and rattan — and everyone gets to work.
It is hard work. Measuring tapes, strings and hammers are brought out, and for the next few hours the group of volunteers work hard at trying to construct a large “table” out in the clearing between the thatched huts.
A Batek village consists of autonomous families that share enough interests to prompt them to converge together. Here at Kampung Aur, it’s no different. They schedule and informally coordinate group activities and rely on natural leaders for their experience, judgement and advice. Leaders like Menderu can only be persuasive — they have no authority. While they’re aware that we will be coming to their village, life goes on as usual.
There isn’t a welcoming committee greeting us on our arrival except for the quiet Tok Batin. As we begin work and attempt to figure out how to create a table out of the pile of wood, bamboo and rattan they’ve left for us on the side, the villagers slowly converge on the periphery of the clearing where we’re gathered to watch our progress.
Some of the village men eventually come in to help. Their prowess at putting together utilitarian shelters proves useful. The architects and builders in the group stand back amazed as these small statured wiry men briskly help them erect a table efficiently with their worn parangs and small knives. It’s clear that their compassion at seeing the “city folks” being trumped by the blazing sun and piles of raw materials coupled with the most basic tools, has won over their reticence.
After all, the Batek community thrive on communal sharing and caring. They have a firm expectation that all food that are gathered will be shared. Their sharing ethic is strong, and they share everything freely, whether they’re obtained as gifts or purchased through their trading.
In a matter of moments after the villagers come in to help, a table is soon set up for the panels to charge. It’s time to call in the families, to present the lamps and teach them how to charge the solar panels. We leave them alone once the panels are being charged, with the promise that we’d be back to see the lamps light up at dusk.
As the sun sets in the horizons, we climb that slippery treacherous slope again to the quiet village bathed in the dusky twilight. It’s time to light up, and as we get them to switch on the lamps, the bright solar-powered lamps chase the shadows away. The wonderment of the gentle folk is evident. It’s unlike anything they’ve seen before. The village is now bathed in an ethereal white light, and the children are enthralled. “Lampu! Lampu! (Light! Light!)” someone calls out in glee.
With access to safe solar-powered lamps, the nights will take on a brighter hue with villagers being able to do so much more in relative safety when the dark sets in. Children can study in the light, work can still get done and precious resources like oil and kerosene can be saved.
With the dawn of new light comes the hope that communities like the villagers of Kampung Aur can benefit from the progress that has taken over the rest of the nation. For the people like the Batek community don’t just want to see in the dark, they want to live in light as others do.
As we travel back from the village, the stars overhead glitter brightly in the dark skies. I’m told that the lost guide has been found and that the forest has spared him. All is well with the world. The day has been a long one, while the night seems endless. The forest looms around us like dark sentinels in the night. For those of us sitting silently in boats powered by single lamps that shine out to the inky shimmering river ahead, the concept of time as we know it doesn’t apply. For this is the jungle — time moves differently here.