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Peace Corps in Sarawak By EDWIN C. PRICE, JR.
Peace Corps in Sarawak By EDWIN C. PRICE, JR.
By EDWIN C. PRICE, JR.
IN SEPTEMBER, 1962, Kanowit District of Sarawak's Third Division, on the island of Borneo, welcomed its second American. He was a 4-H Club organizer with two years of college, a developing ego, and an urge to get out and do something constructive.
He could not hope to be remembered as fondly as Kanowit's first American, Dr. Linn Fenimore Cooper, a physician and great-grandson of American author James Fenimore Cooper. Dr. Cooper has a hospital ward named in his memory, but as the second American, I can at least hope to leave a good record as the Peace Corps Volunteer in Kanowit.
Peace Corps training in Hawaii prepared a dozen of us to organize 4-H Clubs in Sarawak. Throughout our training we were called "The Plowboys." We felt our rank low among the other Volunteers, and I often wished I were a teacher. Arrival in Sarawak, however, and full realization of the job to be done changed all that.
The success of our 4-H Clubs is evident in club gardens, fishponds, and chicken houses. We're "getting progress," as the natives say.
"Getting progress" would be more difficult were it not for a few former British Colonial Service officers who know and understand Americans. "Don't expect results too fast, and take six months to settle in, if necessary," they told us when we arrived. One of them, Desmond L. Bruen, then the Kanowit District Officer, advised me through my first year. Bruen's district was 90 miles up the big river Rajang. It is the largest district of the lbans, or Sea Dyaks, in Sarawak.* Author in native dress
The lbans are traditionally headhunters, but those I know best have changed. Penghulu (Chief) Masam, my adopted father, is one. The tattoos on his hands show that he once took heads, but pleated shorts have replaced his loincloth, and he no longer wears his hair in bangs. His home is separate from the longhouse where the rest of his community lives. He was named Masam, meaning "Sour," to prevent the evil spirits from harassing him.
It is Masam and the people of his river, the Ngemah, who show the greatest evidence of my work here. I look forward to every trip I make into the ulu, or back country. It is seven hours by river from Kanowit to Masam's home. In that distance there are six clubs, a demonstration farm, and more than 30 long-houses at which I might stop for business. Usually my boat is loaded with seed, fertilizer, cement, fruit trees, rabbits, chickens, pigs, or anything else needed for the next step in the various projects along the river. The 36-foot outboard-powered boat is steered by Langgit, or "Sky," Masam's oldest son. Only a native of the Ngemah River can maneuver a boat over its course with any ease.
Figure 1. Volunteer in Ceremonial Dress Samples Sea Dyak
Ed Price, who urged Sarawak friends to cling to old crafts while learning new, shows his willingness to meet them halfway. He later scrubbed off the lamp-black designs. Swift taps of the artist's pin would have made the patterns permanent.
An hour after you enter the Ngemah, the river narrows, and rocks begin to ripple the water's surface. During the drier season, or kemarau, the boat must often be dragged through shallow water. The low water of this season claims many propeller pins and sometimes a gear system. But that is when the river is most beautiful. Giant trees stretch low over the water and shade it with mazes of vines, orchids, and rattan. Shooting the rapids
When the monsoons, or landas, come in December, traveling can become dangerous. The rocks lurk unseen beneath a 20-foot flood of water, and the maze that was a jungle overhead becomes an obstacle course swishing on the river's surface.
Figure 2. Furious paddling averts a dunking. Price and his companions fight to keep their prau from wallowing broad side as the boat teeters across a cataract on the Ngemah River. Travel means adventure in Sarawak, where the highways are rivers and streams. In the rainy season, floods can smash boats to kindling. In low water, praus must be unloaded and portaged. Matted vegetation nourished by 150 inches of rain a year blocks traffic on foot.
Committee for Pointing the Way
After a long day of traveling, the longhouse affords little rest for weary bones. The evening of arrival grows long with talk of rubber planting, fishponds, fruit trees, and gardens.
My work is supposed to be with young people, but the adults of the river have formed their club too. It is called the "Committee for Pointing the Way to Progress." Committeemen for 25 longhouses meet once a quarter to discuss new projects. Before a night's talk is over, I have made many promises, agricultural and otherwise.
One night I scolded an old man for letting his son quit school. He knew it was best that the boy continue, but in tears he replied, "I have no money." By morning I had given scholarships to the son and two friends in the same situation. Within a year they cost me a month's Peace Corps subsistence allowance.
When villagers finally let me go to bed, it is still not easy to rest. Bed is a bamboo floor five feet above the murk of the under-house pigsty, chicken pen, community dump, and toilet. Nightly the mangy dog packs trot the long porches where we sleep, and occasionally stop by for a friendly sniff and scratch. Light sleep is sometimes possible just prior to 5 a.m., the beginning of a new day.
Author in native dressPeople ask if life here is hard and strange. If ever I took time to think, things would seem hard and strange. But the day's tasks leave little time for thinking, and the Iban ways quietly become my own. By new definition, a floor becomes a bed, and rice a meal. Fifteen miles per hour becomes a reasonable speed for travel, and a loincloth is accepted dress for an lban.
Some have also asked if the lbans' law and customs interfere with my work. Often they have, but there have always been ways around the tribal taboos.
A young Iban chief once agreed with great reason and in the spirit of progress that he should try to plant a corn patch. Unfortunately, however, his best cornland was under an old curse. His grandfather had been told in a dream many years ago that anyone clearing the land would have a death in his family.
"But," the chief pointed out, "if you Christians are brave; you may do the clearing."
Figure 3. Okra adds spice to the rice diet of the Sea Dyaks
and helps the former "wild men" of Borneo improve their
lives. Forested hills and coastal swamps leave them little
farmland; new growing practices and better crops can free
them from their struggle for food. Price taught the people to
build chicken coops and to dig fishponds near their longhouses.
I did it, and no one died. Later, again in the spirit of progress, he told me, "lban law is too hard to follow. Someday when my children finish school, I'm going to become a Christian."
Volunteer Pays Toll in Health
"You will not live here long," District Officer Bruen told me, "without falling in love with the lbans. " He proved right. It was ironic, for their land and culture have been rough on me. Or perhaps I've been heedless of too many rules of health. Muddy digging for a fishpond gave me one tropical disease; a year later, unboiled water gave me another. Now, near the end of my term, the reserve built up by training in Hawaii is gone. The lbans say my bones have gotten soft.
It will be harder to leave here than it was to leave home to come here. Soon I will attend a Peace Corps end-of-service conference. My packed souvenirs will be sent, my plane ticket to Palatka, Florida, will be written, and I will start the three-day journey home. Sarawak will become a memory of rushing water, tangled jungle, and wild rhythms. In vacant hours, streams I have traveled will wind into rivers. The tangled jungle will show paths I walked—and my determination to return to Sarawak will burn deeper.
In "Ambassadors of Good Will, The Peace Corps" by Sargent Shriver, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, Vol. 126, No. 3, September 1964