An Iban Myth
One day, Sengalang Burong, the Great Spirit of the sky, called all the races before him to give to each the gift of wisdom. Each race received its gift written down in the form of a letter and then each set off to return home. When the Malay, the Chinese and the Iban received their letters, they set off together to return to Sarawak, but on their way, they came to a great river which they had to cross, so they tucked their letters into their waistbands and swam across. When they reached the other side they were tired, so they decided, before going on their way, to rest and take the opportunity to dry out their letters, which had got wet during the crossing.
The Malay took his letter and pegged it on a line to dry, but as it hung there the ink began to run and that is why Malay writing is long and squiggly! When the Chinese saw what had happened, he placed his letter flat on the ground to dry, but, while it was still drying, some chickens came by looking for food and walked all over the letter and that is why Chinese writing looks like the claw prints of a chicken. The Iban saw what had happened both to the Malay and the Chinese and so he placed his letter on the top of a bush to dry, so that neither could the ink run nor could chickens be able to walk over it. However, the wind came and blew the letter up high into the air and the birds of the air came and played with the letter, pulling at it, tearing it and nibbling pieces of it until it was all gone – eaten by the birds! And that, says the myth, is why the Iban have no writing of their own and also why the Iban have to follow the bird omens, for in the birds lies their gift of wisdom – it was eaten by the birds!
I remember travelling upriver in a longboat with my catechist and several others. I remember that the day was dull with rain falling fitfully and I saw on the bank of the river, a row of poor, makeshift huts and, huddled together inside them, away from the rain, were men, women and children. I looked more closely, as we passed, and recognized some of them as belonging to a good, new longhouse, just upriver from where we were. I asked one of those travelling with me why they were there and not in their own house and I was told that they had heard a certain bird omen and because of that they had had to leave the house for three days, while certain rituals were carried out. There was no other reason why they had to leave their house, only the lore of the bird omens – and they dare not go against the omens. I still remember seeing the people crouching there in their makeshift shelters – in silence. The only sound was that of children quietly crying against the background of the falling rain!
I also remember another day and another longhouse. It was a sunny day and I had been travelling for about four hours towards this catechumen house, a house which had begun to follow the Christian way of life, about six months previously. I crossed a stream, followed the path as it turned a bend, and there, before me, was the house. I remember noticing that the undergrowth had been cut back from the house for a distance of about thirty to forty feet and that crosses had been planted at various places around the perimeter. I entered the house and was warmly greeted by the people, whom I had not seen for about two months. We sat and chatted for a while, catching up on each other’s news and then I asked about the undergrowth and the crosses and they all began to speak excitedly at once!
Two weeks previously, they said, the “Devil bird omen” had been heard calling in the night, close to the longhouse. The people were frightened because, according to the lore of the birds, such a call meant that they must abandon the house and move elsewhere or endure destruction. The next day, they held a meeting to decide on what they should do, as they were now Christians. They came to a decision and, in fear and trembling, went out – they cut down the undergrowth around the house, accompanied by the recitation of prayers asking Christ’s protection and sprinkled holy water. They had been frightened, they said, very frightened – but they stayed, because they were now Christians. I can also still remember the sounds of that night – the house was peaceful, with a gentle quiet and there was no sound of children crying!
An old man, a noble man, Enchana, arrived at my house. It had taken him three hours to reach my house by boat and road. Someone had died in the small Christian community of which he was the leader, the first one to die since they had become Christian the previous year. The Christians in his village were greatly outnumbered by the pagans, who were watching to see how the Christians carried out the rites of the dead and Enchana had come because he wanted to be sure about the ritual. He had been taught what to do at a prayer-leaders’ course, but there were several little details, which had been overlooked at that time and because Enchana had been the religious leader of his village before becoming a Christian and he tended to be a ritualist.
I remember that, when he arrived, I was in a hurry to get to a meeting in the town, but I sat and explained things to him, until he had the prescribed ritual clearly in mind. As we finished, I hurriedly began to get my things together to be off to the meeting. Then, Enchana came back into the room. There was one more thing he had forgotten to ask, he said, how many days should elapse after the burial before they cemented the tomb? I was in a hurry. “Thirty days”, I answered. Why “thirty days”? There was no reason! I was in a hurry; I had to get to a meeting.
Some ten years later, I sat listening to another priest, who had also worked in Sarawak. He was talking about a recent visit he made to Sarawak and how pleased the people of his old parish were to see him again. He related how one man had said to him: “Father, once I walked in fear of the birds, but then you came and I learned to make the Sign of the Cross, when I heard the birds, and I was no longer afraid. One day I will so trust Christ that I will no longer even have to make the Sign of the Cross” That priest had wrested the Iban gift of wisdom away from the birds and had given it back to the people.
As I sat listening, my mind went back to Sarawak and to that day when Enchana came to see me. I still remember that day. I still remember that I said, “Thirty days” and I feel a pang of regret. I also had wrested the Iban gift of wisdom away from the birds, but before I gave it back to Enchana, did I eat a bit of the letter myself?
I wrote the above some years ago, but came across it while doing some work on my book. It is a reflection on how easy it is to put obstacles between God and ourselves and also, as a priest, between God and people – sometimes with lasting results! I note that the Church – or maybe churchmen – seems to be moving towards more and more rules – to the advantage of the birds?
I have just come down from Mt Singgai, here in Sarawak, after having given a two day retreat to a group of people. Fortunately, the Stations of the Cross are placed at regular intervals on the way up and, as my group wanted to pray the Stations, we stopped at each – which were very welcome pauses! The coming down, this afternoon, was not so easy. You seem to use different muscles coming down from those going up – and when I got to the bottom, my knees were quite wobbly.
Last Thursday, I went to Mukah, which was my first mission station, for the silver jubilee of one of my first students. It was a lovely warm celebration and was accompanied by the “soft” opening of the new church there – the official opening will take place next year. After the Mass, four elderly ladies came up asked if I was Father Terry – I asked them where there were from and they told me Balingian, which is an outstation about forty miles along the coast. It was quite isolated, when I lived there, and I would have to stay for a few days when I visited. In those days, I was cared for by four young women who were very kind – and as I peered into the faces of those four elderly ladies, I saw my four young friends from times past.
Last Sunday, we had three of our newly ordained students come for a visit and they spent three days with us. It was so nice to see them – young, confident priests. However, I was floored with a short attack of flu and was unable to spend much time with them, but we enjoyed having them.
I have just realised that I have gone backwards in my diary, starting with today and ending last Sunday. Hmmm!