FROM SENTAH TO SIBURAN
Durian is revered throughout Southeast Asia as the King of Fruit. A meal in itself, it is a staple in the diet of the indigenous people of Borneo where, in fact, the original durian is thought to have originated. The smell has been richly described as armpits, onion custard, almonds and sweaty gym socks, and is a siren call for most Sarawakians. We eat it fresh and also ferment it into tempoyak, salted and savoury, so it can be kept year round and fried up to be eaten as a dish in itself or an accompaniment to other flavours. We even eat the seeds, boiled and barbecued, and the flowers, often fried with their sister in stink, belacan. A durian tree is an income, saved for feeding the family or else ripe for selling on. Come the season, durian passion sparks parties, impromptu markets and even festivals in its honour.
The Bidayuh of Sarawak have been planting durian for generations and the Biatah Bidayuh of Siburan area have just started their own festival at Sentah, to be held annually in December when the season is at its height. This is, of course, a festival of fruit, where visitors can gorge themselves on Borneo’s indigenous varieties. These are not the Musang King, Blackthorn happy modern hybrids. These trees are each over a hundred years old and produce that distinctive, bittersweet Borneo fruit among which Siburan varieties have a special position. But the age of these trees is significant because this festival also celebrates an entire orchard, stretching 6km long from Kampung Tijirak to Kampung Quap, and supporting 13 kampungs (villages) in between.
Its size alone makes it unique. Lemon Praddy anak Ales from the Bung Siburan Heritage Association, a licensed tour guide by profession, declares that he has never heard of an orchard to match it. It keeps and is kept by about 10,500 people from Kampungs Sentah, Sungai Duuh, Masaan, Duras, Siga, Sinjok, Tijirak, Seratau, Quap, Sidanu, Premas, Bradau and Prutan, and the collective income is enormous. On an average day during the season, the orchard yields between 4,000 and 5,000 fruit, most of these sold in nearby Kuching, just 15 miles away. But equally unique is the question of who owns it and who gets to reap the rewards.
Indigenous land tenure in Sarawak is a matter of Adat (customary law). In a world before titles and registration, the Adat balanced both the needs of neighbouring communities and of neighbours in each community, using rivers, hill ridges, valleys and bamboo stands as boundaries and close community ties to unravel entitlement. It is a complex structure, marking out communal and individual ownership in a time long before GPS and maps. The levels of communal ownership are exceptional. Longhouses old and new, graveyards, water catchments and orchards were all communally owned, as well as hunting and foraging land – these being large tracts within a community boundary left as jungle to collect medicines, ferns, shoots, wood and, of course, to allow wild boar to thrive.
‘A single tree
can be ‘owned’
by up to two or
But such an orchard is a microcosm. The entire space might be communal but individual trees belong to the individual who planted them, the rights to collect the fruit being passed down through the generations. After so many years of growth, a single tree can be ‘owned’ by up to two or three hundred people. In turn, to the indigenous people, each tree represents the longevity of their connection with this land and the orchard is the history of their community. As Lemon Praddy said, looking up at the forested hill behind him: “As I look down to my left, I see all my siblings and my cousins. But as I look up to my right, I see all my ancestors.”
Sentah sits on top of Bukit Sentah and the Biatah Bidayuh have been settled here since long before the Brookes. Michael Masur, the Headman of Sungai Duuh, shares the history of the community, telling how, according to their stories, the whole community lived once at the summit of the mountain, Bung Siburan in their language. In fact, the settlement at the summit, now Sentah, was originally known as Siburan. One story tells that there was a great flood that pushed the community up to the summit, to the remaining moon-shaped patch of land still exposed. Buran, the word for moon in Biatah, became the base for the name – Siburan. The story further goes that this one community was the root of all the rest, as the Bidayuh came down from the mountain, settling the 13 villages that now own the orchard which hugs its sides. A new Siburan was settled at the base of the hill and, in 1965, Sentah was reborn.
The longhouse at Sentah
has long gone,
along with the
original name of
Modern day Sentah is charming and worth a stroll in the sunshine. It is a leisurely walk up a winding road through the orchard, the jungle on either side allowing the occasional glimpse of the commanding views of the valley, stretching to Kuching and beyond. The old longhouse has gone and now a series of whitewashed houses line the summit, leading in one direction to the Anglican church and in another to the Catholic. The Bidayuhs have a close association with the Church, Quap still home to the second oldest outstation church in Sarawak, the beautiful belian St James’. In Sentah, two churches service this tiny community of around 30 households. The Anglicans came first and the remains of an older church can be found in the jungle with a grave dating back to 1901 while the Catholics set up more recently in 1986.
The arrival of the church was only the first of many changes in the Biatah communities in this area. Education and modernity have altered livelihoods – the community boasts the first Bidayuh brain surgeon – and the strength of the Adat has been sapped by the power of Land Codes, government policy and just growing indifference. Now, many are not interested in practising it anymore and much of the knowledge is being lost. Three entire mountains in the area have been swallowed by the teeth of quarrying in the last few years.
But, the orchard remains ripe for picking. The old system of fines for harvesting from another’s tree have vanished along with the Adat so anyone who is rajin (hardworking) can go and collect. Every December, people pour down from the mountain with laden baskets of the precious fruit strapped precariously to their backs. These are sold to Jong Ah Pa, who loads up a rickety old van and ships them off to market. It is a well-oiled machine.
But the Bung Siburan Heritage Association wants to take it a step further and the festival is the first stage. The committee sees the orchard as a way to revive Bidayuh cultural heritage. “In the old days, according to my grandmother, the place was full of spirits,” says Committee Member Robert Tella, himself the first Bidayuh Commissioned Officer. “So it was not good for planting. The only thing was to grow fruit and, of course, durian was the first. It meant that we had a place to go while we were waiting for the rice to be harvested.” For the association, the orchard is a map of their community and so ideal for bringing people back together.
During the season, Lemon Praddy tells how many build makeshift huts (beri) and spend long evenings in the orchard, relaxing under the stars and waiting for the fruit to drop. “It’s like a village,” he said. “You can see the lights at night.” This is the atmosphere that Lemon and the rest of committee are hoping to share with visitors, both cementing community ties and sharing Bidayuh culture. They hope to build a homestay and then to take guests out at night to forage for their own food, commune by a campfire, enjoy the jungle and, of course, sample some freshly dropped durian. But, as Lemon put it: ‘We depend on the consensus of the people – those who sell and those who collect. It is very intricate.”
For now, there is a December festival filled with all things Bidayuh – cultural dancing, blowpipe competitions, trail runs, fellowship and huge piles of stinky fruit. But come next season, who knows?