ZALEHA ADENAN WORKS HARD TO SUSTAIN HERSELF IN HER ISLAND HOME, THROUGH HANDMADE JEWELLERY, HOMESTAYS AND HONEY FROM SARAWAK’S STINGLESS BEES.
Salak is an island. It sits nestled in the Santubong delta, in sight of land from all sides but still out of reach. A visit requires a pickup by boat from a riverbank jetty, the outboard easing first past dense mangrove swamps, harems of probiscis monkeys populating the canopy and crocodiles lazing in wait in the viscous mud below. In its orbit, Nipah groves, gorged with apong palm sugar, give way to the thrusting silhouette of Santubong mountain in the skyline and the incongruous reality of a quarry hollowing out the island from the dark side before coming full circle past the expansive river opening into the South China Sea to the kampung itself, a long line of wooden houses hoisted on stilts above the silt of the estuary that flows below it. Blue floats support numerous aquaculture projects in the water in front of it and, just by the jetty, there is a homestay for a whole new industry.
Zaleha Adenan sits quietly in the prow while her husband steers the boat from behind. Their house is a hive of products, dominated by the hum of a small fridge stacked high with tiny bottles of honey. On the professionally printed labels, the name of the island stands out first, her own name in smaller letters underneath. This is madu kelulut, honey made by Sarawak’s special stingless Trigona bees. Their honey is almost sour with a distinctive fermented tang, well-known locally for its anti-microbial properties and numerous other health benefits. Zaleha recounts how her father fought cancer and suffered no side-effects from the radiotherapy and puts this down entirely to the many spoonfuls of honey he took daily. She confides that it also acts as an aphrodisiac for monkeys, our closest animal cousins.
Puan Zaleha takes out a tiny plastic spoon for a test. The flavour profile and even the depth of colour varies with the season, she says, perfumed by the durian famous in Pasir Pandak or by other environmental influences at other times of the year. People just pick whichever they prefer. Each bee can travel up to 2km to find food and so the honey takes its taste from half of Santubong. She keeps several hives just next to the house, perhaps as show homes for her visitors. Quite unlike the regimented hive of the European honeybee, these are all anarchy. Housed in rough-hewn logs topped with a constructed box; opening the lids reveals a mass of brittle pods, attached to each other by tendrils of bee excretion. It is an alien landscape from which bursts healing nectar transformed for consumption by the industry of the hive.
Nor is it so straightforward to collect. The PPE might be at a minimum, but though these bees are stingless, they can still give you a nip. The honey itself is a hard work of art which has to be syringed out of each individual pod, usually by hand. In Zaleha’s case, however, she has ordered an automatic pump off the internet. It can clear a nest in under 2 hours and, considering the fact that she has 50 hives which each need to be harvested twice a month, this is an important technological innovation. Finally, she sells on Facebook and Instagram, accessing the digital economy that still escapes many landed Sarawakians from her island home.
This business has been building for 5 years. She took her first hive of wild kelulut, complete with its queen, from the jungle. The bees still abound on the island in spite of the occasional boom from the dynamite that demolishes the quarry and shakes the ground beneath it, but her hives, while still in the jungle, are closer to home for ease of collection and quality control. At first, she wanted to share it with others on the island. But slowly her imagined collective dwindled until just she and her husband remained. The hives take time to establish, she explains, and so profits came slow in the early years. She decided to just go ahead herself and let the others see how it works.
This is a big theme for her, not just in the honey but also in her many other businesses from homestay to jewellery design. ‘Saya tidak kedekut dengan ilmu’, she says (I’m not stingy with my knowledge). There are now ten homestays on the island, thanks to her example, and she shares the visitors. Her jewellery too was developed from another attempt to help the community to recycle the copious plastic that gets washed down the river to end in the estuary around her island. She transforms plastic bags into beautiful beads, creating art out of her island inspiration, even its rubbish. Anything can be useful, it seems, to Puan Zaleha, from waste to wildlife and, as a result, she gets to build a life on her island home and to make it more beautiful – the sweetest honey from Sarawak’s most hard-working bee.