of love and other demonsThe new area that I'm working in -- it takes four days to get there. I think I spend as much time travelling as I do with actual fieldwork. It's not so bad in the sense that I get to spend almost each day in a different place.
One of these places is a longhouse. The people are friendly and hospitable however I was unaware of its reputation amongst the other longhouses downriver.
A day after we left the longhouse, my field assistant (from Batang Ai) and I had a chat about its inhabitants.
“Did you know,” he said, “that A. [one of our local fieldworkers from the longhouse] is married to a woman who’s in her fifties?”
“But he’s only 26 years old!”
“Yeah, these older women,” he said in almost a hush, “they have ilmu”.
“Aahh,” I nodded with understanding, thinking that he meant older women are much wiser, and therefore more attractive to men. Makes sense, right Ashton?
“Yeah!” he went on, encouraged, “I was so scared when I found out that we had to go to that area to work. All those women and their ilmu! Waaahh… You know, A. didn’t want to marry her at all and his family was against the marriage. But suddenly, A. had feelings for her and now they have two children together.”
Eh? I was getting confused. This conversation was carried out in a mixture of Malay and Iban (S. speaks no English). I had to get the story straight.
“Say, when you say ilmu, do you mean bomoh ilmu??”
I was gobsmacked and rather half-disbelieving. After all, it is conceivable that a mature woman could find true love in a man half her age but apparently, the longhouse’s reputation for its black magic doings surpasses the possibility of unconventional love. It’s interesting that the people could be quite disapproving at an older woman marrying a much younger man but when a teenager gets herself knocked up by a stranger, she and her baby are welcomed into the family. Perhaps for the former, it’s just practicality. Apparently, it is quite common for a lot of young, naive women who leave the longhouses for the bright lights of Sri Aman or Kuching to end up with an unexpected pregnancy. Most longhouse families are unwilling to let their daughters go because often, they get mixed up in the wrong crowd, with flashy fast friends they are eager to impress and find themselves pregnant because they have no idea about birth control.
In this particular longhouse, I was a guest of the tuai rumah (headman) and his family. He has a beautiful teenage daughter who is a single mom. She used to work in Kuching, as a salesgirl, if I recall correctly. Fell in love with a Malay guy and now she’s the mother of his barely-one year old baby. She hasn’t seen him since her pregnancy and it’s very unlikely that he has – or will claim responsibility as the father. The family clearly is in love with the new baby and they all sleep together in one room -- the family sleeping quarters.
My field assistant and I sleep on mattresses laid on the living room floor. There is no privacy in the longhouse and it was hard to get used to the constant stream of visitors, who then stare (and chat) at me for ages.
For longhouses located at least a day’s hard travel from the nearest sundry shop, often there is a bilik (family room) that runs a little shop. In this longhouse, the tuai rumah sells canned goods, cheap sweets and other everyday domestic needs out of his cabinets. Along with the enterprising cabinet store, I’d say that each longhouse should have its own proper dental care! It’s not uncommon to see kids – practically the same kids – streaming in every day to buy tons of sweets. The adults themselves have missing teeth. I had hired three labourers from the longhouse and none of them had a full set of teeth.
And yet love is blind, if it is indeed true love. For even an incomplete set of teeth would not deter one in finding his/her marriage partner.
My sister has laughingly suggested that I find out their secret, bottle it and sell it for tons of money. Tempting for I know that there are a lot of torn angst all in the sake of ‘love’ but NAaaahhh… I don’t like meddling where mischief is already borne.