Donald Moore, a British businessman, visited Sarawak nearly 50 years ago and recounts in a letter from Kapit aspects of the life of the Iban people, particularly those who had become Christians and who had a sense of mission.
‘“ THERE will be a big gawai (festival) this year.” This statement can be heard all along the Rejang River system.
Never before in the memory of anyone in the Kapit area have there been two years in succession when the engkabang (the false illipe nut from which comes a substitute for cocoa butter in the manufacture of chocolates) could be gathered. Usually, there are five or seven years between engkabang years. The yield this year seemed to be larger than last year. Also, the paddy is good. This year should be a good one for the Ibans.
Since early January everyone who is able has been out in the jungle collecting engkabang. By the end of February, the last nut was gathered, and the paddy harvest already begun. Low water has delayed transporting the nuts to Kapit for sale. The Chinese merchants are patiently waiting until the almost-empty pasar will be crowded with Ibans with engkabang and paddy to sell, and a desire to buy from the shops that are carefully stocked with things the owners hope will appeal to the Ibans.
When the last bit of engkabang is gathered and sold, and the last bit of paddy is harvested and stored or sold, there will be the Gawai Udah Ngetau (the festival of the finished harvest). There will be plenty to eat for the coming year, and there will be money to buy the things needed or wanted. Number one on the list of things desired is an outboard motor that will enable a person to travel the network of rivers that are the roads of Sarawak.
Today everyone works very hard. Even the very old and young have their part in preparing the nut for market. Some upriver rural schools have declared holidays because most of the students have gone to help their parents with the engkabang. The Iban pastors find their congregations scattered over a wide area and it is almost impossible to have many of the usual church activities.
Yet some of the Iban congregations have managed very well. The people in the only two Christian longhouses on the Ngemah River, which runs into the Rejang River below the town of Song, have only been Christian for one year. The pastor, Nuing anak Kudi, is able to go to Ngemah for regular worship services only once a month. The rest of the time the Tuai Sembahyang (worship leader) leads the Sunday services.
Only five women and a few of the small children remain in the longhouse to guard the possessions and to work the paddy. Pastor Nuing asked if there were any need for him to come on his regular appointment on Sunday for so few people as river travel is long and expensive. The indignant reply was, “Are we not worth coming for?” As it turned out, most of the people returned to the longhouse for the services, to Nuing’s surprise. On the other Sundays, services were held in the jungle by the Tuai Sembahyang as the people rested from the collecting of the nuts.
Plans are in the making for an Easter and harvest festival at Ngemah; it will be a Christian festival of thanksgiving. The plans are to fast all day on Good Friday and to eat only after a special worship service that evening. Then, Easter Sunday will be their big day. But being Christian makes a difference. There will be none of the tuak (rice wine) that is usually at the Iban gawai.
There will still be much work for these people before the new paddy year. Rumah Enturan will continue the constructing of a new longhouse. Rumah Balai, the other Christian longhouse, will join with Rumah Enturan to erect a church building enough not only for themselves, but for the others nearby whom they hope to bring to Christ. These people have a sense of mission. There are 42 longhouses along this river, and only two are Christian. The Christians hope that everyone in this river system will soon follow their lead and move towards Christ.slightly’edited.–MM, April 1959, pp.13, 26,
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Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.