Sunday, September 07, 2008

Reliving the First Foochow Pioneers' Planting of Rice in Sibu

Sept 7th 2008. I had the opportunity to start planting organic hill rice with my friends (Chemical Engineer husband and Accountant wife) in Sg. Rait. The two have acquired this wonderful piece of land a few years ago and would like to start planting rice this year before going into oil palm in the future. They thought that I should be part of their rice planting team. I have been over the moon by the invitation.

I have been acquiring the Iban traditional terminology regarding the ancient ways of padi or rice planting from them and other friends. This morning I was introduced to NUGAL and several other terms.

Early in the morning,when the skies were still dark by an impending storm we moved towards the farm land which has been already cleared a month ago. We saw the burnt logs and the soggy ground ready to receive the seeds. The rain came down in a small drizzle. But the awakening earth was giving out its warm moist air to create a misty humid though refreshing little world.

A small ikan keli was caught in one of the streams by T and we thought that it was a good omen which augured a pleasant and hopeful planting. A boy was sent back to the base to prepare the fresh fish to be cooked in banana leaves and aluminium foil over the fire which had already been started.

Two ladies had started cooking lunch at the base. A pig had already been slaughtered as a token of gratitude to those who have come to nugal. This is an age old practice - the pig is so symbolic in the Iban culture.

The small offering is called BERDERA which would consist of anything actually but this one consisted of feathers (taken from the chicken already slaughtered for its blood) and which would be later eat for lunch,rice leaves of vegetables as a "gift" for the "spiritual owner" of the land on which the rice would be grown.

Nugal is an ancient Iban practice to start the padi planting season off. T and another man paid tribute to the spirits of nature asking for protection and forgiveness that he was making an indent into the environment. It was also an opportunity for the farmers to say a prayer for a peaceful season and a bountiful harvest. The peace offering was made and we started to dig holes and put seeds into the holes.

No machinery was used for the seeding. Just plenty of helpful hands and the bending of backs.

Grandmother of Jemut (Enek Jemut) is slight in size with the body a Caucasian model would envy (she is by nature extremely slim and a size 6) and has been a farmer for all her life. Planting rice is very much a part of her every day chores. She goes in her natural and as a- matter- of- fact way of putting or rather shooting the seeds accurately in the holes already prepared for her. Very close to nature she does not ever say that life is a burden. It is a life to be celebrated with joy and one must be close to mother earth. She enveloped me into her space even though I am from another culture. I like her philosophy of life.

When fellow villagers or friends gather together to put the seeds into the soil it is called BERBENIH in the Iban language. The women are particularly skilled in holding the seeds between the fingers and shooting the seeds into the holes already poked by the men. So in a way the men would walk ahead of the women and the planting goes on, at times ever so silently.

The seeds are traditional species which have been carefully selected by T and his wife. Such a selection is important to ensure a good crop and harvest next year. We prayed that all factors ,including God the Almighty ,will be in favour of our planting.

This gathering of friends and fellow villagers to help would with the seeding is called BERDUROK- and the work is done in rotation. A group would start with friend A's farm and the following week Friend A would go with the group to Friend B's farm until every member's farm is seeded. No one would attempt to refuse to help another. The social shame of unwillingness to help will be carried for generations. This is BERDUROK, a communal affair from ages ago. One for all and all for one. And in this way the Iban farming culture has been sustained healthily for ages.

As I stood watching the fire smouldering in the light rain I was reminded of the tough life that my grandfather had when he first came to Sarawak. Did all the Foochow pioneers help each other in this way when they first landed in Sibu or did they work in small family units or did the man and wife work on the land as a pair or was it just the man only? I know for a fact that 40 years later most of the women worked on the land themselves with help from their children which was the case of my aunts and cousins.

By mid day I was already wet from the rain and my feet had been caked by the soggy mud. I had fallen into a puddle as the ground was slippery being an urban woman not used to farming from scratch. Farming has never been easy. I could feel that my mud caked hair was in need of shampooing and sweat was flowing furiously down my back. It was a good thing that the sun was not its usual strength by mid day. Hunger pangs were long forgotten as we breathed in the smoke and the misty air.

We just needed water!!

Jokes were cracked to make the work lighter towards the end of the morning and work was nearly accomplished. Anecdotes were related as the women made sure that all holes were filled with the seeds tenderly. With each throwing of seeds a prayer was sent up to heaven for a blessing that the harvest would be plentiful in a world where food supply was in crisis. We were not allowed to comment unnecessarily on the forthcoming crop. In case the gods are jealous.

These are the first leaves of a pumpkin plant already growing. To me nature has been kind and is already telling us that there is still plenty of hope for those of us who are willing to work the soil. I am looking forward to eating my favourite vegetable,pumpkin, soon.

It must have been tough for my grandfather and his brother to plant their first rice in Sibu with all the other pioneers when the Foochows first arrived .They had to acclimatise themselves to the hot equatorial climes. Besides they had to fight against malaria,other fevers,insects and mosquitoes,and unfathomable secrets of the new land. They could have been terrified of the local natives who luckily were more friendly than not.

It was a not- to- be -missed -opportunity for me to be able to relive this experience,sharing this significant day with my friends. Thank you for this hands-on experience. And I shall be praying for a bountiful harvest.

Stay tuned for the next step of rice growing.

4 memories:

Bachelor Paul said...


Kai Grey said...

very good posting. hope to see the padi fields when i hve the chance to.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Hello to Bachelor Paul...hope you like Sarawak!!

Arani Jantok - thanks for the compliments. Sure by the end of the year the padi would be several feet tall. The golden grains will be ready for harvest by April.

All good padi need 220 days of growth cycle. The miracle varieties take 160 days and will give the farmers two crops a year.

I Am Sarawakiana said...


If you are reading this the padi is now knee high.

When the padi starts bearing seeds I will take some photos.

The Baram was flooded and there will be no harvest this year for many of the Kayans and Kenyahs.


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