As soon as the minibus turned off the main road, I sensed that we had entered the third world. We were greeted by what we call camp dogs in Australian aboriginal communities. They roam free, seemingly outnumbering the human residents.
It was a sure sign that the local villagers in Kg. Sg. Bumbun would be forgotten people. Though not completely, for apparently they are popular with tourists streaming in and out, looking for authentic experiences and exotic culture. On the day we visited, there were no other strangers in sight. An expensive tourism building was empty, apparently not available for use by the community for a gathering such as ours.
Governments often pay lip service to meeting the needs of indigenous people such as these. The typical village dwelling in Kg. Sg. Bumbun is very basic, mocked by modern Malaysian mainstream housing. Some are forced to live in tiny makeshift shacks that are totally inadequate. One family is patiently waiting and watching as the land cleared for a promised house becomes overgrown.
Some of the villagers earn a modest income from their traditional crafts of weaving and woodcarving. Our guide was Reita Rahim whose informal organisation, Gerai OA, is “a nomadic, volunteer-run stall which sells handicrafts”. Reita supports and assists the Tompoq Topoh Women’s Group who weave pandanus leaves. She helps to eliminate the ‘middlemen’ who are said to have exploited their labours in the past. The women make pandanus pouches and bookmarks. Some take three days to produce.
Both weavers and carvers aim for quality products. The men may take as long as one month to produce a carved head. They also make wooden masks and a marriage puzzle. There is a commitment to reviving traditional practices, not just copying the artefacts of the past. Outside experts have helped to preserve the stories embedded in these works. Young men rely on books in languages they cannot read to learn the stories. It is a reflection of the struggle faced in saving their heritage.
The Hma’ Meri (or Mah Meri) people are an indigenous minority of approximately 3000 people. They are part of the Orang Asli indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. About 500 live in the Bumbun village. They have resisted attempts at assimilation. They have also deflected ‘gentle’ persuasion to convert from their animist religious traditions to mainstream faiths.
With classic 21st Century irony, most of the women have mobile/cell phones that they use if and when they can afford the credits. Electricity has also brought a computer and internet access. They live on the estuarine island of Pulau Carey and were once fishers. The last of their boats is stranded on land, like its owner, cut off from the sea by unwanted land reclamation. The craft income supplements that from small oil palms holdings.
Even though we were very welcome guests, it was hard not to feel a bit uncomfortable. Our Th!nk3 ‘fieldwork’ had the potential intrusiveness that tourists, journalists and researchers can bring. Here today…
Just before we left, three young boys skylarked and pulled faces into the lens of a large video camera as they watched themselves on the LCD screen. Inevitably it was faces of the children that lingered as the bus left the expressway and dropped us at our hotel. It is this universal appeal of the innocents that global NGOs use to promote their causes. Who can blame them.
Unless a tidal change occurs, indigenous communities like this one will only survive through their own determination and efforts. And a little help from their friends.
Online sales are available at the Tompoq Topoh Shop
Featured image: Center for Orang Asli Concerns