By Angain Kumar
Located 13km from Tanjung Rambutan and connected by a winding and sometime slippery road is the pristine Orang Asli settlement of Kampung Tonggang. The village is home to the Temiar people, one of the largest of the 19 indigenous tribes in Malaysia. This unheralded and once-unheard-of settlement in Perak’s heartland has been in existence for over a century. The settlers, like in all Orang Asli settlements, lead a simple existence away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
In this issue, this scribe will attempt to describe to readers the lifestyle and communal ways of the Temiar people found in this part of the state. My trip was made possible by the generosity of a friend who is well acquainted with the topography of the region.
Origins of Tonggang
I was greeted upon arrival by the wife of the village chief (penghulu), Kamisahuri. A cheery lady in her early forties, Kamisahuri is a typical Temiar woman, resolute yet resourceful. She took it upon herself to be my guide and companion for the day, appreciating the significance and the impact someone from the news media would have on her people.
Before taking me on a guided tour around the settlement, Kamisahuri related to me how Kampung Tonggang got its name.
The word tonggang means ‘to pour’ in Malay. Legend has it that the name came about due to the location’s proximity to a water source or mata air. People back then, for reasons of expedience, would live close to water sources. Since the shape and look of the spouting water resembles a pouring action, the name tonggang took hold.
Most of the villagers speak the native Temiar language, a sub-branch of the Mon-Khmer lingua franca of the Austro-Asiatic aboriginal stock whose people inhabit the Indo-Chinese regions and down the Malay Peninsula. The language differs from conventional Malay. However, the villagers can speak Malay fluently.
Tonggang is relatively small. It is divided into three parts connected by tarred tracks. Many of the villagers live in wooden and bamboo houses on stilts with palm-thatched roofs over their heads, except for a few who own brick houses. Most, if not all, houses are equipped with the basic amenities such as gas and electricity. The road to the village was recently constructed by the state government, as part of an ongoing Orang Asli development project. A multi-purpose hall was included for good measure.
Farming is the main occupation of the villagers while some still resort to foraging in the nearby jungles for their necessities. However, a large number of youths have found jobs at construction sites, factories and oil palm estates. Thus, the quality of live of some have improved over time. These individuals can afford to own television sets while some are able to purchase motorcycles for their personal use. The establishment of a pre-school, a primary school and a religious school completes the demographics of Tonggang.
Kamisahuri explained the working ethics of her people. Everyone regards one another as their family member. The communal spirit is at its highest during weddings and festivities. Unlike the city where events such as these tend to be individualistic, over in Tonggang everything is done collectively by the villagers.
During weddings they would share the responsibility of cooking, decorating, inviting and so forth. All works are done without much fanfare and without a price tag. It is a shared responsibility undertaken by all and sundry. Religious activities too are conducted in a similar manner.
When asked whether Temiar youngsters should choose to live their lives in the village or move out to the city, she answered with an air of optimism in her tone. “Well, if they choose to leave they must be able to handle themselves well outside of the community. It should be for the better and not otherwise. They should understand that they carry the identity of the Temiar people with them when they’re out there,” she opined.
Efforts are currently underway to conserve the Orang Asli settlement as well as the rainforest surrounding it. The project is being managed by Fuze Ecoteer, a private company which promotes eco-tourism as a revenue earner. It offers homestay packages for volunteers who pay to stay and interact with the Temiar community. These volunteers, the majority coming from English-speaking countries, in return teach Temiar children English, a quid pro quo of sorts.
I spoke to Sri Rao, a rainforest researcher who is heading the conservation efforts in the area. His focus now is to develop research, conservation and the educational elements for the local folks. Sri is collecting data on the forest surrounding Tonggang in an attempt to initiate conservation efforts. The research, however, is in the preliminary stages and there is still much to be done before a proposal can be made to seek funding channels.
He stressed that it is important to retain the traditions, culture and arts of the Orang Asli. He mentioned the making of blowpipes, as an example. In the entire village, there is only one man, fondly known as Pak Long, who is into this fast-dying art.
The process of making a blowpipe is extraordinary whether for ornamental or for practical usage. Imagine, it takes almost 6 to 8 weeks to make one. Pak Long has to first look for the perfect bamboo stalk that is at least 6ft long and the hollow has to be perfectly even. It is difficult to find one in the wild, so he has to get two identical stalks and fit them together making sure that the hollow is straight, even and has no gaps in between. This takes an enormous amount of skill and patience, something which many of us are lacking.
Next the bamboo must be dried slowly before certain artistic motifs are carved onto it. These carvings have specific meaning to the villagers. The dart is then made out of a species of palm tree and a weight is added to one end of it to keep it stable. The poison used for the dart comes from the sap of the Ipoh tree which is enough to kill a man. A dart fired from a blowpipe can easily travel upwards of 50m.
Community Centre Mooted
In their ongoing efforts to conserve the traditional ways of the Temiar people, the company has acquired two buildings in the kampong and plans are underway to open a community centre to act as a base for Fuze Ecoteer.
“We lack presence in the village because we have to commute daily to the village. We require a permanent base to maintain our presence and to promote our conservation efforts,” said Sri.
The community centre will be used as an educational hub equipped with computers and Internet facility. Classes to improve environmental awareness will also be conducted there. However, funds are still in short supply.
“We require approximately RM25,000 to keep the community centre and base up and running. The multi-purpose hall, incidentally, has no running water and electricity. To make matters worse, the septic tank has sunk. We have to get it repaired first before making our other plans. Fuze Ecoteer provides some funding but it’s insufficient. Money is still an issue here,” he lamented.
When I was at the community hall where English lessons were going on, I took the opportunity to talk to some of the volunteers.
Michael, from Germany has travelled extensively in South-East Asia. He chose Tonggang because he liked the jungle atmosphere it provided. He enjoyed the homestay package and was appreciative of the hospitality shown by his hosts.
“It is great to be welcomed by the community. It’s something different from what we get in Europe. It took me some time getting used to sleeping on a bamboo floor but it’s definitely an experience in itself,” he said.
When asked what stood out most in her sojourn at Tonggang, Johanna, from the Netherlands, could only think of one. “What stands out most is the whole package. What the people here have to offer is simply fantastic. The food is exquisite. We had rice, fish, meat and potatoes, a striking change from the usual but still very pleasant to the palate.”
Pak Long’s blowpipe was her other favourite. She got a chance to try out shooting the darts at a target and loved it. “Too bad that this traditional art is fast disappearing,” she mourned.
For more information on the activities organised by Fuze Ecoteer and the volunteer programme, visit www.ecoteerresponsibletravel.com. For those wishing to help out with the building of the community centre, contact Sri Rao at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 012 648 1284.