Sometimes in the middle of 1950s, several inhabitants of Punan longhouse at Telawan known as ‘Punan Tepeleang’ suddenly fell ill, then died. In the span of few weeks, about eight peoples died suffering from unknown illness. Even perplexing was the fact that they were healthy individuals before their sudden death. Anxiety and fear enveloped the longhouse.
“In the morning was the funeral of a relative who died a few days earlier and in the evening, back from the funeral, my father became ill. That evening he too died,” recalled my mother. About a week earlier, the unknown illness took away her beloved mother from the family. My grandparent was still in their early 50s – just passed their prime age.
In her teen, my mother had lost her parent. She then burdened with responsibilities of caring and raising her younger siblings – alone, she determined. And had not given up any of them for adoption, although that was expected of her.
It traumatic being orphaned at such a young age. Our meals were irregular, at a time we went to sleep hungry at nights and life was really tough, she often reminded me. Ngit, the youngest of the four siblings was still nursing and my mother had to feed him with porridge since no one can breastfeed him. Ngit eventually lived at Punan Biau with his auntie Inan Inyak until his adulthood. His elder sisters and brother would regularly pay him a visit.
Meanwhile on the other end of the longhouse, was another corpse awaiting a funeral ritual. Throughout the month, the longhouse shaman would perform a healing ritual and to appease the supposedly unhappy dragon spirit said to reside beneath them.
Telawan longhouse was situated on an undulating flat plain, on the right bank of Rejang River. Telawan River, after which the longhouse was named actually located a kilometer away further downriver. On many maps, the longhouse often marked as ‘Rumah Lanying’ or ‘Rumah Punan Laging’ after Lanying its headman. It was a 17-doors longhouse with a population of more than 100 inhabitants.
It was known as Punan Tepeleang by other Punans because unlike other longhouses on the Ba River confluence – it was awkwardly constructed horizontally or ‘tepeleang‘ instead of parallel to the Rejang River – as all of the longhouses then built. After its split from the Ba River longhouses hundred of years ago, moving up the Rejang River, clearing the track of lands along the way and building settlements at various locations – Mi’a, Kayroung, Bo’on, Sama, Tukok, then Telawan at the turn of the century, the Punan Tepeleang name stick.
Today, however, the new longhouse located near Sama River, thus named Punan Sama – a 60-plus door longhouses, home to over 600 peoples, is no longer called Punan Tepeleang.
Similar to other Punan longhouses then, the Telawan longhouse was built perching above ground, about a few feet high. The upper level is used as the living or dwelling space for its inhabitants. Below the dwelling space, on the ground level is for free ranging domesticated animals pig (sus scrofa domesticus) and poultry.
There is no proper sanitation. No drainage system. Rainwater would overflow below the longhouse and then drain into the Rejang River main sources of their drinking and cooking water although already contaminated by both animals and human wastes. In the old day, there was no flush toilet. Most dwellings have a ‘pojo’ – open toilet with no wall and roof and located at the corner of the longhouse. Domesticated animals then help clean the poop.
In the old days, Punan communities rarely care much about personal hygiene and cleanliness. In fact, they didn’t know then, it could cause death! Death, particularly sudden such as the Telawan case, often blamed on evil spirits. It was common for people to drink water straight from it sources – river, stream or pond to quench their thirst.
The only clean, cooked or boiled water in a typical household – is one that they use to cook meals and make coffee. Boiling and filtering water for drinking were not the norms, although few families did. Thus, it was not implausible a cholera outbreak might have caused the sudden death of several peoples during this period.
It was certainly not caused by the unhappy spirit of a dragon beneath the longhouse as the Telawan shaman alleged.
The cholera outbreak also likely went unreported, as there was no one has pointed out any written records of the tragedy in Belaga. However in 1984, three cases of cholera outbreaks reported in Sarawak according to Sarawak Medical and Health Services Department, Annual Report 1986.
After the tragedy at Telawan, the longhouse was on a brink of a split. A group led by the chief Lanying relocated downriver to Bo’on. But somehow another group led by Akek Dui decided to relocate just downstream of Telawan River.
Coaxed by community leaders in Belaga to reunite – they choose Sama River as new longhouse site. In the late 1960s, the group that had settled at Bo’on begin relocating to Sama River and so did those who remained near Telawan River. The reunited Punan Tepeleang erected a new longhouse at its current location. In the early 1990s, they demolished the old longhouse and begin erecting the new village starting middle of 1990s.
NOTE: This is an abridged version of my manuscript tentatively titled ‘Punan: The People of Central Rejang’