A Kenyah peselai group, 1930, with Dutch photographer HF Tillema
Peselai, an ancient ritual of the Kenyahs of Borneo, is a coming of age journey undertaken by men to discover new lands, wealth and trading. It is the equivalent of the Iban’s bejalai.
… peselai is a rite of passage with deep roots to the land; it is the journeying to distant territories by Kenyah men discovering new territories and cultures. Peselai was once large associated with long-distance raids, scouting for new arable lands, hunting or trading expeditions. The wide array of ancient Chinese jars, Javanese bronze gongs, Venetian nad Mesopotamian beads, batik textiles and even Papuan penis gourds that can be found in possession among upriver kenyah and Kayan communities are ample evidence that central Borneo had been part of an extensive trade network, indicating the importance of mobility.
Before the outlawing of headhunting 1900s, peselai were organised into large group from 50-500 men, led by a paren (aristocrat) to ensure safety in numbers. Rampant headhunting by Iban raiders were always cause for concern.
But nowadays, especially the late 1900s, peselai trips has evolved into migrant labor journeys, where Kenyah men seek work in logging camps in Sabah and Sarawak.
The dynamic fluidity of movement between the Kenyahs of now Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Sarawak (Malaysia) resulted in many peselai journeys between the borders, which back then didn’t exist. It all came to an end when the Confrontation happened, and the borders of Indonesia and Malaysia were finally formed.
Peselai expeditions of the Kenyahs between North Kalimantan and Sarawak.
Long Mekaba, a village with four longhouses, sits between Baram River and Silat River, in Miri. It is a sister village of the Kenyah in Apo Kayan (North Kalimantan), and kinsmen remain in contact with each other via peselai expeditions. Garau Dian, who now lives in Long Mekaba and owns a Malaysian IC, was born Eban Dian in the village of Nawang Baru in the Apo Kayan. In 1974, he went on a peselai trip to Sarawak with around 20 men for jobs in logging camps. He and many Kenyah men chose to settle down in Sarawak in the 1970s peselai trips.
PeLencau Bilong, of Nawang Baru, a paren iut (minor aristocrat) made 11 peselai trips in his lifetime. He rescued Tom Harrison in a parachute incident when Mr. Harrison first landed in Borneo for Ops Semut in WWII. He said,
We used to go to the Baliu (Balui). It was called Malaysia after Konfrontasi. But we are happy; when we travel to Malaysia, we won’t go hungry as our kinsmen are there. Before we were still at war with the Iban, it was difficult to find food.
Knowledge was gleaned from these journeys between the different lands. These men picked up languages like Malay, Kayan, Iban, Penan and even some Foochow. Yet now with the disappearance of this rite of passage, the lingua franca of the Heart of Borneo has devolved to Malay or Bahasa Indonesia.
Pak Ubang Ding, of Long Nawang, neighbouring settlement of Nawang Baru, went on his first peselai trip to Belaga after being recruited by the Sarawak (British) government to build an airstrip there in 1958. Together with his father and 500 Kenyah men, they crossed the non-existent border. In 1960, he was personally invited by Tom Harrison, then curator of the Sarawak Museum in the Niah Caves excavation project.
Families have been sundered across distances that used to be a mere journey into a neighbour or relative’s land. As Pak Ubang put it so eloquently,
Kenapa dulu kita bisa berkumpul dengan saudara kita di Sarawak walaupun harus berdayung berbulan-bulan. Dan sekarang sudah ada jalan, ada mesin, ada outboard engines tapi nggak bisa, karena ada halangan, susah masuk ke Sarawak secara legal.
(Why is it back then we could meet our kin in Sarawak even though we need to paddle for months, yet now we have tarred roads, machines and outboard engines, we no longer could because borders make it hard to enter Sarawak legally.)
Excerpts taken from “The Malaysian Roadless Trip” by Adeline Ooi & Dave Lumenta, B-Side Magazine Dec 2014
Photo credits belong to The B-Side Magazine, Adeline Ooi and Dave Lumenta.