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International Partnerships

The fading of the Iban longhouse culture in East Malaysia

Tonny never sleeps well whenever he is in Dalat, a small rural town in the interior of Sarawak, the largest state in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. He lives in a very basic worker’s squatter house where he can get some rest but most importantly he can charge his phone regularly. He would spend his usual evenings sending and reading messages from his siblings who are still at the longhouse village. This brings him joy.

Every morning and especially during rainy days, Tonny can still feel the stiffing sore on his fingers and shoulders due to old injuries accumulated over the past 20 years. He never really wanted to work as a construction worker. The work is hard and the salary is meager. He earns RM60 (€13) per day. But it was never really a matter of choice. He did not complete school. At the age of 38, the only thing he is good at is mixing cement.

Tonny cutting hair for the elders
Albert Bansa

During the Movement Control Order, all construction projects are shut down and shops are closed. We cannot go anywhere and have no money too. But it’s okay, we grow many vegetables in the backyard and there’s always a river where we can fish for food.


His only comfort, pride and source of strength to get through his tough life is his son Kevin, 8 years old, who is doing well in a boarding school. Tonny feels the responsibility and at the same time the burden as a single father. But he is getting increasingly worried that with the rising costs of living, he will soon be unable to support his son at school. Maybe this is the reason why he can’t sleep well.

Tonny and son decorating the longhouse

Tonny Anak Iman, his full name, is an Iban, one of the biggest indigenous communities in Sarawak. They celebrate Gawai Festival, a social and spiritual thanksgiving day in the first week of June marking a bountiful harvest and a fresh start of a new planting season. But for Tonny, Gawai means going home. Gawai celebration is never the same without making the trip back to his longhouse. Tonny is always excited to take the 2-hour boat ride along Oya river. He grew up by the river. It always reminds him of his childhood.

I am very happy to be back at the longhouse and relieved that the Covid-19 did not reach here. We are protected by the forest spirit. Life here is normal.


As more and more villagers have left the longhouse to make a living in urban areas, during Gawai, the longhouse usually springs back to life. But this year, Tonny realises many have not taken the trips, especially those working in West Malaysia due to the Movement Control Order which was exercised nationwide to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.

Group photo of villagers who made it back to Gawai

Nonetheless, he is still happy to be back at his longhouse where he can finally sleep well. He enjoys bathing at the river and attending cock-fighting contests, an Iban tradition still well preserved in his longhouse.

The health officers came last week and briefed us what we need to do to protect ourselves and others. The young ones are now reminding the elders to wash hands more often and wear masks whenever they go out.


But above all he truly cherishes the moments he gets to spend with his son, who is also a quiet boy. They walk along the river and venture into the jungle where Tonny tells heroic stories of their ancestors as the infamous headhunters. In the evening they watch candid videos together on his mobile phone with the rest of the children in the longhouse despite the poor internet connection.

Father taking son back home on a boat ride
Albert Bansa

The mobile phone connects us to the rest of the world. Almost everyone in the longhouse has a phone now. And it’s sad to see so many people are affected by the Covid-19. We will perform a special ritual to ask the spirits for protection” - Village Elder

This year Gawai is rather modestly celebrated compared to years previously. But Gawai still is and has always been a community affair where everyone at the longhouse decorates, cooks, eats, dances, sings and eventually gets drunk together drinking Tuak, a traditional rice wine specially brewed for the occasion. The next morning they would gather together and share their working experience respectively.

Tonny listens attentively but offers very few words in return. His friends keep urging him to work at the logging camps as it earns good money. But Tonny is not really comfortable with the idea. He has too much respect for the trees and the way of the jungle. It's been a long while for anyone at the longhouse to spot Orang Utan or Hornbill in the forest. And even the numbers of wild boars are evidently decreasing.

Young people are leaving the longhouse. Even wild boars are leaving the jungle. Because there is no more jungle left...most children here have not seen a real Hornbill in the wild” - Village Elder

For Tonny, he accepts that working as a construction worker in Dalat is all a part of the “Bejalai”, a fading Iban culture where it requires young men and women to travel to acquire new knowledge and wealth abroad. And depending on the journey and experience, they earn different tattoos when they return. He hopes one day Kevin will grow up and earn his first tattoo.

Tony remains hopeful that once the Pan Borneo Highway is finally completed, it will open up to more employment opportunities for him. The Pan Borneo Highway stretches over 2000 km connecting the entire Northern Borneo. The construction first started 20 years ago and is now due to be completed soon.

I hope on the next Gawai, the road will be ready. And so is the electricity. And I hope the Covid-19 will leave us, so that we all can come back home for Gawai.” - Tonny

A week later, the Gawai holidays are over. On an early morning, he rides the tranquil boat ride with his son to send him off to school. The farewell is, as it always has been, rather non-ceremonial. Tony continues the boat ride alone and returns to his squatter at Dalat. He is looking forward to seeing his son again during the Christmas holiday. But silently, he also thinks perhaps it's time to bring Kevin to see his mother.

About the project

The story of Tonny Anak Iman is featured in a short social film, "Pengidup Aku" which focuses on the effects of urban migration of Indigenous People in Sarawak rural area (East Malaysia). It shows how communities living in the traditional longhouses are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and how they will prepare to celebrate the annual Harvest Festival Gawai (in June 2020) in the midst of Covid-19 lockdown.

The Goethe-Institute is implementing the EU-funded project “Social Films for Social Change: Creative Media, Films and Videos to Strengthen Democracy and Human Rights in Malaysia”, whose objective is to strengthen democracy, gender equality, human rights and civil society structures through the use of creative media, videos and films with a special focus on women and the Indigenous Peoples.