Stroll down bitter-sweet memory lane
THE news of two pioneer Kenyah midwives from Ulu Baram being bestowed the highest state accolade — The Datuk Patinggi Laila Taib Award – at the state-level Women’s Day Celebration for their exemplary dedication to duty has reached the ears of many women, in particular, those from the Kenyah community who had given birth during the pre-midwifery days in Ulu Baram.
It brought back bitter-sweet memories for these hardy and hard-working women, including my own grandmother, Sinan Jalong, now in her late 80’s.
I talked to her about her journey as a young girl, born in the 1930’s to Jalong Apoi and Solo Aran until she became a mother of 12 children.
She was the youngest of four siblings, including Mbang, Sigau and Urai.
According to Sinan, their parents died when they were still very young, forcing her eldest sister, Mbang, to care for the entire family.
Like Mbang and her two other siblings, Sinan got married at a very young age. Though she cannot remember exactly how old she was when she married her grandfather, Egau Lawai, she knows she was still very young. Early life When Sinan got married, her husband moved in with her and her siblings. Their first baby was a girl called Ulau who died when she was still very young. She fell sick and passed away.
At that time, there were no clinics around and most of the families had to watch their sick children die — with nothing they could do about it.
My grandmother gave birth to another daughter, named Bungan. She too died at a very young age from illness.
Then baby No. 3, a boy named Jalong, was born. He also died, not of illness but drowning.
After the first three children, my uncle Uchat was born, then my aunt, Uring in 1956, followed by seven other children, including my mother.
Of her 12 pregnancies, my grandmother remembers clearly how she gave birth to the first five children (including the three who died) before midwifery came to the area.
My mother, Lirang, was the first baby she delivered with the help of the first Orang Ulu midwife – Asong Lenjau. Long painful labour Sinan’s first five children were delivered through a very long and painful labour.
Before Asong arrived in Long Jeeh, Ulu Baram, Sinan said the delivery process was so painful that she thought she would never pull through.
“I went through a very painful experience, giving birth to my first five children. First, I didn’t know exactly when the baby was due.
“Yes, we were told our first month into pregnancy was when we didn’t mensurate the following month — that was it.”
Unlike today, antenatal care back then, especially in rural areas like Ulu Baram, was very poor. Pregnant women had no clinics to go to for checkup. They had no way of knowing whether the baby was in a breech, transverse or normal position.
Because of their ignorance and not being given proper antenatal care, Sinan said many women died while giving birth and many babies also died during delivery.
Most of the expectant mothers depended on their parents or eldest siblings to tell them what to do or expect during pregnancy.
Sinan said since her mother had died, she had to rely very much on Mbang, her eldest sibling.
“Mbang was very strict, especially when it came to pregnancy. In the early days, we had taboos and there were things we couldn’t do or eat throughout the pregnancy.”
When Sinan gave birth to her first five children, Mbang was by her side.
“I remember she would be mad at me when I refused to follow the old practice — like having to put a hot flat stone on my stomach overnight during labour.
“Not only that, she also forced me to drink hot water (from a boiling pot) the entire night while I sat next to a fire pit. She thought it would keep the body hot and expedite recovery after giving birth.” Do’s and dont’s Like the other Orang Ulu tribes in the old days, the Kenyahs, especially before the arrival of Christianity, were holding strongly to old ‘adat’ and customs. Adat applies to all, including pregnant women.
Sinan remembers vivdly how life was when they had to follow strict “adat to avoid bad luck or sickness.”
“Back then, when we got pregnant, we couldn’t eat many things. Unlike today, we weren’t allowed to eat things like reptiles (pythons and tortoises) and many others.”
Apart from food, the burial of a dead person, after a woman had just given birth, was also taboo.
According to Sinan, when a woman died after giving birth, she would be buried at a different place, usually in the jungle. The burial site was different from those who died of sickness.
The woman who died during or after childbirth would be buried together with her child even though the baby was alive.
“The mother, wrapped together with the baby, would be tied to a piece of
I went through a very painful experience, giving birth to my first five children. First, I didn’t know exactly when the baby was due. — Sinan Jalong
wood. The husband would have to carry the bodies on his back to the burial site.
“No one could help except the woman’s parents,” she added.
During the early days, Sinan said men would rather marry women whose parents were still alive than orphans because in the former case, when their wives died, the parents would help the husbands carry the bodies for burial.
“If a man married an orphan, he would have to bury his wife, who died during or after giving birth,
all by himself.” Unforgettable events Sinan has experienced many unforgettable events in her life. A particularly sad one was when her cousin and best friend Usun Epoi, died.
According to her, Usun who was a bit older than her, was an orphan and when Usun got married, she moved in with her husband. Not long after that, she was pregnant.
Usun gave birth to a healthy baby boy but not long after delivery, she died.
For Sinan, the death of her best friend was heart-wrenching but there was nothing she could do to help.
“When a woman died while or after giving birth, we were not allowed to go near the body.
“Everyone would climb up to a higher safe place in their house as they believed the spirit of the dead woman would return — and they had to save themselves.
“So, when Usun died, her husband buried her alone as she was an orphan.
“I looked on helplessly from afar with a heavy heart. There was nothing I could do to help.
“The husband wrapped his wife’s body together with their baby, who was alive, and tied them, to a piece of wood (like a stretcher). Then he would go to the burial site to bury them,” she said.
Asked to compare her life today and in the old days, Sinan said she had nothing to say except being thankful for everything she is enjoying now.
“Life back then was very hard — only those who lived during that time would understand the hardship and struggle of poverty we had to endure.
“Today, when I see myself having so many clothes and more than enough to eat, I remember my friends, siblings and relatives who had gone too early. They did not have the opportunity to experience all these.” First Kenyah midwife There are two pioneer Kenyah midwives in Ulu Baram — Baun Balan and Asong Lenjau.
After their training in Kuching in Aug, 1958, Baun went back to her hometown, Lio Mato, while Asong to hers in Long Jeeh.
Asong’s return after a two-year midwifery course had brought a significant change to the community as witnessed by Sinan and many other women in Long Jeeh and the surrounding villages.
Sinan’s sixth child, Lirang, was born with the help of Asong. Unlike her first five children, the birth of Lirang marked a new chapter in her life.
“With adequate care nowadays, giving birth isn’t hard but in the old days, what made it difficult was when we were “forced” to put a hot flat stone on our stomachs and drink hot water while sitting near the fire pit overnight,” she said.
When Asong came, Sinan noted, everything changed.
Recalling giving birth to Lirang with the help of Asong, she said: “When I was having contractions, Asong came and helped me. It was a smooth delivery and after the baby was born, she told me to get enough rest and sleep well.
“There is no longer any need to place a hot flat stone on my stomach or drink hot water while sitting next to the fire pit. It was such a relief.”
According to Sinan, Asong helped many expectant mothers give birth successfully. She also saved the lives of many women who had delivery complications.
“To say the least, Asong opened a new chapter in the lives of many Orang Ulu women, particularly the Kenyahs and Penans, during her time as the only midwife in Long Jeeh.
“She definitely deserves the Datuk Patinggi Laila Taib Award,” Sinan added.
Women in Long Jeeh in the early 1990’s with their children.
Sinan Jalong ... tribune pioneer midwives.
Egau and Sinan with daughters Lirang and Jennifer.
Sinan and her late husband Egau Lawai.