Stroll down bit­ter-sweet mem­ory lane

The Borneo Post - - HOME - By Jenifer Laeng re­[email protected]­bor­neo­post.com

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.

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