The Iban of Merotai: Bejalai Narratives
Langub, Jayl, Borneo Research Bulletin
The Iban community of Merotai, Tawau, Sabah, comprises 160 families and a population of 1,110 people. Located northwest of the town of Tawau, along the Tawau-Kalabakan Road, it takes 45 minutes by car to reach the village from the town center (see Map 1). The settlement is a product of Iban bejalai, which literally means 'to walk,' or 'to go on a journey,' "and it is used by the Iban to describe the important institution of a journey undertaken for material profit and social prestige" (Freeman 1970:222). This paper comprises excerpts of narratives of Iban migrants who decided not to return home, but remain in the place of their destination. Four of the narratives are from interviews with children of the migrants who have passed away, and three with the migrants themselves.
Freeman says that bejalai "is one of the most cherished customs of the Iban that men--and particularly young men--should periodically leave their long-house and venture out into the world to seek their fortunes. These journeys, or bejalai, frequently last several years on end, and often extend to the most remote corner of Borneo, and even Malaya and the islands of Indonesia. They have two main aims: the acquisition of valuable property and social prestige" (Freeman 1970:24).
An early account of bejalai is provided by Boyle (1865: 123) who mentions "Dyaks" collecting gutta-percha and rattan in Mukah in 1863. These items were sold to the Borneo Company trading station at Mukah, considered an important trading center at that time.
In his study of the Iban of the Baleh area, Kapit District, Freeman (1970: 222) mentions several different forms of bejalai. One of the early forms comprised a 3- to 6-month inland journey into the primeval jungle to cut rattan, fell timber, or tapjelutong (a wild rubber tree) for sale to Chinese traders. After World War II, many Iban in the Baleh undertook journeys to Indonesian Borneo, mainly to the Mahakam and Apo Kayan, to trade commodity goods with inland groups for brass gongs and the like. The most popular destinations for Iban bejalai in the 1950s were the coastal areas of northern Borneo. There young Iban men sought employment as lumberjacks, tobacco plantation workers in Sabah, and manual laborers on the Brunei oilfields. Before World War II there were Iban employed in Malaya in upcountry survey and forestry work. And, of course, a number of Iban from different parts of Sarawak served as trackers with British regiments in actions against communist insurgents in the peninsula.
Jensen (1974:51), Sather (1994:24), and Pringle (2010:23) suggest that bejalai was a substitute for headhunting when the Brooke Raj outlawed the practice. With headhunting outlawed, the Iban of Saribas, who used to be great headhunters, turned their attention to hunting for jungle products as a means of getting rich and obtaining the old jars they so highly prized. Pringle (2010:194) gives the example of a group of Saribas Iban who went on a voyage to Putatan, Sabah, and returned with sixteen old jars. In his study of sources of Iban traditional history, Sandin (1994) provides a rich account of the bejalai adventures undertaken by the Iban of Saribas to various parts of Borneo and beyond, to neighboring islands and also the Malay Peninsula. Among these rich accounts, he mentions Pasa of Skundong, Paku, who came back from Banjarmasin with five precious jars and held a gawai tajau to celebrate his return (Sandin 1994: 245). He also mentions Penghulu Kedit and Penghulu Mula leading a group of Iban on a daring voyage from Saribas in their own sailing boats as far as Banjarmasin in southern Borneo, where they were given permission to extract wild rubber in the area near the town of Sukadana (Sandin 1994:238-239). After working for five months, they obtained a lot of rubber, which they sold to the local towkay. Instead of spending the money on jars, they brought the silver dollars home. …