Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Batek Village

In Malaysia, I visited a village of hunting and gathering people called the Batek. The Batek live in the rain forest and hunt only with blow darts and spears, moving from place to place following their food sources. The village I visited, within Taman Negara National Park, consisted of six families living in temporary open shelters.

I had never before visited a nomadic village, and I didn't know what to expect when I signed up for the river tour that included a visit to the village. Without giving us any kind of orientation, our guide secured his motorized canoe against the river bank, and told me and the seven others in the group to walk up the path into the village. We did so, and found, amid the collection of huts, a group of Batek children who were pausing in their play and waiting to be photographed by us. They were waiting to be photographed because every day canoe loads of tourists stop by their village to photograph them. The village leader has an agreement with the tour agency, which provides a small sum to the Batek people.

In Malaysia nearly everyone I had encountered spoke English well, so unfortunately I had not learned even the most basic words in Malay. The Batek, of course, speak their own language but also speak Malay as a second language. Completely unable to communicate with the residents of the village, I awkwardly wondered what to do and felt sorry I had joined this tour which I felt treated the village like a zoo. But since the kids were waiting for me to do so, I took out my camera and snapped a few pictures.

The village consisted of 10 or 12 shelters. Most were made of bamboo rattan, but a few were made of blue plastic tarps. In addition to the 4 or 5 children playing in the center of the village, a couple of men passed by, but I didn't see any women. A young Batek man, the son of the village leader, demonstrated how to start a fire using only a piece of wood and a piece of bamboo rattan, and how to make a blow dart. He then demonstrated how to shoot a dart using a blow pipe, and gave us each a turn at blow pipe target practice. I was surprised that just a light blow was able to send the dart into the target with a great deal of force.
Our guide, who was not Batek but rather Malay, which is the dominant culture in Malaysia, gave a little talk about the Batek.

He told us that the Batek men hunt only with blowpipes equipped with poisoned darts, and with spears. They hunt small animals, such as monkeys, and they also fish. Although I didn't see any souvenirs for sale or in fact anything for sale in the village, our guide said that the women make wooden carvings which are sold to tourists. In addition, the Batek gather roots. During the dry season they get their water from the river, but when the river is muddy during the rainy season they get their water from streams or vines. They are nomadic, moving periodically in order to obtain food. They have been in their current village for five months.
They don't do any farming, but they sometimes do some work for cash, such as selling firewood to non-Batek people. They sometimes keep wild pheasants to be used for food.

Our guide said that in the last twenty years there have been changes in the Batek way of life. In the past, they had only bamboo rafts, which could move them down river, but when they wanted to move up river they had to walk. Nowadays the people have a boat which they can use to travel. And nowadays the Batek people eat rice which they buy from the outside.

Our guide said that the Batek sometimes leave the village in order to do some business in the outside world, but that they never stay away from their home for longer than two or three days. The Batek look markedly different from other Malaysians, and it is true that I never saw any outside of the rain forest. I wonder how they are received in the outside world.

When I asked about the Malaysian government's policy toward the Batek, it became clear that our guide knew little about the Batek other than the uninformed rumors that people in a dominant society tend to spread about their indigenous neighbors. His statements reminded me of the type of racist comments that one can hear in any predominantly white American town located just outside an Indian reservation.
Our guide said that the Malaysian government provides schooling and encourages the Batek to assimilate to the outside world, and that the government tries to provide health care for the Batek but that they won't accept these services. When I asked if there was any conflict over land, our guide said that there was none.

Through a bit of quick research I later learned that, in fact, there has been a lot of conflict over land, and that the Batek have been forced from nearly all of their traditional land, and the only place they can live is within Taman Negara National Park.

In addition, I learned that the Malaysian government does not do such a good job of providing education to Orang Asli, or aboriginal, children. Recently it was reported that the government was seven months behind in paying the boat drivers who were supposed to transport the Orang Asli children to school. In protest, the drivers finally stopped transporting, and the children couldn't go to school.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to chat with any of the Batek people and learn anything about their way of life and their hopes for the future from their point of view. From an outsider's point of view, it seems truly astonishing that the Batek, living in a rain forest surrounded by Malaysian rubber tappers, loggers, hunters, tour operators and all sorts of entrepreneurs, have managed to preserve their traditional nomadic way of life, surviving on hunting and gathering, governing themselves, and seeking refuge in the national park in order to avoid being completely pushed from the land that has always sustained them.

They choose to accept some parts of the outside world, such as blue tarps, transistor radios, and sometimes even cell phones, which seem like they would be an extremely useful form of technology for nomads. The Batek in the village I visited didn't have cell phones, as there was no service there, but our guide told us that others, living in other places, do.

The Batek interact with the outside world when it benefits them, such as through occasional work, selling handicrafts, and inviting tourists to their village. Some of the travelers in my group seemed to find the Batek use of blue plastic tarps and radios to be somehow "inauthentic." But the Batek did not build their village in an attempt to create a modern living museum for the enjoyment of tourists. Rather, they have adopted some useful things from the outside in order to preserve their lifestyle. And if I were a nomad, I would most certainly want to have a blue plastic tarp, too.