The Batek People
Floating down the calm brown waters of the Tembeling River followed by some light trekking through the thick forest of Taman Negara Pahang brings you to a quiet little spot in the wild jungle. As your eyes slowly adjust to dim light, small wooden huts with leaves for rooftops seem to materialize out from the shadows cast by the tall trees.
Here you find a tribe of dark skin people with curly hair called the Batek Tribe. It is said that they crossed the ocean many many moons ago from Papua New Guinea and settled in this resources rich forest we now called Taman Negara.
Living a nomadic life, they used to move their village around the forest depending on available resources. But with recent modern day aid and infrastructures, they have abandon the nomadic lifestyle and have chosen to settled down. Which in a way is a win win situation for the forest and them whereby less trees are cut down to make new houses every time they relocate and the outside world become much more accessible.
Prior to settling down, the forest was their sole source of livelihood. Dressed in tree bark clothing they coexisted with the other inhabitants of the forest, hunting with blowpipes, killing small game for meat and foraging edible plants and berries. The only contact with the outside world was when they brought their forest product to trade for rice, tobacco and salt.
But over the years, the inevitable encroachment of the modern world happened. Slowly, the traditional lifestyle is slowly forgone as the newer generation chooses comfort of the modern world over the ways of their ancestors. Why light fire with stick and stones when a strike of a match brings you instant fire. Even the art of making tree bark clothing is almost forgotten in exchange for track pants and t-shirts.
The jungle itself has evidence of modernization with pipes running from rivers to their village providing them with fresh running water and also a rudimentary sewage system.
But that being said, there are still certain traditions which the Batek still hold fast to. Say for example their medical practice. The Batek still have a certain fear and distrust regarding modern medicine, they perceive blood taking and injections as harmful to them. Hence, they still go to their shamans for treatment of medical ailments, child births and so on.
The shamans do have a impressive knowledge of all the herbs and plants in the jungle. Passed down from father to son and over the generations, they have identify over a thousand plants for different uses. I had the pleasure of speaking with Tok Batin Sena a Batek Shaman who was telling me about the various herbs they have, their usage and how to locate them.
In modern medicine, we have something called Syntometrine which is given intramuscularly to a mother right after delivery of a baby to contract the uterus and reduce bleeding. Interestingly enough the Batek has something similar which is boiled in water and drunk. The only difference is the the dosing is variable whereby they can't be certain of the therapeutic dose or the toxic level.
Speaking with the Shaman made me realize how fortunate we actually are with the advancement of modern medicine especially in the area of child birth. For us, there are several well planned and well researched guidelines in place for maternal and fetal well being; Low lying placenta = operate! Breech presentation = operate! Fetal distress = operate! Gestational Diabetes on insulin = Induce!
Unfortunately for the Batek, everything is via vaginal delivery regardless of the situation. When I asked Tok Batin Sena how often does maternal and fetal death occur, he replied nonchalantly about 4 out of every 10 birth. Considering that the deliveries occur in the jungle under a tree without proper monitoring and medication, I'd say they are doing fairly well. I have no idea how they cut the cord, how they expel the placenta and so on. All I'm told is that if the baby is safely delivered, he/she will be named after the tree they are born under.
Another one of their tradition which I find fascinating is their burial system. Instead of having grand funerals where the whole village will mourn the death of a loved one, their funerals are very quiet affairs where only few selected people are privy to the death and the others choose to believe that the deceased is away on a long journey.
When a death occurs, the corpse is wrapped in tree bark and is carried across a river by a small group of men. The significance of the river crossing is that the Batek believes that the spirit is unable to cross the river and is prevented from returning to the village. Once they have crossed to the opposite bank, they will look for the tallest tree in the vicinity and two men will climb the tree. Then they'll haul the body up using vines and secure it at the top of the tree leaving it decompose there.
I requested to see their burial sites but was gently decline as they consider the burial site sacred. I kind of picture a certain part of the forest with trees filled with skeletons and decaying bodies.
There are actually several more exotic Batek traditions which I would love to photograph and document which brings me to the main point of this write up. Before I proceed, first you'll have to understand that the Batek people are caught in a limbo. Neither here or there, they live a life stuck in between the old independent way of their ancestors and a so called modern lifestyle where they rely on donations and aid to get what little modern day facilities and infrastructures they have.
Without funds for proper education and training, their future out of this limbo seem pretty bleak. Generation after generation will be sucked into this blackhole, forever relying on donations and slowly forgetting their traditions and cultures. And that is where a NGO called HUGS Projects come in. Their aim is to empower the Batek people, give them a means to earn a living so that they can stand independently on their own feet hence a perfect balance between modern development and tradition can exist.
One of projects done thus far is the creation of the Batek Jungle Hut, a jungle chalet build by volunteers and the Batek themselves. It is equipped with functional toilets right in the middle of the jungle and fully managed by the Batek. With the money earned, they invest into the future of their children whereby they send them to schools in hopes that one day they will return with the necessary skills to serve their people better.
My role in this is to raise awareness of the existence of the Batek people and their plight. On top of that, an opportunity to document and photograph all their traditions and cultures before they pass would be phenomenal. Things like their marriages, funerals, child birth and most importantly their vast knowledge of jungle herbs and plants.
Another undertaking to consider would be to properly document all the herbs and plants and used by the Batek. Would be a shame to let this knowledge which goes back hundreds if not thousand years ago just disappear just like that. Our one link to our prehistoric ancestors and how they survived without all these modern day comforts.
So, if you are interested to learn more about the Batek people or want to help them out, you could always drop me a message and I'll put you in contact with the right people or you could always contact HUGS Projects directly. And if you are ever planning a trip to Taman Negara Pahang, I would highly recommend The Batek Jungle Hut for an authentic jungle experience you would never forget.