When I was in Borneo, I stayed with Bangie, a talented weaver of the pua kumbu cloth, in her longhouse studio. My partner and I ate from her store of Iban rice that she farmed in a cleared space in the middle of the Borneo rainforest.
This rice is different from any other rice I'd tasted. It's full flavored and nutritious, and I thought at the time that it made other rice seem bland in comparison. It would be hard to go back to 'normal' rice again. Everybody around us in the remote longhouse looked fit and strong, and we assumed the rice must play a big part in the apparent health of the people.
It is the women's job to farm rice in Sarawak. They act as stewards, passing the seeds from one generation to another, along with the secrets of their germination, and more prosaic matters like the most suitable type of terrain for each of the many varieties of rice they cultivate, including what is called 'sacred rice'.
Today, many people can afford to buy all the rice they need. Yet, in pockets of areas, many people still farm hill rice.
Bangie is a master weaver with sources of income emanating from her involvement in the global art market. Yet she interrupts her income generating activity to farm rice. Farming for her, takes precedence even though there are clear economic imperatives to weave full time and produce more pieces.
Rice in Sarawak, like in all other Asian countries, occupies a role that borders on the mythical. Historically for the Ibans, rice was attributed with qualities beyond mere physical sustenance. Rice was intrinsic to the complicated network of interconnected cultural performances and practices, and it tapped into sedimented meanings involving rituals, religion, spirituality, ancestors, nature, birds, dew and headhunting.
When we arrived at the longhouse, the various families had just finished harvesting that year’s crop. Nancy, another weaver, told us it was a very good harvest and everybody was exhausted but happy. Her back was aching and her hands were so stiff she found it really hard to weave, even though she had to complete a piece that had been commissioned by a local politician.
It was all worth it for her because by planting and harvesting this year's seeds, she not only had the satisfaction of feeding her family with the produce of her own labors, but she was also preserving the seeds handed down from her great-grandmother to her. She was guardian of her own personal family seed bank, and by cultivating the family's store of seeds, she was continuing a practice she can trace back for generations, maintaining a direct link with her ancestors.
So when we sat down to our dinner of rice served with frog soup, fried fish and leafy greens from the jungle, we were aware that we were consuming much more than the harvest from this year's crop.