Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus, Uncategorized

The disappearing world of the Penans

A brief encounter with a Penan is burned into my memory. I was following a pathway, a mere stroll before darkness fell in the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak where I was on a two-day trek.


Long Tevenga, Malaysia, 2016 – Peng und sein Sohn Ulen am Fuss einer Würgefeige. Peng and son Ulen at the foot of a strangler fig.

Sean Sheehan


He stepped out of the trees on one side, about to cross the pathway, when we unexpectedly saw each other.

Wearing just a loincloth and a cylindrical woven shoulder bag – I’d like to remember protruding poison arrows and a blowpipe but it was a long time ago and the bag probably contained something bartered from the small non-Penan settlement where I was spending the night.

We paused and gazed at one another for a few seconds – the surprise was mutual and equality ruled OK – before he crossed the pathway and disappeared into the trees. His curiosity was satisfied; mine was whetted.

Penans now mostly live in settled accommodation but there are a few partially nomadic groups. Tomas Wüthrich spent six months with one particular such group and this is the focus of “Doomed paradise”, his book of photographs.

The images are testimony to the Penans’ reluctance to abandon their culture despite the fragility of their existence in a disobliging world.

Penans were a nomadic, rainforest forest-dwelling and hunter-gatherer people in part of the large island of Borneo shared between Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Malaysia’s Sarawak and Sabah.

They were embedded, tout court, in a habitat of trees. In the forests they hunted wild boar, deer, monkey and other animals. As with other forest products, especially sago from the stems of wild palm, food was shared equally within the community; in the Penan language there is no word for ‘thank you’.

Long Tevenga, Malaysia, 2016 – Méri Peng mit Tochter
Yonani in ihrer Hütte. Méri Peng and her daughter Yonani in their forest home.

Medicine came from a variety of plant drugs; soap from saponaceous barks and vines; music from stringed bamboo instruments and the Jew’s harp.

Living in symbiosis with their environment, animist by instinct, observing but not measuring time by lunar cycles and natural phenomena – flocks of hornbill herald a herd of wild boar – the self-sufficient and shy Penans, as renowned as the Spartans for brevity of speech, are being absorbed by the Western world.

In the grey world we inhabit, fuelled by dissatisfaction and a lack of repose, so much is separated from itself that the incompleteness mirrors an ontological void that can only be filled by fantasy.

It is tempting to fetishize the Penans. A fantasy object, Lacan’s objet petit a, fills out the fissure in our sense of being and an abiding desire is attached to the object because it represents something that is felt to have been lost. Closure can be attained but only if it can be found.

Long Tevenga, Malaysia, 2016, – Peng Megut und Tepeket Agan frühmorgens auf der Jagd. Sie zählen zu den letzten teilnomadisch lebenden Penan. Peng Megut and Tepeket Agan off for an early
hunt. They are among the last remaining seminomadic Penans.

Wüthrich does not succumb to this temptation. His documentary photos are invaluable; Penan culture is disappearing. There is no fantasy when it comes to the culprits: militant logging companies – à la Amazonia, missionaries were the inaugural invaders – with proactive support from the Malaysian government.

“Doomed paradise” by Tomas Wüthrich is published by Scheidegger & Spiess

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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