Penan communities are known around the world for their traditionally nomadic hunting-gathering life style, and for their connection with their tropical forest home. As the rainforest of Borneo has been destroyed, these proud communities have been forced to settle, and to make their living as farmers.
Education has become a vital tool to help these communities protect their land by filing for legal land rights, and to fight for a better — more sustainable—future.
Upon entering school, Penan children can neither read nor speak Malay, the national language, and are therefore faced with the daunting task of not only absorbing a second language, but at the same time learning how to read in it. This places them at a huge disadvantage compared to other students who already speak Malay.
While a mastery of written Malay is an essential tool for protecting themselves against unscrupulous outsiders, it can have the paradoxical effect of weakening their own culture. The written word has tremendous prestige, and a language with no literature of its own is readily viewed as worthless and primitive in mainstream Malaysian culture. The government and other outside forces constantly bombard the Penan with the message that their culture is inferior.
Of course, this is far from the truth. The Penan have an extremely rich culture, consisting of thousands of suket,or ancient stories, the verbal expression of history, custom, and moral wisdom. Tragically, these stories are rarely being told; only some elders still remember them. Penans stand on the brink of losing the bulk of their culture in a single generation.
The Borneo Project is working to address both of these crucial issues.We are working in partnership with anthropologist Ian Mackenzie to identify traditional Penan stories and local artists who can provide illustrations. We are publishing these stories in durable books, and handing them out for free—one book per family— in Penan villages.The first run will be printed in Penan only, to support the idea that Penan stories don’t need to be in another language in order to be legitimate. Where art by local artists is not available, we are working with the Beehive Collective in Machias, Maine, who are providing beautiful sketches of tropical wildlife.
In order to distribute the books as widely as possible, we have partnered with Martin Jones and Libby O’Connor, educators who live in Brunei Darrusalam and have worked with many Penan communities since 2002.Martin and Libby have published and distributed more than forty short elementary readers aimed primarily at Penan preschoolers. We have also partnered with the Bruno Manser Fund, a Switzerland-based NGO with years of experience in the region, and connections to many Penan communities.
We are currently working on two titles, with more titles to come:
1) A series of short stories of Penan Frog myths
2) The story of the Flying Dragon and Turtle
Here are some of the illustrations, by indigenous Penan artists and Emily Simon/Beehive Collective.
Team on This Campaign:
Director, The Borneo Project