Thursday, 13th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Almost last shaman

Posted on 06. Apr, 2017 by in Curious Travel

Good bedside manner — Unding anak Libau treats a patient.


It’s been a good ride, but Iban healer doesn’t expect many others to follow his path.


To the untrained eye he seems an unlikely magician.  Frail, but with a hundred-watt smile. He has two wispy whiskers, short grey hair, and holes in his earlobes where he once inserted teeth from a wild boar.  He walks a bit slowly.  But cut him some slack. He’s 91, thereabouts.  He’s got tattoos on his neck, his arms, his legs; not much different from most elderly Iban men. Except unlike most men, Unding anak Libau can chase spirits and make ill people healthy.

Unding anak Libau is a manang, a traditional healer, living in a longhouse in Sarawak, not far from the Indonesian border.  He’s one of the last of his profession.

* * *

No one knows how many Iban manang are left.  While the Iban tribal group are in no danger of dying out — they comprise some 30% of Sarawak’s population — the number and influence of manangs like Unding is dwindling due to easily-discernible dynamics, linked like Olympic rings.

I met with three senior Iban academics at the Tun Jugah Foundation in Kuching; one objective of which is “To preserve and promote Iban culture, arts and language.” Tan Sri Leonard Linggi Jugah, who is director of the foundation, Robert Menua Saleh and Peter Kedit, explained the realities of modern life which threaten the existence of people like Unding.  There’s the availability of western education.  Fluency in English and Bahasa Malaysia to complement the Iban language.  Ease of transport, which means people can easily travel far from their longhouses and mingle with other people and cultures — marriage between Ibans and folks from other ethnic groups is common.  Communications — it’s rare to find a longhouse without TV, cellphones and often internet.  Easy access to hospitals and clinics. Enough money to enjoy the consumer economy.

* * *

Perhaps the main reason why the manang culture is dying is because of that pervasive force of anti-Animism: Jesus Christ.

Religion can be a tricky subject for many families, and it’s no different when Unding sits down with his family.  In 1979 Unding’s son, Galau anak Unding, had a dream. He saw two women in white shirts.  They saw some ghosts and prayed while holding candles.  The ghosts ran away.  Galau interprets this as meaning that the two women were Christian and that the Anglican religion can protect people from ghosts.

Galau converted and asked his father to also become a Christian.  Unding had his own dream, however, in which Unding’s personal spirit guide, the nyigit or cicada, appeared and told him that if he became Christian he would soon be invited to “go join the spirits.”  For Unding this was a clear message that if he converted he would die.  While Unding stayed with the old beliefs  he doesn’t mind that a cross (a simple dark blue) is displayed on the front door of his apartment in the longhouse — after all, Christians live within and they’re family.  Galau, for his part, has become the longhouse’s lay preacher.

* * *

For the visitor the Ibans are gregarious and hard-drinking, always ready for a party.

And for visitors to Sarawak, a night in an Iban longhouse is a memorable souvenir.

Even today, in our supposedly-enlightened world, sophisticated people (the kind of folks who dislike the term “tourist” and refer to themselves as “travelers”) are intrigued by esoteric customs and costumes.  The government-run Sarawak Tourism Board invites visitors to spend the night with descendants of Iban headhunters and tour operators are not shy about promoting images of tribal folks wearing loincloths, wearing vests made of clouded leopard skin and caps adorned with hornbill feathers.  The dramatic and photogenic folks a visitor sees during an Iban cultural show wave machete-like parangs while stomping about on the bamboo floor of a scenic longhouse.  When I first lived in Sarawak, in 1969, many rural riverine longhouses had little sanitation.  The river offered you a toilet, a place to wash your clothes, go fishing, a means to travel to another village and water for bathing and cooking.   The communal open-air bamboo terrace often was a playground for small children, dogs and chickens, with pigs snorting below the elevated kitchens.  To a middle-class boy from New Jersey it was terribly exotic, the “real” Sarawak.  Today virtually all of Sarawak’s longhouses boast electricity and at-least-rudimentary plumbing.  The fancy dress is reserved for religious festivals or when someone is paying them to stage a show. But real life is pretty normal — the next day you’re likely to meet a star dancer at the 7-Eleven or the university lecture hall.

The folks at Serubah Ulu joined the tourist bandwagon for a while, but eventually the tour operators sought other destinations.  I was given several reasons, take your pick: the longhouse people weren’t sufficiently welcoming, the longhouse wasn’t sufficiently “traditional” (tourists were disturbed by the motorcycles and sacks of fertilizer kept on the communal porch), the longhouse folks raised their fees too high.

So, was I an interloper?  A voyeur?  A concerned outsider who genuinely wanted to learn something from the people of Serubah Ulu?  Or was I, god forbid, just another tourist?

Sometimes, especially at dinner parties, I might suggest that I visit isolated hill tribes in order to write gritty, empathetic exposés of environmental and social injustices and changing cultures, leaving unsaid but implied the suggestion that my prose is as smooth as old bourbon, as sinewy as cafeteria steak.

That’s all true, but it’s also a lot of politically-correct hogwash.  There is a lot of ego involved. I like to test myself physically, do things that my friends wouldn’t, get off the beaten track to prove my credentials as a serious traveller.  Does it matter that I’m not an academically-inclined researcher or ethno-biologist?  Perhaps a visit like mine, organized by Unding’s daughter, is equally valid, a friend of the family, sort of, coming to pay a visit.

* * *

The Ibans are also among the most studied tribal groups by anthropologists, who have recorded Iban healing songs, their bird omens, their courtship rituals (pre-marital sex used to be no big deal), their social structure (pretty flat, and women have a strong voice), their architecture, their weaving, their animal spirit guides — whatever could generate a Ph.D. has been examined and footnoted.

I don’t claim expertise in the rich assortment of Iban traditional deities and spirits.  I know there’s a supreme god, then seven medium-ranked gods, plus an abundance of mystical people, omens and spirits.  Complex rituals, chants, admonitions and auguries.

How pervasive are these modern realities in weakening the influence of people like Unding and his traditional beliefs?

I conducted a very informal, admittedly limited, and totally unscientific survey of Iban young people in Kuching and Sri Aman.  I asked them two questions: How many of the major Iban bird omens can you name? And how many players in the English Premier League can you recall?

When given hints they said they had heard of the bird omens, but were hazy about what each one did.  They were more at home discussing English football, and names like Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard came without much prompting.

* * *

The most striking decoration in the main room of Unding’s family’s apartment is a commercially-printed poster, about as big as a large bedsheet.  It is the kind of canvas banner that middle-class Sarawakians have printed up in town for birthdays, anniversaries, business events. It reads “Selamat Ari-Jadi-90” (happy 90th-birthday), and features a large photo of a smiling and spry Unding, a dozen colorful balloons, and prominent images of Tweety Bird and the cute dog Lady (from Lady and the Tramp), both wearing conical party  hats.

We’ll have to accept the estimate of his age on faith, since, like others of his generation, Unding isn’t sure when he was born.  In the pre-literate days parents would recall that a child was born when the hill rice was grown in such-and-such a location, or when the Japanese soldiers came, or when there was a big fire and the longhouse had to be moved.

When the government decided that everyone should have an identity card, Unding’s parents fudged on the boy’s age. He was (probably) 15, but they told the official he was 18 so he could get a passport.  The official said “don’t push your luck” and made him 17.  Since the identity card was issued in December that’s the de facto month of his birth.

Why a passport?  It relates to the berjalai that every able-bodied Iban young man undertakes.  Berjalai can roughly be interpreted as a rite-of-passage journey, a leaving home to seek adventure and wealth and a first tattoo.  In the old days a berjalai might result in the young man returning to the longhouse with an enemy’s head.  Today a young Iban man might work in a timber camp, or in the natural gas plant in Bintulu, or attend university.  Today he might return with a flat screen TV or an engineering degree or a hard hat reading “Bechtel Saudi.” Same game, different rewards.  For his berjalai Unding went to neighboring Brunei and brought back a souvenir that hangs on his wall — a small tapestry showing the Ka’aba in Mecca. I asked him why that particular image, since he is not Muslim.  “Just for the memory of the trip to [largely Muslim] Brunei,” he said.

* * *

I watched him at work.

A family of four came to see Unding one evening.  A woman, 24 but looking older, had been debilitated by severe migraine headaches since the birth of her last child a year earlier. She had been to see western doctors and had spent almost $1,000 in consultations and treatments.  Seeing the manang was her last hope.

Unding chats with the woman for a while and then covers himself with a pua woven blanket.  He holds two parangs (machetes), claps them together and gives a hooting call.  A TV in the next room broadcasts a game show.  He removes the pua and chats with the woman and her husband. It’s all very social, with a fair bit of joking.

Unding takes out his collection of amulets, bundled in a few tatty plastic bags.  He puts special medicated oil on her forehead and rubs a stone he describes as Raja Genali (king of eels), which  he found floating in the river following a dream he had, on the woman’s forehead.  She takes off her shirt and he rubs her throat with a stone he claims is a meteorite.  From a different bottle, which looks like it once contained cheap brandy, Unding rubs more oil on her back, legs and stomach, all the while mumbling prayers.  Then Unding’s wife joins the group and serves sweet tea and everybody has a good natter.

I later asked Unding what was wrong with the woman, who drove half an hour to Unding’s longhouse.  He explains that after giving birth she didn’t follow the traditional belief to keep her lower back warm and now is suffering because spirits entered her body.  The parangs helped him ask the spirits to tell him what action to take.

* * *

When I arrived at the longhouse I gave him gifts, much as in the west when you’re invited to someone’s house you bring a bottle of wine and a cheesecake.

Some fresh fish and vegetables from the Sri Aman market.  Some tinned goods.  Some biscuits for the kids.  A bottle of whiskey — I knew Unding himself doesn’t drink much, but my guide Bayang explained that perhaps the alcohol could be brought out in the evening to lubricate a little longhouse party.  And I gave him a rather nice amulet of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, thinking that he might be able to use it in his work. I explained its significance, told him it had been given to me by a Thai shaman, and made a case for its usefulness and universality.

He seemed underwhelmed by the Ganesha and instead showed me his own magic charms — a wild boar’s tooth, a chunk of petrified wood, a potion made of snake venom and herbs.

* * *

I collect protection charms for our house in Geneva and I thought an Iban charm couldn’t hurt.

Unding showed me some designs he had created (using white finger paint, it looked like) on the brown paper covers of school exercise books. He had a bunch of them, ready to go; obviously lots of people seek homeowners’ insurance. I asked if I could buy one, expecting him to offer it to me, sort of quid pro quo for the Ganesha.  He asked for $15, which I gave him.  I hung it in the entryway of my house in Geneva; since then we have hasn’t been burgled, burned or invaded by bad spirits.


Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, Distant Greens, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. For more information on Paul please see: Wikipedia.  He can be contacted at his website:

This article is excerpted from the Borneo volume of Paul Sochaczewski’s new five-book series Curious Encounters of the Human Kind. Available on