German ethnologist seeks to reconnect with Kenyah Tuai Rumah of Long Singut through DayakDaily

A photo of Kelbling and his three teammates together with the headman and residents of Long Singut taken in 1981.

By Karen Bong

KUCHING, Dec 16: A retired ethnologist from Germany is hoping to track down the family of the Tuai Rumah and inhabitants from the Kenyah tribe of Long Singut village in Ulu Baleh, Kapit where he and three others spent two very fruitful weeks four decades ago.

Sebastian Kelbling, and his three teammates consisting of a professional photographer, ethnologist and regional scientist of Southeast Asia named Rainer, Manfred and Alexander, respectively, had visited the remote Long Singut village, located about 200km from Kapit, in 1981 for work purposes.

The group arrived in Long Singut on a helicopter organised by the then Bakun River project planning group from Sesco Kuching on Nov 24, 1981 and took off in the first week of December 1981.

“I was an ethnologist at that time and was commissioned by the Sarawak Museum to survey the various longhouse structures along the Rajang and Balui river.

“Rainer was assigned to take pictures about the Bakun Dam project of Sesco (now under Sarawak Energy) and about the life of the people living in the Borneo interior.

“This special trip was not part of our assignments and it was sponsored and provided by the Bakun Dam project manager to the photographer who had been very interested to know more about the life of people in Borneo,” he said in several emails to DayakDaily.

Even after 40 long years have passed, Kelbling emphasised that the amazing experience of living for two weeks with the great Kenyah people remained until today as one of their highlights and a great memory that the group had carried with them over the years.

Enthusiastic to find some information about Long Singut thanks to social media and seeing how the remote settlement has changed as a tourist destination, Kelbling wrote to DayakDaily in hopes to locate, reconnect and possibly reunite with the Kenyah families they have lost touch with but never forgotten.

Kelbling said he had originally planned to contact the late Tan Sri Dr James Masing Jemut, who they got to know in 1981, but were deeply saddened to learn that he had passed away last year.

“With great regret, I learned also from your media, that our friend from 1982, Tan Sri Dr James Masing, who had been greatly supporting the stateless people there, died last year.”

Another photo of the longhouse headman family and some of the youngsters living in Long Singut longhouse in 1981.

Kelbling said the longhouse where they stayed was the only longhouse at that time in Long Singut.

During their stay there, Kelbling added that they were mostly together with a young man called Martinus and spoke quite often with Merang, who might be the headman.

“The name Martinus was given by a Catholic missionary who was there about 10 years earlier. His original name was probably Munan,” he said, noting that Christianity was very widespread in the community where many young people had Christian names besides their original Kenyah names.

He went on to say that the people in the longhouse had been very friendly and hospitable and they were particularly impressed by their strong personalities as well as amazing knowledge about making a life in the midst of this extremely remote jungle area.

“We accompanied them in their daily work and learned a lot about the shifting cultivation, the wild boar hunt, preparing delicious smoked meat and handling the blow pipes.

“We played football and volleyball with them and went out with their boats for fishing in the river,” he recalled.

Sharing two old photos taken with the Tuai Rumah and other residents of the longhouse, Kelbling was hoping some of them might recognise themselves or their family members to get in touch as the four are thinking of making a visit to Sarawak and particularly to Long Singut next year.

“We are hoping from the photos, some of them might still remember our visit from 40 years ago. We were quite young then and so were some of the residents who may be mothers, fathers or even grandmothers and grandfathers now. Even now we are grandparents ourselves.

“We want to bring along more old photographs for them to keep and communicate with them about what has happened in their lives since then and how the increasing tourism has influenced their lives,” he said.

If readers of DayakDaily have any information about these people from Long Singut, kindly write to — DayakDaily