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50 things you would understand if you spent your childhood in a longhouse

Here in Sarawak, we have the blessings of still maintaining most of our cultural traditions including our traditional house, the longhouse.

Honestly, it is sad to see some communities letting go their longhouses and building single houses. Their children will never get to experience their childhood living in a longhouse.

It doesn’t matter if you grew up in a longhouse or only spent your long year-end holiday with your grandparents, admit it, those were one of the best times of your life.

Even when your longhouse was not blessed with clean water supply and electricity, you still enjoyed the simplicity of life back then.

While some of us might whine and complain about the heavy chores we did even at a young age, as we got older we realised that we did learn a lot of life skills.

Here are 50 things you would experience if you had an amazing childhood at the longhouse especially during the 90s:

An example of a longhouse in Sarawak. This is Uma Lahanan in Sungai Asap.
Taking a bath

1.For girls, you learn the trick of using a sarong from young. Apart from using it to change your clothes or bathe, you also learn how to use it as a ‘life-buoy’.

2.You check out the water level in the metal drums before taking your bath.

3.If the water levels on these metal drums are too low, then you find your excuse to bathe in the river.

4.When it starts to rain, you run to make sure all the metal drums are out in the open to collect the rainwater.

Learning all kinds of life-skills in the longhouse

5.Growing up in the longhouse enables you to learn all kinds of life-skills such as how to catch fish with your bare hands in shallow water creeks between the stones, how to use a fish net or set up a bubu (bamboo fish trap).

6.You also learn the basics of rowing a longboat; how to change the direction when rowing and how to push the boat away from a tree or a wharf using an oar.

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7.You get yelled at at least once in your life for holding on to the edge of the boat when it is docking.

8.Sometimes, you are trusted to dock the boat. But somehow, somebody is always there to retie your knot.

9.You spend the night catching green cicadas using only a plastic bag tied to a stick. After deep-frying them, those green cicadas made the best ‘keropok’.

10.Sometimes, you helped your grandparents, parents, aunties sell some kuih from ‘bilik’ to ‘bilik’.

11.Usually, doing dishes is a chore that requires three people. The first person to sponge the dirty dishes with dish soap, the second person to rinse the dishes in the first basin then the third person doing the final rinsing in the second basin.

12.You learn how to wash your own clothes from early on.

13.In addition to that, doing laundry is also communal work, especially when draining water out of thick clothes. One person needs to hold one end while the other twists it till the water is totally wrung out.

Celebrations at the longhouse
Preparing for a celebration usually requires the work of all ages.

14.Before any celebrations such as Gawai and Christmas, you love to help in baking cookies and cakes. One reason is you get to eat the cookies and cakes. Another reason is that you know where your elders stash them away just in case somebody decides to finish them off before the celebration.

15.However, what you do not like about preparing for any celebration is the cleaning part. You need to help in cleaning the whole bilik and decorate the living room. You will also be needed to help take out all the dishes and glasses to wash.

16.Christmas caroling is fun because you get to visit almost every ‘bilik’ at the longhouse. Sometimes, you can even visit other longhouses.

17.Then during these celebrations, you secretly enjoy watching your drunk relatives.

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18.The best part about these celebrations is to ‘ngabang’ or visit from ‘bilik’ to ‘bilik’.

19.There are only two modes of transportation when visiting other longhouses; riding in a longboat or sitting on the back of a 4WD.

Once you reach your teenage years, riding in the back of 4WD somehow is a common thing.
Your childhood entertainment at the longhouse

20.If you walked past a ‘bilik’ which had cartoons on their TV, chances are high you would stop there and watch.

21.You create all kinds of games with your cousins. Some of these games come with punishments for the losers.

22.Additionally, you create games when taking a bath in the river. The most common games are who can hold their breath underwater the longest or who can swim from one point to another point the fastest.

23.You learn how to make somersault dives into the river.

24.If there is one bicycle among your cousins, everyone takes turns riding it.

25.Mosquito bites and scratches are common on your body.

Going to the kebun

26.You dread about going to the farm or orchard but you end up playing the hardest there.

27.Plus, you pick and taste all kinds of wild fruits and berries along your way to the farm.

28.Wearing adidas kampung is essential but you also learn how to walk barefoot in the jungle. The key is to walk only on soil surfaces while gripping it with your toes and also avoiding any sharp thorns.

29.Growing up, you get yelled at at least once in your life for the wrong way you handle the parang.

30.Furthermore, you get scolded at least once for breaking a taboo in the forest.

31.You pick up the skill of gathering firewood.

32.The best part about lighting up a fire is fanning it.

33.When it comes to picking fruits, ‘jolok’ is your best friend.

34.Speaking of fruits, you stay to wait for durians to fall at least once in your life. And that ‘thump’ sound you hear gets you running like crazy.

35.Food, as simple as it is at the longhouse, seems to be extra delicious during lunchtime at the farms or orchards.

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36.Food is also more delicious when enjoying it by the river.

Your nighttime at the longhouse

37.Communal sleeping is common in the longhouse. Sometimes you fight with your cousins for the best spot to sleep at night. And the best spot is usually somewhere near the fan, not near the door or next to someone who snores.

38.You are familiar with the smell of kerosene at night, all thanks to kerosene lamps.

39.Additionally, you are used to sleeping to the sound of a diesel power generator.

40.You must go to the loo before sleeping just to avoid a journey to the toilet in the middle of the night.

Watching the adults in the longhouse

41.You enjoy watching the elders playing the Four-colour card game.

42.Sometimes you even watch them gamble or engage in cock-fighting.

43.When the elder men e.g. your father or uncles come back from a hunting or fishing trip, you run to see what they caught.

Raise your hand if you recognise this.

44.You secretly roll the traditional tobacco cigarettes for fun (sometimes even light it up out of a dare).

45.Besides cigarettes, you learn how to wrap Areca nuts (buah pinang).’

Areca nuts. Credits: Pixabay

46.You like to watch the women cutting Areca nuts using the special cutter and even try to cut them on your own.

47.Sometimes, you also need to help in wiping the betel leaves (daun sirih) clean.

48.On top of these, you actually try to chew Areca nut wraps and then realise it is not a wise decision.

49.Admit it; you recognise the smell of Zam Zam hair oil and coconut oil.

50.You get lice in your hair at least once in your life after coming back from the longhouse.

Do you have other experiences spending your childhood in the longhouse? Share with us in the comment box.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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