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SEAP Engaged Grant Awardee Story

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By Francine G. Barchett

Being a member of the Cornell Global Citizenship and Sustainability program in Malaysian Borneo was among the most formative experiences of my time in college, partly because it highlighted several topics I was interested in and passionate about. As a graduating International Agriculture and Rural Development senior set to begin my Global Development masters degree this spring, I came in with experience working on sustainability, food security, and climate change issues. However, I had never been to Malaysia, much less knew more than a trifling amount about indigenous livelihoods and ways of knowing.

I had a steep learning curve but was in for an adventure! From when I arrived in-country up through my departure back to the US, I was fixated on learning Bahasa Malay, a fun and invigorating challenge in my perspective. Having learned Bahasa Indonesia while an undergraduate in SEAP, I thought it would be valuable to Malay-ize my Indonesian through this trip. That involved writing new words and phrases in a daily notebook, figuring out which Indonesian words were more frequently spoken in Malay, and practicing—sometimes failing—among locals who were willing to work with me.

Beyond my personal language goals from this trip, it was an excellent opportunity to hone in on my intersectional research skills with both Cornell and Malaysian university students. My group, which conducted our fieldwork in the Long Lamai village, collaborated with students and faculty from the Universiti of Malaysia at Sarawak (UNIMAS) at its Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations (ISITI). We spent the first couple days getting to know everyone and discussing our objectives and interests in the field. Then a few days later we began the activity we had been most eager to begin: our work in the village.

Traveling to Long Lamai is no small ordeal. It involves three flights, one on a regular-sized Malaysian Airlines flight, then a transfer to a 20-passenger MASwings plane. To make that journey safe and viable, passengers are weighed beforehand! When we arrived at the final airport, our journey was not yet finished. From the airport, we took a short walk to a river, where the villagers were waiting for us in long wooden boats to drive us to the village via water.

My experience in Long Lamai village was humbling to say the least. My team’s objective was to gather historic information about the Penan people who called Long Lamai home, and specifically to understand the importance of their nomadic way of life up until the Government of Malaysia required them to settle in the 1950s. Through our interviews with senior members of the community, I gained an appreciation for the simplicity, sustainability, and community-centric values encompassed in their past traditions. These values, while easy-to-discern in their past stories, have doubtlessly influenced the way they view the world today.

From our interviews, I learned about sago, a palm-based starch traditionally eaten alongside meat that the Penan would hunt. Sago was extremely important to the Penan because in the nomadic days it would help determine how long they would stay in a forest area and be prepared and distributed evenly to family and community members present. The Penan had even created a special utensil for eating it and would use all parts of its trees for functions from cooking to building huts and a fire.

I also learned about how the Penan are continuing their age-old traditions of hunting with blow pipes and building huts and traditional instruments in the forest, all while taking on the twenty-first century newness of stationary agriculture and technology like mobile phones and internet.

At the end of my team’s time in Long Lamai, we presented the takeaways from our interviews with community members at a meeting open to the public. There we shared our “community products,” our outcomes from our research that the community had requested. For us, that was a video draft and book draft that could be used to educate future Penan about their history and show the outside world, including the government, what values the Penan represent.

While I wish I could have been at Long Lamai and in Malaysian Borneo much longer, I came back to Ithaca with many takeaways. I returned not only with an appreciation for sustainable livelihoods but also with admiration for the values that the Penan stood behind in spite of the vast developmental changes around them. I also came back with a new and refined skill—Bahasa Malay—which I hope to apply sometime in the near or far future as I pursue my agriculture and development career!

On my final days in Malaysia, I gave two speeches in Malay, one to the UNIMAS vice chancellor and another to the Long Lamai community at their church. During my talks, I thanked the community and local university for all they had taught me and my fellow students about community, collaboration, and sustainability. Each time, I got a big thank you but what was most meaningful was the response from the Penan. As I looked around the room at the 200 community members present, they were alert and attentive. I said that I was speaking on behalf of the students and faculty at Cornell, and they gave a hearty applause. Though this program is now behind me, I hope the spirit of teamwork and collaboration continues between Long Lamai, UNIMAS, and Cornell in Malaysian Borneo.

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