Ceit and a Culture under Threat

 By Anja Lillegraven

Ceit was the last Chewong woman who wore a strip of rattan wrapped seven times around her stomach.
It was a small piece of Chewong culture that died together with the old great-grandmother
Friday 16 September 2007.

Chewong is one of the smallest Orang Asli groups. The Orang Asli are the indigenous peoples of
Peninsular Malaysia, and number altogether 150 000 persons. The Chewong group consists of about
400 individuals. They live inside and on the border of the Krau Wildlife Reserve,
one of the last pockets of remaining rainforest in the peninsula.

The Chewong depend on the rainforest for subsistence and cultural identity.
Their religion and rituals are inseparable from the environment around them.
This environment is now under threat.

It was Noni, Ceit’s grandchild, who informed me that her grandmother died.
She did so by sending me a text message. Noni is 17 years old.
She attends secondary school, and she owns a cell phone.
Noni’s adolescence is remarkably different from how Ceit grew up inside the deep forest.

Much of the traditional Chewong territory is now logged.
Luckily the remaining part coincidentally falls within the Krau Wildlife Reserve
where logging is prohibited. However, they often hear the sound of trucks
bringing out illegally logged timber. A new road leads all the way up to the largest Chewong settlement.

In 1989 an elephant sanctuary was built more or less on top of their old hamlet,
forcing them to move across the river. Tourists visiting the sanctuary frequently drop by the Chewong,
curious to see “the last tribe of its kind in Malaysia”, as the tourist guides say.
The road also allows for health care, schooling and missionary activities.

The settlement is now divided in two: half of them have become Christians
and the other half Muslim. The government pays them to convert to Islam.
The Christian missionaries promise them “a good life”.

Ceit proudly wore the rattan in rings around her waist as Chewong women traditionally did.
Noni could not explain to me the significance of the rattan. She said she would never wear it.
Noni and her friends are slowly adopting the religion and consumption pattern
of Malaysia’s majority groups. The assimilation pressure is overwhelming.
And the rainforest that the Chewong and other Orang Asli have built their cultural identities upon
is disappearing quickly.

Ceit may now rest in peace. But friends with power to act: do not rest.
Fight for the remaining rainforest and the human rights of the communities depending on it.