It was a student from Sarawak, East Malaysia, who first introduced me to longhouses in 2001, and this week I had the privilege of being welcomed into one for the very first time. It was about an hour’s drive from Kuching, the capital of East Malaysia.
In case you don’t know anything about them, and you haven’t yet googled them (if you do you will find some superb images) the basics are these. They are the homes of some of the peoples that live in the forests of what is still known locally as the island of Borneo. They are usually near rivers, built of wood on stilts, and characterised as their name suggests by their shape. The reason for this is simple: when a new family is created by marriage, then another part is added on to the existing dwelling.
All the parts have their own door (they refer to “doors”, not houses or apartments), and are linked by a verandah. It is this verandah that provides the social space for nearly all the communal life of the longhouse. A covered area is invaluable, given the amount of rain that falls throughout the year; and the need for shelter from the heat of the sun.
It was early evening when we arrived, and while a group of older men were chatting at a table, and a younger person was tending the wooden fire traditionally used for cooking, there were one or two little children sitting on the laps of their parent or another member of the longhouse.
All the materials of which the longhouses are made, and which are used for crafts, are of course locally available, and bamboo, sugar cane, and coconut trees are prominent among them.
The longhouses are under threat as the forests are cleared, and younger generations are attracted to the urban way of life. They are now seen by many as a tourist destination or curiosity. Unlike ancient ruins, they still have residents, but without care, their days will be numbered.
As Children Webmag is an internet magazine and my columns are about contemporary life, and focussing particularly on children, why should longhouses be of any interest?
In short, because they represent a sustainable way of living, tried and tested through many generations and centuries, that manages to keep a delicate balance between individuality and community, family and village, privacy and shared living, young and old. Whether we know it or not, this is the sort of balance we are all looking for.
But there are two specific reasons for my joy at visiting a longhouse eleven years after hearing about them from the student. And these may give cause for thought in others.
Longhouses and education
First, a teacher from Sarawak told me how the children, as young as six years old, were taken from the longhouses and placed in boarding houses in towns and cities where there were schools, as part of the government education policy. I was stunned. But he really meant it. Little children were wrenched from their homes, their families, their community, their natural habitat, in order to attend schools where they would be ‘educated’.
It had unpleasant echoes of the way children were placed in orphanages in the nineteenth century in the UK, places that were orderly and clean, in place of the slums in which they had been born. My mind was racing as I tried to imagine what it must feel like for such a child to find herself in a completely unfamiliar natural and social environment. I walked over the little bamboo bridge, watched a little child interact with others on the verandah, saw the carpets being woven out of reeds, and listened to music from locally made instruments, listened to the sounds of the jungle in the night air and under the stars….
What sort of idea of education leads a government to this harsh and insensitive policy, I wondered? What did the parents and residents of the longhouse think and feel, let alone the children? And sadly and slowly I realised that it is exactly the sort of policies and resolutions pronounced at international gatherings such as the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Here was the child’s “right to education” being observed and implemented to the letter. The child would be sitting in some sort of classroom, with a teacher and a group of other children, and there ‘education’ would begin. Someone somewhere would get a tick for this, possibly even promotion!
But what philosophy of education is that? The longhouses are places where children are educated for life, in a community abounding in skills, knowledge and culture. They could be taken away from all this, and taught by adults who knew nothing of the life and rhythms of the forest and the natural world. All in the name of a formal system of education that necessitates a school building and classrooms as evidence that the objectives of the policy have been met!
My student did a dissertation on education of children from the longhouses, and in it he came to a radical conclusion, that you may well have guessed already. Instead of taking the children (there are always likely to be more than one at a time) from the longhouses to send them to boarding schools, why not send teachers to live in the longhouses?
The longhouses would offer a ‘door’ to the teacher: that is their very essence, and the process of learning in which the children have been engaged from their earliest days would be continued in context. They would teach the teacher many things, and the teacher would be able to help them with aspects of maths and reading, history and geography in an appropriate way and when the time was right. And of course others in the long house would be part of the whole process as learners and teachers: in a constant dynamic of shared learning.
I couldn’t help but feel that the teachers would get the best of this deal, given all that the group I was with seemed to learn on a rather short visit! If a philosophy of education is needed, then Froebel and Montessori are tailor-made for such a social setting and physical environment.
As far as I know there are not many teachers who do this, but my hope is that the rest of the world will come to see the tragedy that is unfolding, affecting not only individual children and families, but their very way of life.
Longhouses and Mill Grove
This brings me to the second point. I have always found it difficult to describe Mill Grove, the place where I live with children and young people. It isn’t a conventional house or apartment; it isn’t a place where a single biologically-related family lives; it isn’t a boarding school; it isn’t a children’s home; it isn’t a therapeutic residential community…. I could go on.
But in a flash I saw what it was in its very essence: it was a longhouse! For 113 years we have lived there as a family, adapting and extending the building as others joined us and the need arose. The address is a give-away: 8-26 Crescent Road. There’s a longhouse for you! And when a friend in Sarawak saw the photos on the Mill Grove website, he exclaimed to me, “It really does look like a longhouse!”
So it was that as the light was fading in Sarawak I found myself feeling strangely at home. It was almost as if I had come home. And as one who wonders whether what is called ‘western civilisation’ has entered a cul-de-sac constrained and overshadowed by hyper-individualistic, consumer-based, market-driven, debt-riddled, narcissistic and sex-obsessed pressures and forces, and doomed to come to a halt as most human civilisations do, I could not help thinking that I was witnessing and experiencing life as most of us would wish to live it, in some shape or form.
It was by an accident of birth that I found myself in just such a community at Mill Grove. And then I remembered that an increasing number of young people are asking to visit or stay with us because they too sense that the way of life they are being offered in the mainstream does not do justice to the way they understand life, community, learning, work, society and spirituality.
It’s not everyday that you find you have discovered something fundamental about your own life and roots, as well as that which links past and future, if only governments local and worldwide are open to see that education is something quite different from a school and formal curriculum.