Face to face with Rashid Esa, Director of the Mah Meri Cultural Village on Malaysia’s Carey Island.
We met with Rashid Esa, who administers the artistic affairs of the Mah Meri, working as director of the cultural village, while at the same time welcoming school and tour groups, who, he insists are not there as spectators, but to learn about the deep, enthralling and intriguing cultural background and spirit of the Mah Meri.
Esa is author of “Bunga Moyang (Flower of the Spirits)”. The book provides the reader with wonderful insights into the culture of the Mah Meri tribe, and is rich in pictures depicting their life and culture.
After graduating from London University with a degree in English literature, Esa, a Proto-Malay himself, took to the deep jungle of Sarawak, where he lived for some years with local tribes before coming to work with the Mah Meri, who he has now been studying for decades.
We asked Mr Esa what makes the Mah Meri so special…
The idea of copyright has for a long time been a part of the Mah Meri culture. For them, if one person has sculpted an image, no one else can make the same image, apart from him. The image belongs to the family. The sculptures are passed down through families, and the right to reproduce the image belongs to the descendants of the originator of the design.
At the moment, one of the artists is working on a huge sculpture, which will be one of the only ones of its kind, due to the scarcity of the wood. They use local mahogany, which grows on the inter-tidal zone among the mangroves. It’s incredible to see the things they make out of this, only to be thrown away. The sculptures are mostly made to replace things that were destroyed or killed, thrown-out into the place where the loss was made. Often the sculptures correspond to a calamity, as a reminder of that thing… kind of like its spirit; for example, the tsunami. In this case, it doesn’t represent the thing that has died, it represents the power of the tsunami, with the swirling body, and the horns.
To create, they have to have a dream, sent from the other world. The history of these people dates back 25,000 years. These people don’t have a religion. What they have is something very different from us: the spirit world and the world we live in, side-by-side, running parallel. In my observation, the “other world”, as they call it, is different from our “after life”. It’s a half-world. So, everything you want to do relating to the other world has to end at noon. It’s a half-world. And everything you want to present has to be half size!
How many Mah Meri are there here?
Four thousand in all, and we reckon every-one of them is related. Looking at their DNA, they are not Malays, they are not European, and they are not even Chinese. Their features are like Mongoloid people, who are from China, but Mongoloid didn’t exist when China first existed. Then we have to talk about the language. How do we qualify people? Through their features or through their language? This is where people get very confused, because their language has Austronesian roots. From DNA samples, we know they came from the north around 25,000 years ago.
They had very advanced ways of thinking. They had ideas about conserving nature a long time before us. Their marriage system is very, very different to ours. And the systems they developed to govern themselves were highly developed. How do they choose a leader? By referendum, or election. Everyone has to be there to decide; men, women and children. Exactly 100 days after the leader dies, or decides to step down, an election is held. This is something we take for granted, but they have been doing this for millennia… and everyone has to be there to vote.
What’s coming up?
In the next months, I am going to create a tourism event; an exhibition with one hundred sculptures. It’s hard for these people. They have to be known. They have been used in the past, but now they need to be able to stand on their own feet. We will get together some budget and organise a proper thing for the village, with conveniences and toilets, and bring in some money. What we are doing is empowering them. Actually, recruiting them so they can do things for themselves.
We don’t see much about the village. Why so?
I don’t like the thought of books. It’s unfair, writing books and telling people. I could be a professor and be rich and famous. I was a PhD candidate, but I thought it was better that people come here and listen to me talk, and we exchange ideas and then they go home and bring something with them. Here, I have plenty of time to work with these people, but the irony is I never know if I am doing the right thing. When I was living in the Sarawak rainforest, and I was interviewed there, someone asked me what my opinion was about organising carnivals and bringing tourist money in, and I asked back, “Is that really what they want? Here you have people who have been inheriting culture for 25,000 years. They don’t have religion like us, and they don’t even think like us. Do you think they like what you’re doing? That money is the thing they’re looking for?” How do they connect to the things we force them to have?
We have to do something, or in ten years, these 4,000 people will be gone. Everything will be different. It’s very hard to have a venture that is successful in this respect. This is the only single one that is still running after six years.
What do you hope for the future?
We have to resist all this, because the way they think is very different. One of the Mah Meri women, Diana, was trained since she was born to do everything her tribe can do. And she understands the traditions very well. Now, she is going to university, learning our ways, learning discipline. Hopefully she will replace me, and maybe very soon.
Interesting to note: Carey Island is an increasingly popular stop-over for cruise lines, who organise day tours of the Mah Meri cultural village.
Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Bumbun
42960 Pulau Carey, Kuala Langat
Tel/Fax: 03 2282 3035
Tel: 010 2522 800
Explanation of UNESCO Seal of Excellence for handicrafts: http://www.unescobkk.org/fileadmin/user_upload/culture/Regional_meeting_on_Intangible_Cultural_Heritage/Case%20Study%20Session%201/Vanessa_Achilles.pdf
For more information on the Mah Meri Cultural Village including visiting hours, go to http://mmcv.org.my/web