October 3, 2013

Sungei Merah Tales : The Gentle Iban Lady with Leprosy

In the early 50's leprosy was a feared disease to the Foochows of Sibu especially but according to many, the Ibans took diseases as a matter of factly. That is, they took most things or events in life fatalistically. If it happened, it happened.

My father in order to educate us about the terrible disease, which was even cursed in the Bible, told us a story which I would never forget. It was a story about one Iban lady from the Iban community who were neigbhours of the Foochows and Heng Huas of Sungei Merah.

Sungei Merah was a pit stop for Ibans from Bukit Aup . Whenever Aup Ibans wished to go to Sibu for medical treatment, they would stop at. Sungei Merah which was a "pasar" for them. The Ibans would either berth their longboats in Sungei Merah, take a bus, or continue to paddle their long boats to Sibu, a good half day away after selling their products and obtaining some cash to spend in the bigger town.

Most of the Ibans were rubber tappers and padi farmers in those days. Occasionally they would bring their fish, chickens and even monitor lizards for sale.In this way they would collect some hard cash.
PHOTO by Sarawakiana - The Ibans from Aup in the 1950's would come by long boat along this Sungei Seduan to Sungei Merah Bazaar. They would either take the bus to Sibu (which would cost them some  money) or they would continue to paddle their long boat towards Sibu, from the Igan river to the Rajang River, a good half day of paddling. It would also be very convenient for the whole family to seek medical attention at the Lau King Howe Hospital which had a jetty for long boats and motor launches.

Leprosy was a very hushed hushed disease and people never did want to talk about it.

I will call her Aunty Juna, the gentle lady who survived from leprosy, as told by my late father.

Juna was married at a young age to Jugah (not his real name) but in a twist of fate they never could have children. One day Juna found that her skin was reddish and soon she had a lot of itch all over her body.

She had heard of the disease leprosy from the missionaries and the Chinese. But she never expected herself to be diagnosed with the disease by the Orang Putih Doctor in the Lau King Howe hospital. She had to be "exiled" to Kuching's "Leper Hospital" for treatment.
Photo from Argenta Images, the original entrance to the Leper Hospital, Mile 13 Kuching.

The whole longhouse turned up to see her being sent to Kuching where she would be treated (almost like a prisoner in those days). The family members went by long boats from the Igan River to the Sibu government wharf.

Photo from Argenta Images (Sir Charles Brooke Memorial Hospital for Lepers)

But after a year, she was "almost cured" and was allowed to return home to her family in Aup.

Juna being a very good natured woman requested her husband to take a new wife and , in order to remain , in the same "family house", she promised her husband that she would live with him, but would only play the role of a "nanny" to his children. Juna remained celibate throughout her life after her discharge from the hospital in Kuching (and this I learned not long ago from a mutual friend).

My father was a kindly man who thought well of others. By sharing this story with us, he was developing our empathies and compassion for people who were less fortunate. I believe he was also trying to help us be less afraid of diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis, which were quite rampant in those days in Sibu.

Juna's longhouse would have bamboo for flooring in the 1950's (Photo by Sarawakiana)
Note 1 : Juna's leprosy never recurred and she passed away after living a fairly long life, much loved by her former husband and his new wife, and by their children considered as her "grandchildren". If you happen to visit Sungei Aup, some young Ibans may remember this story from yesteryears. I have kept it in my heart and I am sharing it with you.
Note 2 : I have other Foochow related leprosy tales also.
Note 3 : Read this related article too...
Note 4 : I reconfirmed the story with a friend (who is just slightly older than I) not long ago.

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