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Updates from the Last Chance to Paint team

Day 2 – Person of The Forest

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

Today we woke up refreshed after an excellent nights sleep. Even though it took until after breakfast for me to realise my shirt was inside out, much to my embarrassment, we set out for an exciting day.

At “promptly” 8am, which turned out more like 8:30, we took a taxi to Batu Bungan, the village where the Penan tribe live. Due to deforestation they were forced to move out of the rainforest and they now live a settled life in their village which was created for them. In many ways this has disconnected them to the rainforest and as we discovered today, the deep knowledge of their culture and the rainforest now only lies with the elders.

When we first arrived we were introduced to Penan ways as we walked through the Penan market. Here they sell many traditional handicrafts made in the village, including beaded bracelets, fans and most famously the woven bags. We also had the great privilege of meeting many of the Penan people who were just children when Robin had known them in 1977/78. Once we had been introduced to the chief, we went to the school where the children were ready and waiting for us to teach them to paint.

The school was situated in a square wooden building and the school room was a basement room with concrete floor. There were 21 children (aged 3- 10) sat around the tables, eager for our arrival and to start painting. John did a quick demonstration and explanation which was kindly translated by the school teacher, then the children were allowed to start. Each with a piece of paper they were given the choice to use a soft pencil or black ink pen to start their pictures off. We advised them to paint the village, the forest and whatever they felt was important in Mulu. Much to our surprise progress was quite slow as the now settled Penan children don’t rely on the forest as much as in the past. Once they had drawn their image, they used brushes and watercolour paints to add colour and bring their pictures to life.

After a couple of hours of hard work, the paintings were completed and the children were allowed a drink and snack, the same as you would find in an English school, squash and biscuits!

Once the children had settled again I performed “Person of The Forest” by Jake Thorpe on my flutewhich was specially written for this trip. The atmosphere was serene as we told the story:

Once upon a time, there lived tribal people deep in the forest of Borneo. Some of the tribes people were lazy so to avoid doing any work, they would hide high up in the trees. One day after many many years these lazy tribespeople evolved into Orangutans. The direct translation of Orangutan is person (orang) of the forest (utan) and that is how Orangutans came into being.

Obviously this is a fictional story and we’ll never know how much truth (if any) there is to it, however the children were listening intently and it gave this wonderful new composition some context. As I played, the atmosphere in the room was still and calm. For the first time all day, the children stopped, watched and listened as my flute playing sung out through the village. It was a magical moment, made by one of the tribesman exclaiming that the piece of music and the flute sounded exactly like an Orangutan call!

Having said goodbye to all the children, we made a special visit to Nyapun, one of Robins oldest and dearest friends. It was so important for Robin to see his friend again, and was amazing for us to meet him. It was moving to see how Nyapun (90y+) is still full of life even if his age and illness prevents him from living how he used to.

Language was more of an issue in this situation, however we broke down the barriers with the power of music. They shared their instruments with me, a stringed instrument and a nose flute, and I shared my flute with them. We met as musicians and all played together, Nyapun and one of his wives on nose flute and me on my modern flute. I felt honoured and privileged to have played with them and I realise that these elderly Penan will potentially be the last to master their weird and wonderful instruments.

After this magical moment, we returned back to camp, via long boat, to begin an afternoon of painting and video editing.

John is painting the amazing bat exodus from yesterday and I hope you’ll take a leaf out of his book and get painting!

See you tomorrow, Martha-Lilly xx

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