The Sacred Stories of Grandfather Arbu

Arbu swinging on a liana in the forest near the Eco Camp.

Approaching our last few nights at the Eco Camp, we had the honor of spending time with the beloved elder Arbu, native to the Sukau tribe of the Lower Kinabatangan River and on of the original members of the KOPEL Co-op.

It was after dinner when when we gathered around Datuk Arbl to hear the stories and wisdom of the forest from bygone days of sacred traditions that are quickly disappearing. He began by introducing himself and his home, a tribe that was traditionally hunters and gatherers, where both men and women were warriors, fighting off enemy tribes.

Arbu giving USF class a tour of the forest.

The first story that he shared with us was the creation story from his grandmother’s side. It is of the Great Durian. The short and sweet story goes like this: A long, long time ago, there was a pristine forest in the heart of Borneo with thousands of various animals and trees, one of which was the durian. One day, a particular durian stood out because it was gigantic and it continued to expand and grow. It became so huge that is exploded and from it emerged a man and a woman. These were the first people who began the lineage of Arbu’s grandmother’s tribe.

The final story that Datuk Arbu told us was one from East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo of the native Dayak people. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was the most enormous cobra that lived in the deep forest. But besides its size, this was no ordinary cobra. One day it ventured towards a village and stopped at a young mans house. He quickly ran inside to escape this frightening snake coming straight for him. Once the young man was inside, he peeked through the cracks outside and saw the cobra standing high at his door. It was very peculiar though because he began to hear a voice of a woman call out. “Please,” she said. “Allow me to enter. Believe me when I say that I am a lady in the shape of the cobra.” The young man could not believe his ears or eyes. But there was something about her voice and so after a few more exchanges of refusing and pleading, he relented and slowly opened the door. There before him stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Speechless with eyes wide, they embraced hands and the rest was happily ever after. Well something of the sort, as they were wedded and started a new lineage, of which Arbu says to have come from on his grandfather’s side. That said, Arbu comes from the Great Durian and The Queen Cobra.

Arbu and the USF class.

One of my last exchanges with Arbul was our last night in Manggaris village, after the grand cultural party that involved an amazing feast and mesmerizing dance and martial arts accompanied with the entrancing traditional gong music. I got the impression that he is full of endless legends as he began to tell me about the mermen of Sulawesi and recommended that I go there to find them. But that will have to be for another time. Our time spent with the wise and eccentric Grandfather Arbu was surely special and one we will never forget. And for that we thank him and the people of KOPEL for welcoming us into the forest of the lower Kinabatangan River.

by Zoe Maxon, Teacher Assistant