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Dr Neilson Ilan Mersat (inset) advocates inclusivity and cultural sensitivity in rebuilding longhouses to comply with safety standards or risk losing an integral part of Dayak culture. PIC BY MOHD RADZI BUJANG

THE unfortunate trend of fires burning down longhouses in Sarawak has left the Dayak community in a quandary.

Do they retain their longhouses’ traditional designs, with their wooden structures and stilts and expose themselves to the danger of fire consuming their homes, or do they embrace modern building concepts and lose a tangible part of their heritage?

With some over 100 years old, the old wooden structures are at risk of being destroyed in a fire.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) Associate Professor Dr Neilson Ilan Mersat believes the Dayak community has a difficult choic e to make.

Neilson, the dean of UNIMAS’ Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, said in the past, longhouses were built as high as 4.5m from the ground.

There is only one staircase due to security reasons and to prevent attacks from enemies using spears.

“The exact date of the first longhouse cannot be traced as indigenous people moved from one place to another in search of food and water resources as well as space for agriculture.

“They would dismantle the longhouse before leaving to prevent spirits from inhabiting the empty unit,” he said.

People living in the longhouse are usually related, hence it is akin to having a village live under one roof.

Neilson said while the move to build new longhouses using modern materials equipped
with fire safety features was essential, it also meant sacrificing and losing parts of the cultural heritage.

For instance, the houses would no longer be built on stilts due to the weight of the materials.

“The new ones would have cement floors and concrete walls instead of bamboo and wooden structures,” he said, adding that the longhouse community had to address the issue before it was too late.

“I fear that if traditional longhouses continue to burn down, the Dayak would eventually lose their sense of heritage and identity.”

He said in some cases, villagers who lost their longhouses in fires built individual homes for themselves.

However, life became different for them as they lost their sense of communal living.

Residents of a longhouse, Neilson said, were emotionally attached to their homes as it was a symbol of family and community.

This, he said, meant that when longhouse dwellers moved to a new site, they felt uprooted, thus making it a painful journey.

Apart from losing their homes, the residents lose their prized heirlooms, passed down through generations, when a fire destroys their home.

Neilson said if the Dayak community opted to retain their traditional longhouses, a strategy had to be drawn up to make fire the “number one enemy” in longhouses.

“Residents must be made aware that small electric appliances which add convenience to their lives were among the main reasons behind longhouse fires in the past two decades.

“For instance, charging a mobile phone, and an unmonitored cooking stove could end up being something very dangerous, particularly in an old wooden structure.”

He said this initiative may take years, but it is the key to ensuring a healthy union of heritage and modernity.

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