The Penan, a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers, live in the jungle of Borneo, Malaysia. They’re known for their survival skills and for tajem—the deadly poison on their blowpipe hunting darts. Filmmaker Raphael Treza volunteered to spend three months living with and learning from these amazing men and women.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It’s divided into three territories: Indonesian Kalimantan in the south, and Brunei and Malaysian Borneo in the north. During the last 50 years most of Borneo’s rainforests have been destroyed as billions of dollars are made on timber. These rainforests host one third of all plant species on the planet and about 30 million insect species. Less than 10% of the forest still remains intact.
The forest grows back so densely that it’s no longer habitable for its endangered species. The Penan are the only ones able to live as nomads under these conditions. They are a peaceful and good-natured people, but many were arrested and even tortured when the logging company took over and started blocking logging routes.
Today only a few families have kept their traditional way of life and even these are forced to live part-time in camps and villages as their part of the forest is destroyed.
The hunters use their blowpipe hunting darts to catch wild boar, squirrels and other small mammals for food. This has become more difficult over time due to human activities in the forest, though.
The nomads use signs made of branches to communicate with other members of the tribe. Their motto is jah kenin, which translated means ‘we have the same heart’. The signs indicate the direction of the closest camp and inform that there is food to be shared. There are also signs to indicate that somebody is in need of medicinal plants or to say how many families are in the camp.
The Penan used to be animists, but like most tribes in Borneo they have been Christianized. Civilization has brought about many harsh changes. These days the sedentary Penan who live in villages need money for their basic necessities and money doesn’t come easy to them. The older ones yearn for the freedom of their lost nomadic lifestyle as they struggle to adapt to life in the villages. Many now suffer from depression and some have even lost their will to live.