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As Long as We Remember...

December 15, 2010

Ancient Kampung Ways

Tom McLaughlin

Sibu and Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Following the delivery of my third child and first son via C-section, a sterile clothed masked person handed me a package wrapped in plastic. She informed it was the placenta.


Apparently, my wife had made arrangements for the delivery of this bizarre package to me for safe keeping.


What was I going to do with the placenta? I knew in this tropical heat it would spoil, so I placed it in the hotel refrigerator to keep it fresh. I taped notes around the hotel room to remind me to bring it back to Kuching. I definitely didn’t want the maid to find human remains after we departed for our home in Kuching.


I spent most of the next day with my wife and son in the maternity ward. The huge room held about 36 beds and most were filled with moms and new babies. There were many nurses, attendants and doctors always available. The atmosphere was one of camaraderie as everyone, including myself, commented how beautiful each child looked to the beaming mom and dad. My son, Dzul, was the smallest as he was a preemie.


We wanted to get back to Kuching, and left the hospital with the doctor’s permission, the next day. We could not fly back as my son was too young and journey by car or bus would be at least nine to 14 hours depending on the monsoon rains. Express boat was the easiest and we boarded a day later. I stored the now cold placenta in the newly purchased diaper bag.


Arriving at the dock, grandma and a few family members greeted us, totally in disbelief about our experience. We returned home to our condo very thankful to be in familiar environs.


I took the placenta and asked my mother-in-law, a mid wife from the kampung, if she wanted me to put it into the freezer. She said no as freezing would make it hard. We would take care of it later as I slid it into the refrigerator.


After everyone was settled in, Suriani’s mother and I went into the bathroom and began the ritual with the placenta. I had never witnessed this before. The huge organ was emptied of blood and washed with bar bath soap and water.


E’mak, as I call her, unraveled and carefully examined the umbilical cord. All cords, she informed me, have black nodules. The number of nodules tells how many children the mother will have. The distance between the nodules tells when in life she will have children. For example, in my wife’s case she has three nodules; therefore we will have three children. Two of the nodule were close together, and we will have two children separated by only a few years. The other nodule was a good distance from the couplet, therefore there will be many years separating the first two children from the third.


There is a large, red meaty part of the placenta. Known to anatomy as the chorionic plate, in the kampung it is referred to as the mattress where the baby sleeps. A large opaque thin membrane protects the child from mosquitoes and is called the net. The umbilical cord, or tali pusat, translates into the tail of the belly button. The black nodules are called the eyes of the placenta.


The placenta, considered the brother or sister who has died taking care of the surviving child, must be treated with respect. After washing with soap and water and all blood has been removed, the placenta is covered in ash to absorb the water. Sea salt liberally sprinkled on the remains ensures preservation. During the entire process, E’mak recites a mixture of Qur’anic verse and ancient kampung verbiage, the meaning long forgotten.


She gathered together the structure as a sack and tied it at the top with the umbilical cord. She then took a white cloth, enfolded the structure and sewed it shut. The entire mass, when it has finished drying, will be placed in a small coffin.


On 18 December, so my daughter can be present, we will bury the placenta in the front of E’maks kampung house with ceremony. The “grave” will be in a location of respect where people can’t walk on it. My mother-in-law will tend to the area. The gravesite will also ensure the child will be happy and everyone will like him.


E’mak performs these rituals for anyone who leaves a placenta at her home. They have for years and she has done many thousands including those of all races, Chinese, Malay and Native. Some return to collect the placenta and have their fortunes told, while others do not. They are all treated with same reverence and respect as they have been for thousands of years.


…Life is good…


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