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June 29, 2011

For Grandfather’s sake…

Tom McLaughlin

Kampung Demak Baru, Malaysian Borneo – “Another dinner,” I said salivating at the thought of my mother-in-law’s cooking. My wife had asked me to attend a prayer memorial on the anniversary of her grandfather’s death, a tradition here in Malaysian Borneo.


The prayers are to accumulate in a bin to supplement his journey to heaven and to make up for the lack of good deed credits while here on earth. Apparently, he was stuck “in between “as his bad deeds had outweighed the good ones. When the good bin is filled, he can move on the heaven. This belief is known as adat, the folk lore that exists alongside Islam.


Another reason for the prayers is that his spirit is among us from the grave, and it must be assured that grandfather is remembered or the spirit will sob, be very unhappy and a candidate for anti-depressants.


Following the prayers, the marvelous foods of the kampung are served, my very favorite part.


We took the boat across the Sarawak River to be met by her father and then onward to the kampung. I wore shorts but had brought along a sarong to cover my legs for the Islamic prayers. The weather had turned nasty, hot and humid with acrid smoke from the burning of the stubble from the harvested rice fields, typical of the southeast monsoon.


“Tell me about your father,” I asked. Her story began with the Japanese invasion of Kuching during World War II. A policeman for the White Rajah, he fled into the jungle with his new bride. Emerging at the mouth of a river, the name lost in a fog as there are so many in this tropical arena, he cleared land in the delta and planted rice, hard back breaking work.


A shelter was soon constructed, against the many jungle critters. Chickens were smuggled down the river, away from the Japanese, for fresh meat and eggs. A subsistence farming life had been carved out of the swamp.

With the surrender of the Japanese, he elected to remain on the farm. With peace, he acquired a few water buffalo to help with the plowing. Soon, he had produced a family of seven children, all born in these primitive conditions.


Each of the children was educated in a hut in the kampung. The teaching was rudimentary with basic reading, writing and arithmetic plus the English language in this colony of Great Britain. My mother-in-law had to help him in the farm and later take care of her uncles’ children. She was denied this learning as she had to travel via river back and forth between the farm and Kuching.


However, she did acquire two important life skills. The art of Malay massage had been handed down through generations. The healing process, before doctors were known, enabled her to carve out a meager living; for example, the cure for infertility. The womb was likened to an upside down bottle that moved around inside the woman. If the womb was not in the proper position, sperm could not enter and fertilization would not take place. My mother-in-law, through massage, moved the womb to its proper position. As many have attested, because of her massage, children were possible. They paid her only a small amount of money, but enough, for her therapy.


As a healer, she acquired the knowledge of spices for traditional medicines. This causes a “heaty sensation,” her translated words, that cures the body. During an emergency, she acts as the mid-wife.


My mother-in-law never dealt in the area of the occult, where the forces of life could communicate with those in the afterlife, or where the dead had an effect on the living. This was purview of the bomoh, another character altogether.


Hopefully, we added some more prayers to grandfather’s bin in his efforts to get into heaven. In any case, I love the curry!


…Life is good…


For other articles on Borneo, please redirect to, blog.



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