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September 14, 2016

Unique Confirmation of Ali

Tom McLaughlin

Kampung Lintang, Malaysian Borneo – We had to make certain that the pantun was real, independent of the Bomoh. To recap, an important clue had been the verses to a Malay poem (pantun) that had been handed down for generations.


The Bomoh was the local medicine man who used jungle herbs to cure people of all maladies including making someone fall in love. The Bomoh had inherited his position from a long line of like-minded relatives.


We were trying to tell whether the pantun about Ali Wallace, Alfred Wallace's (the co-founder of the Theory of Evolution along with Charles Darwin) side kick, was real.


We had made an appointment, such as it was, with an 85-year-old lady said to be the pantun champion of the area. People got together from all over Sarawak to recite these poems in a friendly competition. She could neither read, nor write, nor recite a pantun without the beating of a drum.


The drum was a large bowl-shaped object with goat’s skin covering the part where you beat. It gradually tapered downward to a round open bottom-like container. You played holding it under your arms. We went through the usual pleasantries, which by now I was used to, about me marrying a Malay girl, living here, my children in America and so on. This took about 30 minutes.


I didn't understand a word of it. She spoke an archaic Sarawak Malay which my wife understood, but I was completely at a loss. My wife quickly translated the relevant parts which, after about 45 minutes, ended up being two sentences in English.


She had told us that she had heard the old pantuns and they were the property of the people from Kampung Jaie. I was elated that somebody else, other than the Bomoh, had heard of these two poems. That would confirm Ali's position and, indeed, he was Wallace's friend.


I asked her if she would recited them and she brought out the drum. She began to chant with the beat of the drum. To my untrained ear, I heard no rhymes, there were supposed to be two, no four lines and no cadence with the beat. Instead, out came a long undulating dirge which sounded like somebody with a bad cough. When she was done (the only way I could tell was when she stopped banging on the drum) I told her in Malay how beautiful it was, and no wonder she was the local champion.


My wife grasped my hand appreciatively, secure in the fact that I could enjoy the chanting. She played a few more pantuns and a middle-aged lady came up on the porch to dance. Not a modern dance, but a slow movement of steps with the arms extended.


We thanked her profusely, and I kept saying how beautiful the whole experience was, but I doubt she understood.


I asked my wife what in the world they talked about for two hours and she said she had been given advice on how to keep a man happy. She had had four husbands and I could guess with all the drum beating and singing they had left one by one.


She also gave my wife her own personal pantun, a big deal here. But, I was happy just to have the Wallace pantun confirmed independently from the Bomoh.


...Life is good. . . . .


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