on 10 February 2011
These days the British Civil Service and NGOs working on "Development" in poorer countries are full of experts with their Ph.ds, most of whom rarely spend a night out of capital cities or stray far from their air-conditioned 4x4s. Millions of pounds of "ring fenced" tax payers funds are transferred to overseas governments and consultants but the impacts are hard to see. But it wasn't always like this. This book tells the story of the origins of professional development work just at the point it was emerging as a way of working, distinct from the missionary managed activities that had gone before. Erik Jenson was one of those rare people who had the degrees from Oxford and Harvard but still went to a remote part of Sarawak without roads or electricity with only his wits to help him. He began by living in a tiny shack, learned the language, slowly built trust and eventually created an effective development programme, with little outside money. While it is easy to idealise the traditional life style of shifting cultivation, a growing population meant that either people settled and gave up slash and burn agriculture or the remaining rain forest would go. The government of the day took the decision to preserve the rain forest, even by force when necessary. Without people like Erik Jensen working as midwife to the transition, the process of adapting to the demands of a changed world would have been more prolonged and painful. This book will be of interest to Development Studies students, people working in development and anyone interested in a fascinating story of how someone with great grit and determination and willing to make personal sacrifices can help make the world a better place. The author depicts what life was like in the long houses of traditional Iban peoples in the 1960s and the political and cultural tensions that modernity brings. The book is packed full of vibrant characters and landscapes brought to life by excellent writing. The final chapter, recounting a return visit to Sarawak, 40 years later, may be a bit sentimental for some but most of the book is a valuable case study of what happens when the traditional ways of living can no longer support the society and the food supply literally begins to run out. This is the story of how a development worker can sometimes be important, without being self-important.
on 11 March 2011
"Where hornbills fly" is as colourful as the `stars' of the story, the Iban Dyaks, reformed headhunters of Borneo and their unique culture centred on rice cultivation, dreams and bird omens. In common with many indigenous forest peoples, they were and remain under tremendous pressure from the modern world. By the time the author first arrived in Sarawak, the Iban had given up more than headhunting; they were prevented from practicing shifting cultivation - moving en mass to new forest areas when the soil of their upland rice plots became exhausted. Their way of life was in the balance. The delicate ecological system of which the Iban had become an integral part over generations of social evolution was disintegrating. They were facing starvation and cultural extinction. Erik Jensen, a 26 year old research student from Oxford, had long been fascinated by the Dyaks. Confronted by the circumstances of these proud people, he resolved to help if he could. He learned the Iban language and when asked for advice and help by the colonial administrators devised a modest yet highly successful development project, long before 'small is beautiful' or 'people-owned projects' had entered the development lexicon. But this not a "do-gooder' story. The author realised that many of the Iban, particularly those of the Lemanak River where the project was based, would have liked his efforts to fail. This, they hoped, would strengthen their case for a return to shifting cultivation. The author has a lively style and provides a wealth of detail, not just about the people he meets, but also the places, wildlife and what happens around him. In fact, the book reminds me of the works of other social anthropologists who have made their studies accessible through popular writing. He tells things as they were. He had so many soakings and misadventures in his early days that I began to fear for his health! In fact, if anything really serious had happened, the outcome could have been disastrous; he had no means of summoning help. I have been visiting Malaysia for over 30 years. While I have only been to neighbouring Sabah, I found many of the scenes he describes familiar. All in all this is an entertaining, yet serious, book rich in imagery that will appeal to readers interested in the life and ways of a people who still excite the imagination by the very mention of the word `headhunter'.
on 18 September 2013
This book fell into the none of the traps that I was expecting it to. Although written about events 50 years previously, it came across as fresh as something that happened today. By the end of the book, I was left with a real sense of the swiftness with which the Iban people have had to change as a society. I normally don't write reviews, but the way Erik Jensen could put across the big picture while focusing on very close relationships was so impressive, I felt almost obliged to put in my few comments. I travelled in Borneo briefly just before this book was released, and feel now that some of the blanks in my knowledge of the history of Sarawak have now been clarified. Clear, concise writing. The author didn't get hung up on any egotistical wanderings, and captured his time there perfectly, focusing on the driving points of Iban life, giving a book which was compulsive to read. Thank you for a great book, which I believe is in the same vein as Tim Flannery's retrospective writings on research he did several decades ago.
on 5 April 2011
Book jackets are always fulsome in their praise of the contents; this is one of those rare books which not only lives up to the superlatives, but exceeds the expectations raised.
It is indeed the story of the Iban Dyaks, the former head-hunting tribes of Sarawak and the clash between their traditional way of life and the encroaching modern world of the 1950's and 60's. It is also the memoir of seven years in the life of a highly-educated and idealistic yet practical man who set out to help them by first learning their way of life from within. There were steep learning curves both for the Dyaks and for the author, whose interests ranged from the practicalities of what crops could be grown, education and hygiene to respect for the traditions of the tribes and the philosophical question of how societies and religions interact.
What sets this book apart is the quality of the writing. There is clarity from short crisp sentences, but each is loaded with a rich texture of words. The author brings alive the subject like a deft painter with a brush.
When I first saw the book I wondered if more photographs could have been included, but the descriptions conjure the place and the people as only good writing can, producing in the mind's eye something more vivid than any picture or film. There are also delightful little black and white drawings to discover at the head of each chapter.
This book has many of the qualities of a good novel: eminently readable; characters one grows to care about; philosophical questions tackled with a light touch and vivid descriptions of place to transport the imagination. This would make an ideal choice for a reading group.
on 3 June 2012
As a young man Erik Jensen moved to live with the Iban people in Sarawak on the island of Borneo. He stayed for seven years, working on small-scale development projects in partnership with local people. He learnt the language and experienced, without privilege, the lifestyle of the Iban. He contributed positively and sensitively to adaptation in the face of change and left a lasting effect through his work.
The book is a gentle, personal account. It carries neither a political message nor expounds any great anthropological or sociological analysis. Rather, it tells first-hand of the daily complexities of bringing new ideas from outside, the suspicions, the frustrations, the joys and the disappointments. It describes vividly the Iban people, their practices and their jungle surroundings before the major transformations of the last 50 years intruded.
Mr Jensen is himself only faintly visible and under-stated as the characters of the Iban and the challenges faced are allowed to emerge most strongly. He is a doer and in doing and describing he gives a privileged glimpse of a people now changed. If there is a complaint it is that on occasion the author allows his evident love of words to run away with him, producing slightly contrived and over-flowery text. However, the affection of the people towards him is tangible; his achievements remarkable and their telling provide a delightful picture of a point in time.