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The Boatmen of Baram: Unsung Heroes

The boatmen of Baram refers to a group of workers who manoeuvre or navigate the long boats in riverine areas. A boat has to be managed by a boat driver and a navigator. These boatmen are the least noticeable workers amongst the staff. They work in the backdrop of many prominent activities such as village health team, malarial control efforts, supervision in the riverine areas and ferrying VIPs. Without them, all activities will come to a standstill. There will be no Village Health Services nor will the malarial team be able to do surveillance activities, nor will the VIPs from Ministry of Health tell their experience about boat rides. It was not worthwhile to rely on chartering of boats because no one was more familiar with the rivers than our own boatmen!

For safety, two persons are required to drive and navigate a boat. They are the officially designated pemandu anak perahu (boat driver) and the unofficial jaga luan (navigator). When the boat is moving, the jaga luan sits in front; he gives hand signals visible to the boat driver to steer left, right, to speed up or to slow down or come to a halt. The boat driver sits at the rear end with his hand at the throttle of the outboard engine, reading the hand signs of the jaga luan while viewing the river ahead. He works with close understanding with the navigator.

The jaga luan (navigator) are usually the clinic Attendants and they too are familiar with the rivers around them. They may also drive but only when the official boat driver is on leave. Sometimes, even the Medical Assistants themselves may become the navigator.

When they were recruited in the ‘70s, both the boat driver and the navigator came from the riverine areas and hence they were familiar with the rivers they ply. Early exposure sitting with their fathers in a boat have given them that sense of confidence to understand rivers and they developed an uncanny ability to “read the rivers”. A shallow river is much safer then the same river that had swelled following a heavy downpour upriver and submerging the rocks. With that knowledge, they are able to navigate the rapids skilfully.

Official activities, which are planned ahead will begin with the boat driver checking his boat for leaks, then he will bring down the boat engine (it can be a 40 horsepower or a 25 horsepower weighing 80 kilogram) from the boat store, mount the engine on his shoulder and walk carefully downhill along the slippery riverbank to the boat. Upon reaching the boat, he carefully balanced himself and lower the engine to the stern (rear end) of the boat. The other colleague also helped by bringing in medical supplies, food, fuel and other accessories needed for the activity.
Accumulating enough experience, passengers should not doubt the ability of the boatmen. Once the boatmen decided to shoot up the rapids, there is no turning back. With the throttle fully opened, the boat takes the “safest” path. The boat engine must not fail.

A request for a new engine must be seriously considered, which is why the engine is routinely carefully checked and serviced all the time before embarking on a journey.

During the dry months, all the hidden rocks emerged, hence it’s easier to navigate. If it gets too dry, it makes the navigation harder. The boat may have to be pushed, pull or carried. The jaga luan will guide the boat driver as the boat driver over dangerous spots along the river. The jaga luan is armed with a long stick and a paddle as well. When the water gets too shallow, he will give his hand signal to stop the engine, gets up and take the stick and using his muscled body to move the boat forward. If that fails, then everyone may have to get of the boat and to literally carry the boat until the boat reaches a deeper part where the engine can be restarted and move again. That would make everyone feel relieved in sensing that the burden was over, at least temporarily, as there were more to come.

When not plying the rivers, they are in the clinic assisting the staff at work, keeping the clinic clean, maintaining the clinic compound. They are also responsible towards the maintenance of cleanliness of the boat house and the generator house. Apart from looking after their boat engines and boats, they will also be responsible to start generators at night or at anytime when necessary.

Once the team arrived at a destination, the boat driver usually would not leave his boat. For the next few days, the boat becomes his home where he will cook and sleep in the boat. A boat driver is equipped with the beddings, mosquito nets, pots and pans, a small stove and a portable gas canister.

When I began my duties as the Medical Officer of Health Marudi in 1989, I noticed a request from clinics about the need for pemandu anak perahu (boat driver) who are responsible for riverine transportation. It was difficult to envision at first but having been orientated into the roles, I began to know more about them. The Senior Medical Assistant needs more pemandu anak perahu for the village health teams. The requests came from KK Long Teru, KK Long Loyang, KK Long Bemang, KK Lio Mato and KK Long Jeeh. We needed additional boat drivers and jaga luan for Long Lama, Long San and Long Jeeh. However, our requests went unheeded.

Many Officers, especially those from the Federal Public Service Department and the Ministry of Health, rarely visited riverine areas to know who these people were and why these posts were requested. Probably in the 1990s, no clinic in West Malaysia used boats compared to Sarawak. I was surprised to know that the pemandu perahu were defined by central agencies as people required to drive heavy boats in the open seas! And hence, they needed special licence. The Public Service Department had the misconception that a boat can be piloted or managed by one person only and that anyone could drive a boat. They did not see our needs at all.

When the late Deputy Secretary General (Human Resource) of the Ministry of Health, Datuk Syed Sidi Idid decided to go to Mulu by river in 1994, it gave me a great opportunity to show him why we needed boat drivers. His team consisting of Mr Choy Lup Bong and a representative from our Health Department Sarawak, Encik Ismail Saad were able to appreciate the difficulties of handling a boat up from Marudi to Mulu.

Along the Baram river, the ride was smooth. As the boat cruised along Apoh river, it was still smooth but along the Melinau river, the boat had to be pulled, pushed and carried and the usual journey of 4 hours took a little over 6 hours. At least they understood why we needed new boats and engines after 4 years of service!

Before the logging network of roads was fully established, almost all villagers including our staff from the clinics as far as from Lio Mato and Long Loyang in Ulu Baram travelled by boats. Whenever there was a meeting at Marudi involving the MAs and the JMs, boat drivers from Lio Mato would pick up other staff downriver at Long Moh, Long Jeeh and Long San in their long boats. But after 2000, when the logging roads became more established and maintained, riverine transportation began to decline; villagers prefer the land transport. So do our clinic staff. The logging roads has penetrated to as far as Long Banga, Bario and beyond Long Loyang. By 2005, travelling by boats was no longer the trend. Only medical staff used the boats for VHT purposes.

Like everyone else, the boat drivers too will retire when due. Presently only 2 are still in service. Even the skilled boat builders are too old to make new boats which cost about RM4000 each. Meranti woods are not easily sourced as in the past, thus pushing the prices further. Fibre glass boats are not suitable: they might not be able to withstand the brushing against the rocks. The boats will have to be replaced after 3 or 4 years, and even the outboard engines cost more than RM6000 each, depending on the engine capacity.

I recalled an incident when I was invited to do the closing for the Village Health Promoter course in Long Jeeh in 1994. They were waiting for me at Long San. I boarded the boat with Sister Felicia and hardly after 5 minutes in the boat, we were asked to walk along the stony pebbled river banks. That we did. I saw our boat shooting up the rapids and not long after that, they waited for us at the upper end of the beginning of the rapids. They were concerned of our safety and I was disappointed for not being able to be in the boat with them when they shot the rapids.

Like other staff, their most joyous occasion was when they assembled in Marudi to meet to attend a 3-day course related to boat management for boat drivers. The course modules include safety, taking care of boats & boat engines and taking care of the passengers. I had the honour to attend one such course organised by the Chief Minister’s Office in Marudi in 1990. I was only given a week’s notice to invite our staff and I quickly delegated it to my Senior Medical Assistant to call the boys. At the closing ceremony, I was extremely surprised to witness that 10 out of 14 who attended were from the Health Department. I saw the gleam in their faces when they proudly received the certificates.

I now know that whenever they take me across the unpredictable waters and the challenging rapids in Ulu Baram, I would be in safe hands!

By Faizul Mansoor, from the book A Community Doctor in Miri