An Interview with Mâ Ungkal, Son of Kawit

Mâ Ungkal was about the same age as my late grandmother. I first saw him at the but bnek (Tboli planting ritual) that I attended in March of 2015. He told us stories of how they did the ritual and the planting of upland rice in the 1960s. That day in 2015, he had a smile that was reflective and nostalgic of memories of friends and families in the long gone past. Today, we met him in his house. He was squatting on his legs while expertly twining ropes. There’s still strength in his arms, I thought. We went inside his house, and his daughter, who I guessed was in her early 40s, offered us coffee. Jenita explained to him that I wanted to interview him for my research. He looked at me inquisitively with his dim eyes, and I recalled the exact same way my own grandmother would look at me behind her cataracts. I asked if I can interview him, and explained that I first heard his stories at the but bnek ritual in 2015. Wè Jenita Eko was my translator. She translated everything I said, passing messages between me and Mâ Ungkal.

I asked him if he had any experience of severe drought when he was still young. He answered yes, and he estimated his age by pointing to a neighbor’s child. He was around 12 years old. He recalled to us a drought so severe that people died in Klubi. He described that the sun was “sut kdaw hulo” (the sun was red), and “ëmën klikam” (like the red design of the traditional bed canopy). When the rain stopped falling, he said that it only took 5 months before all the plants dried up and famine ravaged the land. The drought lasted for 10 months. They had to go to the forests to look for the biking, a kind of rootcrop that crawls on the forest floor. Mâ Ungkal explained that one must look for the roots of the crawling biking, and dig for about 5 meters from it before finally reaching the prized fleshy part of the tubers. He said that a single plant sustained them for a month.

I was curious about his age. I tried to infer the year of this drought, so I asked if he ever encountered the Japanese when he was young. Yes, he said. He was already around 20 years old when the Japanese passed the mountains of Daguma in Lësok, a valley near Datal Sboyun. He even said that he was the one tasked by the Japanese soldiers to get them cows to eat. The soldiers only stayed for 5 days, he said, since they were on their way to the mohin bong, or sea, of Kiamba.

I told Ma Ungkal that I heard him tell the story of Sélél when we were at the but bnek ritual, l asked if he can expound on this. He explained that it is the name of a star used to determine the time of t’miba (fallow burning) and rice planting. He said that when it appears in the night sky, the fak tahu (edible frogs) would also appear, announcing t’miba. Sélél was a man, the first farmer who was knowledgeable in the arts of agriculture. Ma Ungkal said that one day, Sélél said to his people that he no longer wants to be on this tonok (earth), and wishes to ascend to longit. Before he went up to the sky, he instructed all the people in the ways of farming and told them never to worry, and to look for him in the night sky. From then, he will be the one who will tell them when to plant. He also left the people with the buli plant (lima beans), and said that when the buli starts to bear fruits, it is also the time to plant rice. He added that Sélél was fond of drinking lëwag (traditional wine made from sugar cane), since he was the man who invented it. When he ascended to heaven, he brought with him this wine. The old people say that when he throws out the last dregs of wine from his sokong (container), many people on earth would get sick.

We ended our conversation with this story of Sélél. But his daughter asked me if I could take a photo of Mâ Ungkal. She said that they don’t have a single picture of their father. I said, of course, it would be a great honor to do this. After taking pictures of Mâ Ungkal and his family, we went back to Jenita’s house in Lëmkwa. On our way to Lëmkwa, my mind was still wandering in distant lands, and in the long gone past, when men ascended to heaven with their wine cups full, and the trees have names that we must discover. (7 February 2017)

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