Living alone on a mountain top

Living alone on a mountain top
Ms Jema ak Nopis' sister tending to a gas stove and a firewood hearth at a simple wooden house in the mountain of Bung Jagoi in Sarawak. Ms Jema now lives alone at the village. Once, it was thriving, but since the 1990s, other residents have left, finding lowland towns more convenient.

BUNG JAGOI, Sarawak - She heaved up her rattan basket, supporting its weight with a rope belt strapped around her forehead, and made her way slowly up the steep path.

"Another 700 steps to go," she said as she reached the last stretch, which would lead to a village at Bung Jagoi, atop a mountain in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island.

Filled with food, the basket weighed a good 20kg. Inside, she had also packed wild durian and pineapples foraged along the way.

Most people would find it hard to walk up this jungle path even if they were empty-handed. Ms Jema ak Nopis has been doing it with a full load for more than half a century.

She now lives alone at the village. Once, it was thriving, but since the 1990s, other residents have left, finding lowland towns more convenient.

Some see Ms Jema as a guardian of her people's culture.

Now 67, she was born in the village, and her presence there helps keep alive the customs of the Jagoi-Bratak peoples, who form a sub-group of the Bidayuh, one of the larger ethnic groups in Sarawak.

The village lies just about an hour from the capital of Kuching and near the border with Indonesian Kalimantan.

Regarded as the ancestral home of the Jagoi-Bratak, it has become a focal point for efforts by the local people to preserve their culture and heritage in a rapidly changing world.

The old village provides a tangible record of their migration patterns and movements, and tells how this ethnic group was formed.

"It is important for our people to know their heritage and where they came from. Gunung Jagoi is the ancestral home for many villages in the area," said archaeologist Nicholas Gani at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

His grandmother once lived on the mountain, but the family moved when she was a teenager.

Mr Gani, 32, said it was also important to preserve the old settlement to protect the forested hills, which are at risk from logging and quarrying.

Ms Jema's house is almost like a mini museum.

The solid wooden structure is filled with sepia photographs and dusty artefacts from times long past, including items used by her late mother to perform the Gawai ceremony before the start of padi planting.

The kitchen has a gas stove - the gas tank was carried up the mountain on someone's back - and a firewood hearth for cooking.

Ms Jema buys rice and other staples from the nearest town and plants her own vegetables.

When night falls, the darkness is broken only by a kerosene lamp and solar-powered lights. Rain and nearby streams provide water, and phone reception is available, sometimes.

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