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Why do the women like Johnson shear pins?


Meeting the Iban tribe in Borneo
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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My intention was perfectly plain, and James [Fenton] just wanted to go back to a jungle. He'd fallen in love with jungles in Vietnam. You know, he'd been the real thing, a war correspondent in Saigon. Anyway, my... and I'd got permission from the Indonesians in London at the embassy, everything was stamped. And we were going to go up Regang and the Bali River, and then you can connect the other side of the watershed to the Mahakam and go right across the island, which nobody had done. I mean, simply for political reasons. And James didn't like the idea of that at all. He quite rightly thought that I was impossibly enthusiastic and naïve. And I produced my passport and everything was sort of going to be fine, and then he tossed his war correspondent's passport, not his ordinary one, onto the table, which was full of all the... And that was it. So the Indonesian guy... [speaks Indonesian]. 'But I got that in London.' And he said, 'And where is London?' God.

So we could only go to the central mountains in Borneo. And it had to be a comedy. Well, it was. I mean, it was very funny, all of it. But... well, I didn't know then, I know now. I mean, Borneo is a very happy place compared with the rest of the jungles I'd been to. And it's really run by the women. So the Iban, the Kayan, the Kenyah, even though they're a little stricter, but the Iban... they're honorary Irishmen. You show your power by having the largest possible party, and you all live in longhouse together, like an Irish village, but parents die, right, you're adopted by the couple to either side of you in the longhouse.

And then it would be like the races or something, but there's a whole week where all moral rules, everything goes. Relieves the tension. And all you have to do, if you're after some girl, is blacken your hands with soot and chase her. If you manage to get your two black hands on her, then, you know, whether she's your wife or not, it simply doesn't matter. So absolute mayhem. And the marriage itself is quite serious, but you're allowed ten different lovers, ten, before you get married, but one more than ten, you are an immoral person. It's very relaxed and difficult to think of them as the great head-hunters and violent, wonderful warriors that they were, except that in all the longhouses, in the middle, you're sleeping under great bundles of skulls. And they were so pleased with the... my uncle, Colonel Egerton Mott, said that just for the duration of the war, it was perfectly alright to take heads again. So they'd turn up with string bags, these rattan bags, and we were often told about the great battles with the Japanese. You know, so there would be ten Japanese going upriver and 200 guys on our side, desperate to get the head. Because once you've cut the head off, you take it back and the girls pass it around and rub the blood on their crotch, round and round in a circle. And that's really exciting. It means you're a proper man. And now, you can't do that anymore. It's awful.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Vietnam, Saigon, Indonesia, Rajang River, Mahakkan, London, Borneo, James Fenton, Lieutenant-Colonel G. Egerton Mott, Roger Brook

Duration: 4 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009