Read CHAPTER V of Children of Borneo , free online book, by Edwin Herbert Gomes, on


The Dyaks are industrious and hard-working, and in the busy times of paddy planting they work from early in the morning till dusk, only stopping for a meal at midday. The division of labour between the men and the women is a very reasonable one, and the women do their fair share of work. The men do the timber-felling, wood-cutting, clearing the land, house and boat building, and the heavier work generally. The women help in the lighter part of the farm work, husk and pound the rice they eat, cook, weave, make mats and baskets, fetch the water for their daily use from the well or river, and attend to the children.

With regard to paddy planting on the hills, the work is divided between the men and women in the following manner. The men cut down the jungle where the paddy is to be planted. When the timber and shrubs have been burnt, the men and women plant the grain. The roots and stumps of trees are left in the ground. The men walk in front with a long heavy staff in the right hand of each, and make holes in the ground, about a foot apart. The women walk behind them and throw a few grains of seed in each hole.

When the paddy has grown a little, the ground has to be carefully weeded; this work is done by the women. When the crop is ripe, both men and women do the reaping. They walk between the rows of standing grain, and with a sharp, oddly-shaped little knife, they cut off the heads one by one, and place them in their baskets which are tied to their waists in front of them. The carrying home of the paddy thus reaped is mostly done by the men, who can carry very heavy loads on their back, though the women help in this work to some extent. The next thing is to separate the grain from the little tiny stems to which it is still attached. This is done by the men. The grain is placed on a large square sieve of rattan or cane, fixed between four posts in the verandah of the Dyak house, and the men tread on it and press it through the sieve. The paddy that falls through is taken and stored in the loft in large round bins made of bark.

When rice is wanted for food, the paddy is dried in the sun, and then pounded by the women in wooden mortars with pestles five feet long. As a rule two or three women each use their pestles at one mortar, which is cut out of the trunk of a tree. I have seen as many as six girls use their pestles in quick succession at one mortar. In this way the grain is freed from husk, and is made ready for food.

The Dyak marries at an early age, and lives in a long village house with many other families, and does his best to get as much paddy as possible each year. He rises on work-days early in the morning, partakes of his frugal meal of rice and salt, or rice and fish, varied by a piece of wild pork or venison, which he may have received as a gift or bought from some hunting friend. His wife wraps up his midday meal for him in the spathe of a Pinang palm, and he goes to his work of cutting down the jungle for planting, returning home in the evening.

There are days when he does not go to work on his paddy farm, but spends his time in getting firewood, or mending things in his room, or in sitting about in the common verandah chatting with his friends.

When the paddy is planted and has grown a little, and the time of weeding draws near, the family remove to the little hut put up in the paddy farm. When the weeding is done, the family return to the long Dyak house and remain there for about two months. Then they go back to their hut to watch the ripening paddy, and guard it against attacks of birds and beasts.

Paddy planting is the chief occupation of every Dyak, but he has plenty of time for other things, and his life is not quite so monotonous as may be supposed. The actual work of paddy planting, and everything connected with it, such as the building of farm huts, and the getting ready of farming implements, takes up seven or perhaps eight months of the year. The Dyak has therefore a certain amount of time during which he can visit his friends, make boats, or earn a little extra money by hunting for such jungle produce as canes, gutta, or camphor.

The ordinary boats of the Dyaks are cut out of a single log. Some of my schoolboys, under the guidance of the native schoolmaster, once made a small canoe for their own use, so I saw the whole process. A tree having a long straight stem was felled, and the desired length of trunk cut off. The outside was then shaped to take the desired form of the canoe. Then the inside was hollowed out. The next thing to do was to widen the inside of this canoe. This was done by filling the boat with water and making a fire under it, and by fastening large stone weights on each side. When the shell had been sufficiently opened out, thwarts were placed inside, about two feet from each other, to prevent the boat getting out of shape when the wood dried. The stem and stern of the canoe are alike, both being curved and pointed, and rising out of the water.

This is the usual type of Dyak boat, and the method of making a smaller or larger canoe is exactly the same. Even a war-boat, ninety feet long, is made from the trunk of one tree. In the longer boats planks or gunwales are stitched on the sides, and the seams are caulked, so as to render the boat water-tight.

The only tool used for making a Dyak boat of this kind is the Dyak axe or adze (bliong). This is a most excellent tool, and is forged of European steel, which they procure in bars. In shape it is like a small spade, about two and a half inches wide, with a square shank. This is set in a thin handle of hard wood, at the end of which there is a woven pocket of cane to receive it. The lower end of this handle has a piece of light wood fixed to it to form a firm grip for the hand. The bliong can be fixed in the handle at any angle, and is therefore used as an axe or adze. With it the Dyaks can cut down a great forest tree in a very short time, and it is used for cutting planks and doing their carpentering work.

While the work of the men is to build houses and to make boats, the work of the women is to weave cloth and make mats and baskets. The women plant their own cotton, beat it out with small sticks, and by means of a spinning-wheel make their own yarn. This yarn is not so fine as that of English manufacture, but it is stronger and keeps its colour well. At the present time, however, a great deal of the cloth woven by the Dyaks is done with yarn of English make. The warp is arranged in the loom, and the weaver sits on the floor and uses her hands and feet, the latter working the treadles. The threads of the woof are then passed backwards and forwards. The work is very slow, and Dyak weaving very tedious. They use vegetable dyes, and the women blend the colours in a pleasing manner, though there is a great sameness in the designs. The cloth they make is particularly strong and serviceable.

Mats are made either with split cane or from the outer bark of reeds. The women are very clever at plaiting, and some of their mats are very fine in texture. They also make baskets of different shapes and sizes, some of which have coloured designs worked into them.