Sarawak 1965-1967

Summarizing the two years in Sarawak is really daunting, in part because it was so extremely important in our personal development, and because so much 'happened' in the sense of constant novelty. One's understanding of situations didn't hold still as they were unfolding, and the intervening 40+ years has done a lot to force re-realizations too.

I remember the three months of training at Waiakea Uka (on the outskirts of Hilo, Hawaii) as interesting and challenging, but not in any way difficult. By mid-1965 Peace Corps training had become something of an industry: language teachers from the host country, technical training in skills someone imagined might be useful, propaganda sessions (the acronym was WACAS [World Affairs, Communism and Area Studies], pronounced "whack-ass" of course) to prepare us to understand political affairs we might encounter (U.S. presence in Viet Nam, etc. etc.). Of these it was the language teaching that was of any later significance. We were an odd assortment of married couples (to be trained to be 4-H organizers, although most of us were city folks), single women (medical technologists) and single men (to be "rural community development" workers). Visiting honchos and bigwigs would appear at odd intervals and announce one thing or another --after about a month we learned that we were bound for Sarawak (rather than Malaya or Sabah).

Malaysia X was small enough to be a pretty tight-knit group, though in some ways I think Betsy and I were somewhat peripheral (or so it seems as I look back at the pictures of other members and have difficulty recalling much about most of them in any personal sense). Our first real friends in the group, Dave and Henrietta Crandall, left when they became pregnant; the experience would surely have been different for us if they had gone to Sarawak too.

When Training ended in September 1965, we had 6 days of leave in Honolulu, which by then felt like a huge metropolis. And then to Malaysia, a week first in Kuala Lumpur, where it was quite clear that Sarawak was viewed as a hardship post, far away and without civilized amenities. Such was not the case, but we were quite unprepared to discover that there was a small-scale war going on in Sarawak, part of Indonesia's 'Konfrontasi' against the allegedly neocolonial state of Malaysia. First thing we saw as the airplane landed at Kuching Airport was antiaircraft guns... But it developed that the war was pretty tame, and largely conducted by patrols of Commonwealth troops which occasionally skirmished on the border with Indonesian Kalimantan. Yes, the rural Chinese had been interned in New Villages to protect them against the Clandestine Communist Organization (CCO), but really 'disloyalty' was only practised by a tiny minority.

We escaped the fate (for which we were really unqualified) of being 4-H organizers by being assigned as assistants to the Manager of Melugu Land Development Scheme, which was one of a number of government experiments in resettlement of (formerly) subsistence agriculturists from their traditional longhouse communities into single-family houses in a new village, where they were to become rubber-growing peasants. Many things about the plans for the Scheme were unfortunate, and we and our boss had little control over them. He (Apai Kumang --Arthur Thwaites) was wonderful to work for: he'd been in Sarawak for many years, and had medical training as well as experience in rural development action. Our actual work was mostly concerned with laying out the new village, deciding where to direct bulldozers to put houselots, etc.

Our Peace Corps friends in the nearby district capital of Simanggang (now Bandar Sri Aman) were teachers, and by 6 months or so after arrival we hatched a plan to make a film about two of them. Peace Corps paid for film and processing, and over a couple of months we shot and edited The PEMS Supervisor, which may have been the first film actually made in Sarawak. It was intended to be used in Peace Corps training for new Volunteers. It's an interesting document, even 45 years later, though awash with filmic naivete.

We were uncomfortable with various aspects of the Melugu assignment, and prevailed upon Peace Corps to let us become film makers full time. We moved to Kuching, got a room in the home of a Malay family in Kampong #1, and had opportunities to travel fairly widely while we worked on several different training films for Agriculture and Education departments of the Sarawak government. None were glorious productions.

Looking back on the experience, it's clear that we got much more than we gave. We learned a couple of languages (Malay in training, Iban for the work at Melugu) but truth to tell we thought we were better at them than we actually were. Or rather, I thought I was better. The immersion in a completely novel milieu taught all sorts of lessons about varieties of ways of doing things, and certainly derailed us from any conviction that American ways were inherently superior. I think our contributions to 'development' were minimal, but I developed a number of ways of seeing things that greatly influenced me in graduate school and afterwards: I saw quite clearly that physiographic regions (in Sarawak, defined by river systems) made sociocultural units, and that government-imposed infrastructure (roads, dams, schools, agricultural schemes) was altering pretty much everything in unanticipated ways. Nobody seemed to be studying these phenomena.

We never really caught up to all we missed in the 1965-1967 cultural explosion in the US. It really seemed that the lid was off of Pandora's Box, the music was different, and friends from Harvard days had tuned in and dropped out in all sorts of ways. We bought a VW and drove to Stanford, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and turning right and left at (seeming) random, emerging into a parade of freaks with Allen Ginsburg perched on the lead vehicle...

See a gallery of Sarawak photographs