Midweek Reflections #10: John Wan Usang

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Inu denga kem Tuyang? (How are you doing my friends?)

My name is John Wan Usang, the other co-founder of The Tuyang Initiative. I belong to a community known as Kenyah from central Borneo, one of the many indigenous groups spread throughout the Island of Borneo. 

I was born and raised as a child in Long San, Upper Baram, Sarawak. In pursuit of early education, I went to study in boarding schools in larger towns like Long Lama, Marudi and Miri for my lower and upper secondary education. These towns were only accessible by boats and motor launches then as there were no road access. One way journey might easily take 2 -3 days! I completed my formal education when I graduated from a local university in 1979.

I served a stint with the Education Department before I took a job with the National Oil & Gas Corporation, under its downstream business operation. It gave me and my family the opportunity to travel and be based in various parts of the country including Sabah, Sarawak and West Malaysia.

Not long after my retirement, Juvita – my Daughter and Business Partner conceptualized the idea of The Tuyang Initiative, while she still working in a large corporate organisation at the time.

This was a way for us to give back to the people of smaller, fragile communities such as the one which I was born and raised in. We both share the vision of promoting the livelihood of indigenous communities through Arts and Culture – effectively celebrating and protecting the continuation of indigenous heritage throughout Sarawak, and the world.

The Tuyang Initiative faces challenges of competing in a free market, whilst at the same time operating as a social enterprise. Not just meeting revenue targets, but also hitting social impact targets. 

With the disruption caused by this unprecedented pandemic, many of our planned programs for this year have been put on hold or postponed, so our revenue generation has been greatly impacted. We’ve had to pivot our strategy and focus on particular revenue streams. With the gradual easing of restrictions and hopefully, with some assistance from industry partners and relevant organizations, we will be back in full swing by the end of 2020 as we finalize preparations for next year, which we hope will be a big year for us. Lots of projects involving many collaborators. 

I’d like to address the rest of this writing to the youth Dayak population of Sarawak;

Please understand how important our culture is.

It serves as a backdrop of who we are, and why we are. They remind us of the importance of values of family, community, and respect.

Celebrating other people’s cultures is a great thing, but only celebrating other cultures is how we lose confidence in our own people and ourselves. As we, the indigenous people of this land continue our urban migration for job and income opportunities, we face an ever gradual disconnection from our roots. As the current generation assimilates to a new way of life in the bigger cities, this disconnection rate increases. 

Fast forward 50 years or so, we’re now staring at the loss of our generational identity right in our faces. We need to remind ourselves that our culture and tradition is unique on this planet, as we are unique on this planet. It is a source of strength, a source of expression and keeps us in check when we stray.

We can fight our cultural deterioration by taking an interest, investigating and documenting – and ultimately appreciating and protecting it. For your children and your children’s children.

In turn, your children will grow up and be proud of their indigenous lineage, and the sources of value that it provides.

Do not forget that you are the current tellers of our story. 

The first step is engaging our elders from our communities. They are the last repositories of our culture, tradition and history – and will not be around forever. No one else is going to absorb the customs or traditions and teach your children and grandchildren, except for you. 

Through the various efforts that we are engaging in, we hope to close the widening gap, and hopefully both restore, as well as protect our cultural identity. If you feel a passion for this cause and want to join us on this journey – please do.

That is all from me and I hope we will always bear in mind that, without roots, trees cannot stand. 

Tiga tawai (Thank you).

John Wan Usang

p/s: If you did not know, “Tuyang” means friend in the Kenyah language.

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