The main road leading to Kudat in North Borneo is dotted with dogs: stray dogs, wandering dogs, dogs that belong to nearby farmers, all in danger of being hit by a car doing nothing guiltier than driving.
Amidst the dogs off to the left a muddy road climbs a hill and cuts through a few trees until it reaches a simple house in a hot, humid clearing which I’ll be calling home for the next few days.
The house is one of several dozen making up the Misompuru Homestay, a modest home but one that made me feel amazingly welcome, as a homestay should.
A homestay, as I was to learn, is much more than a room and a few meals: it is a slice of someone else’s life, one I would never have discovered had I stayed in a hotel or B&B.
But first, let me introduce you to Inuliah Itam, the lady of the house, who would be feeding me and allowing me to share her family’s life for the next few days.
My Misompuru Homestay experience
I would divide my homestay adventure – to me it is an adventure – into two parts: what happens inside the house, and what happens outside.
Inside the house, a lot centers around food, which is cooked with local products the family grows on its land: rice, plenty of green vegetables I didn’t know, fish of course with the sea nearby, and chicken. None of it was particularly spicy but it was delicious, and it was filling.
In the spaces allotted between meals, the extended family – they brought in cousins, brothers, sisters, grandparents – showed off some of their cultural skills. In this part of the world dancing ranks high, with girls as young as five being trained part-time for the future. This ensures dancing traditions are not lost while providing the dancers, their families and the community with income.
Here is a little taste of that dancing if you’re curious.
Outside the house, there’s even more to do.
Some of the activities homestayers get involved in include cooking dinner with the family, going fishing, fruit picking, crab catching, rubber tapping, volunteering to help with building and forest conservation… Or visiting caves and cruising along rivers or enjoying water sports. Sabah’s efforts to become a world-class ecotourism destination make it easy to find something to do out of doors, and in nature.
Each homestay has its own focus and since mine concentrated on culture, I visited a ‘factory village’ – an entire village dedicated to making gongs: big, fat, musical, glorious gongs, many made by women.
It’s not just about gongs, but about disappearing culture. Like most indigenous groups, the Rungus watched their culture fritter away as the young and jobless headed to the cities, leaving only the elderly behind. With no one to carry on age-old traditions and pass on knowledge, the tribe’s extinction was almost guaranteed.
Jeffry Ayah, a young Rungus man with a dream, decided to do something about it.
Nicknamed Cobra, a name he picked up along the way but can’t quite explain, he has transformed the homestay experience in North Borneo into a veritable cultural survival movement. (Under the British, Sabah was known as North Borneo; the name somehow sticks.)
“The idea is to generate income for local people and to provide jobs so young people stay. It is also an important way of keeping traditions alive,” explained Jeffry, who is President of the Sabah Homestay Association.
And it seems to be working.
What’s special about the Sabah Homestay program is its non-profit approach – actually, there is a profit but it’s returned to locals, with much of it reinvested in the community.
It’s (not) all about the money
While Sabah’s homestays are providing much-needed income to poor families, it’s not just about the money.
“More and more young people are staying in the villages rather than going to the city, and they are finding jobs on the homestays,” Cobra said. “About 1000 people are involved in the homestays in one way or another.”
It’s not only about jobs, either, but about revitalizing a culture and ensuring its sustainability. In a region whose population was once mostly indigenous, the constant influx of Malaysians from the mainland and immigrants from neighboring countries have strained the social fabric of tribal communities.
Anne Lasimbang is the Executive Director of PACOS, an organization that raises awareness about indigenous issues and rights. We spent some time chatting in Kota Kinabalu and she felt the homestay program and many other efforts to preserve Sabah’s culture and environment were all sorely needed.
“A divide has been created here over the years,” she said. “What with the brain drain of young people, environmental damage and the erosion of indigenous culture, our worldview and our knowledge was severely under threat.”
Anne herself has an indigenous background but like many Sabahans, her own extended family is a mixture of cultures and she is acutely aware of how easily culture can be lost.
The longhouse, a central element of Sabahan culture
One aspect of Rungus culture being given a reprieve is the traditional longhouse. While most longhouses accessible to travelers are new, a few old ones have been refurbished and some are still lived in. Traditionally entire families live together in rooms leading off from a main hallway. Several dozen families could live in a longhouse, and there are even rumors of longhouses for 100 families.
Most private life took place behind the doors (below, left) while more public interchanges happened on the open terrace (along the right side). An entire family lived in a room, although girls reaching puberty were usually separated from the rest.
Most rural Rungus families won’t speak English, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying each other’s company and when he was there, Cobra translated.
My own host family, Jonuring and Inuliah, were humble and lovely, apologizing profusely for the simplicity of the accommodation and for the absence of hot water.
Had I been desperate for a hot shower after a day of sightseeing, I knew I’d have access to one in a day or two.
My Rungus hosts, on the other hand, will make do with cold water, just as they always have.
If getting to know the less public side of Sabah is appealing, a homestay will unwrap it for you.
And if you’re going to Misompuru, please try to avoid the dogs lying in wait for you along the road.
Things you should know
- A homestay can be quite primitive (mine wasn’t) or relatively luxurious (mine wasn’t either). It will be comfortable enough and have the basic conveniences, but don’t expect the privacy or luxury of a hotel. On the contrary you’ll be surrounded by people, and you’ll make new friends.
- Fancy a Sabah homestay? Check out the many possibilities throughout Sabah. Remember homestays are often simple places so come equipped at least with your own towel.
- You can book at Misompuru by contacting Jeffry aka Cobra: cobramisompuru [at] live.com.
- Find out more about Sabah’s indigenous people by visiting the PACOS Trust website.