Writing Without Words – A Lesson in Communication from Tribes in Borneo

I’m wide eyed, nervous, and alone for six weeks in a remote jungle village where only two tribal inhabitants speak fluent English.

I stand opposite Richard Jengan. Between us are two upright sticks and a pile of leaves, which Richard organises in a ‘V’ shape as diligently as if this is an arrangement of flowers. He points at the layout. ‘We’ve gone that way. You wait here,’ he says. He touches a small twig which rests horizontally on one of the sticks. ‘It means they’re coming back.’ I’m shocked but intrigued, and if the word tribe didn’t conjure in my mind an expectation for mystique and unexpected discoveries, perhaps I wouldn’t have believed it: this simple layout of wood and plants translates into a sentence. I’ve just been taught an ancient, fading language known as Oroo’.

Richard in 2010

A Nomad’s Life

A few days ago, I made my way from London to Kuala Lumpur, and on to Miri, in Borneo. I watched from the window of the sixteen-seater plane that left Miri as the dusty yellow logging road wound through northwest Borneo and halted at Long Banga. We landed in a concreted zone a little smaller than a football pitch.

Runway – 2010
Long Banga’s Airport in 2010. The building was very similar in 2016 as well.
The logging road between Miri and Long Banga

Reaching Long Lamai from Long Banga is a one to two-hour longboat journey or hike through the jungle to the source of the Baram river. If the water level is high, it’s a fast and exciting ride. If it’s too low, it’s a stone bumping, rock pushing, occasionally grounded kind of hard work for the local people.

Arriving in the village, I clamber up the small muddy slope and shake hands with the locals. Around one hundred families live in a mix of traditional wooden longhouses and detached cottages on stilts. From a nearby path in the jungle, Long Lamai looks like a pocket of colourful houses, swarmed by never-ending forest. Inside the village, spacious car-free routes snake left and right between houses. Men wander home at sunrise with dead wild boars on their shoulders and blowpipes in their hands. Women return from long walks with collections of pineapples, tapioca, fern, and fish. Children attend the village school, while their older siblings discover the solar-powered internet room in which they sign up to Facebook.

How to Say Hello

As time goes on, I’m faced with a difficulty: How do I communicate with people from a vastly different culture? It’s fitting that I can’t use my voice. I start using my hands, partly out of desperation. I feel successful when it works, but it’s a shame I’m not able to employ a more efficient system, perhaps one that uses cleverly laid out sticks.

The History of Oroo’

Traditionally, the nomadic Penan were victims of headhunting, a gruesome practice discouraged by Australian missionaries and outlawed by European colonial powers in the 1920s. The practice was temporarily reintroduced in the tribal Kelabit area of Bario in the 1940s by allied paratroopers to scare the Japanese. Thankfully, the Penan are not known to have had to bear the brunt of headhunting since it was outlawed. In those days, tribal families would attempt to warn others of the dangers of nearby headhunters without tipping off the perpetrators. To do so, they would plant sticks in various forms. 

Richard demonstrates eight different stick formations. One of my favourites consists of two long sticks, each planted in the ground about a metre apart. Rattan, a malleable climbing plant, is tied between them to look like a bridge. A twig in a fork shape is tied halfway up one of the sticks. That tells passers-by that the sign-maker is a friend. The rest of the sign tells us that our friend is taking the other path, not the one we’re currently on. We should follow or wait here for them to return.

Another two sentences are translated from a stick, taller than me, planted in the ground with two leaves attached in different places. If one of the leaves is brown and the other is green, the sign means, ‘I’m hungry. I’m going to the old house [brown leaf] to eat and boil some water [green leaf].’

Every layout tells a small story, but the need for this language is fading. The knowledge of it is maintained by village elders and the efforts of university researchers to ensure it is digitised. Today only one sign commonly remains in use: ‘Danger.’ This is often placed near a site of deadwood, warning passers-by that there is a risk of falling trees.


The Penan believe that they are the only tribe to use this language, which is why it worked when they were headhunted. Even today, we can learn from these tribal cultures. As human beings in a busy society, we live with endless choice in our means of communication, yet we frequently find ourselves misunderstood. Our written messages cause mishaps in our daily lives, and our verbal efforts still sometimes fail to fix these errors. In contrast, here is a nomadic tribe that has survived and successfully passed on messages to those who are miles out of sight and too far to be heard. Despite living in the treacherous environment that the wild jungle often ensures, their communication works – and all it takes are sticks and leaves.

Getting There

Direct flights to Kuala Lumpur International Airport from London start from £500 with Malaysia Airlines. The journey time is just under 13 hours. Non-direct flights are often cheaper. From Kuala Lumpur to Miri, flights start at £72 with Air Asia.

From Miri to Long Banga, MasWings operate a 1 hour 25 minute flight, which stops briefly in Marudi and costs £19 (103 MYR). These flights are popular with local people and require booking in advance.

Getting Around

There are currently no known tour providers operating inside Long Lamai. However, in agreement with the local people, longboat transport and accommodation can be booked via Adventures, Planned. Please email me at louise.sopher[at]theadventuresplanned.com

Itineraries for Long Lamai are coming soon

Activities in Long Banga can be booked via www.friendsofborneo.org/heart_of_borneo_long_banga.html

Further Information

More information on the preservation of the language can be viewed in a video produced by staff and students at the University of Malaysia: https://youtu.be/8h0-_pDZUrI

This story is based on one which I published in 2010 as part of a collection of stories told by the people of Long Lamai. The book is still available to purchase in black and white, colour, and eBook formats here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/louisesopher and all proceeds go to the tribe. Some facts have been added above, including the University of Malaysia’s digitisation of the language.

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