Tribe is a BBC documentary series that charts explorer Bruce Parry’s life spending time with indigenous tribes of people across the globe. It is an anthropological study to see how the people live and how they are coping with an ever changing world.
Bruce Parry believes that the only way to get to know a tribe is to actually live with them. He spent a month with a family from the Penan Tribe. Only 200 of this tribe are left and they are nomadic people, living in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo. They are hunter gatherers and depend on the forest for their home, food, washing and drink water and medicines.
The Sarawak Government had given licences for about 70% of the forest to be logged (trees felled) and this was affecting the livelihood of the Penan. The Government were particularly sensitive about the filming of the Penan and Bruce entered the area under cover and in the hours of darkness. He was instantly accepted by the tribe as they thought he would change matters for them and they trusted the British. The Sarawak was once under British rule and looked after the Penan, and the people were glad to see that the British were back.
Bruce was taken in by a small family and he found out :
• how they ate fruit from the forest and prepared sago flour from mashing the pith of sago trees;
• how they constructed a new camp from tarpaulin and trees;
• how they tapped into a poison tree and take the latex without putting themselves at danger of being poisoned (the poison was placed on darts which were fired from blow pipes to hunt small animals such as squirrels and birds).
Bruce learned that the Penan are kind and gentle and have values around equality and acting as a team. Everyone worked together and there was no strong hierarchy or assignment of roles (people used their skills). When two wild boar were hunted, the meat was equally shared between the families and Bruce and his crew, with meticulous attention to ensure that all portions were the same. The Penan had their pets – dogs, cats, a monkey, a large bird, chickens and a rodent. Although natural hunters, they explained that their pets were not wild animals and would not kill them for food.
Bruce also learned the effect that the logging of trees was having on the Penan. The upper canopies of trees had largely gone, giving way to a secondary set of trees and a different micro-climate. Former clean streams were now muddy and could not be used for washing or drinking. Trees were logged, the land was stripped and burned and Acacia trees and Palms were planted. This was in response to the demand for palm oil (50% of palm oil comes from Malaysia).
During his 4 weeks with the tribe, Bruce had a visit from Penan elders (who had walked all day to meet him). They explained the effect of the logging on their life and asked him for advice on what to do. They said that the British had looked after them in the past. Although generally calm, the Penan became particularly passionate when talking about their forest.
On his last night, Bruce asked the tribe what it was that they wanted and the responses were focussed on being able to live freely on the forest. They were in favour of progress, but chopping down trees was not progress.
Tribe was a fascinating programme and showed how similar the Penan were to ourselves in their attitudes and beliefs. It left you wanting to help the Penan in obtaining full rights to live in the forest, but a little frustrated in not knowing how to help.