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Crying Cuckoos over the Kahayan

In 2005, Umar Thamrin received a Fulbright grant and a Catherine and William L. Magistretti Graduate Fellowship for his graduate studies in the United States. He completed his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies with the designated emphasis in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016. Before returning to Indonesia in 2017, he received a one-year appointment as a research and teaching fellow at the University of Oregon.

Back in his home country, Umar became disturbed by several social conditions he encountered there, and is saddened that the common people have remained marginalized while society ignores the lessons of its history. These conditions have prompted him to think, to remember, and to write. He is currently teaching linguistics at Alauddin State Islamic University.

Umar can be reached at:



Crying Cuckoos over the Kahayan


Mawinei had just finished her studies in Yogyakarta and, after five years away from home, she yearned to return to her remote village in Central Kalimantan. She felt a deep longing for family and childhood friends who were urging her to come home.

Her intense nostalgia made her decide to take the long, arduous journey home. She took a bus from Yogyakarta to the port city Surabaya, then a ship overnight from Surabaya to Sampit Harbor in Central Kalimantan. After arriving the following day, she took a bus from the harbor to the Palangkaraya bus station, where she transferred to another bus to her village in the Gunung Mas Regency, on the banks of the Kahayan River. On the bus, Mawinei listened to the passengers talking about the spectacular opening of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta that had taken place while she was crossing the Java Sea. They said President Jokowi had delivered the welcoming speech.

At her village, everyone welcomed Mawinei’s return. She was the only woman there with a bachelor’s degree. The villagers — descendants of Borneo’s indigenous Dayak Ngaju tribe — hoped that with her education, Mawinei could improve the lives of not only her parents, but also of the entire community. The betang, a traditional Dayak longhouse now used as a village center, was decorated with janur — young, still-yellow coconut leaves — and crowded with people. Danum, Simpei, and Ekot, Mawinei’s childhood playmates, were there too.

Various traditional dishes were served. Grilled mystus fish, dressed with a lemongrass chili sauce, satisfied her longing for the special flavor of Dayak cuisine.

Mawinei excitedly joined Danum who sat with Simpei and Ekot. The four of them had a good time, sharing food and catching up.

The elders chatted and laughed loudly while passing tiny shot glasses of baram, liquor made from fermented rice water and cassava. Everyone ate and drank, while enjoying themselves.

But Mawinei sensed that something was amiss. She had been sensitive to other people’s feelings since she was a child, and now, amid this happy atmosphere, she felt a touch of anxiety lurking beneath the surface.


In the early morning after the reunion, fear gripped the village when people were awakened by Sanja’s screams. “Help! Hanjak is passing blood!” People came running to see what was happening. They found Sanja, crying and looking bewildered. Her five-year-old son lay listless on a cot.

A balian, shaman elder, was immediately called upon.

As the morning mist gradually lifted, the old man arrived with his assistant. They entered the room quietly and sat down. Leaning against the wall, the balian stood observing Hanjak to figure out the cause of the child’s bloody diarrhea. Next, he performed the traditional healing ritual, seeking help from the ancestral spirits. During the sangiang, the balian’s thin body trembled, and he appeared to be possessed by the supernatural. After he regained cognizance, the balian quietly spoke to his assistant, who rushed out from the room toward the small forest behind the house. Several men followed him.

They returned with a bag filled with special roots and leaves. Some neighbors ground the billygoat roots and leaves making a poultice to spread on Hanjak’s navel. Others brewed a tea from the spear grass and white jasmine roots for him to drink. The villagers believed that these three plants were natural remedies for treating gastric disorders.

The next morning, Hanjak looked worse. Sanja was baffled. Even though Hanjak had recovered from the diarrhea, he still had a high fever. This was unusual; the balian never failed to heal his patients.

Something else felt strange in the village. The weather had changed. The still air felt prickly. The cloudless sky was a stark blue. A plaintive cuckoo perched in the top of a shorea tree, shrieking. The ear-piercing noise frightened the villagers, who believed the bird to be a bearer of evil and death,.

By nightfall, Hanjak lay shivering, his eyes wide open in his pale face, gasping for breath. Mystified, the balian started to chant. A few moments later, Hanjak was dead. Sanja wailed inconsolably.


The day after Hanjak was buried, Danum went to visit Mawinei. Mawinei was happy to have some alone time with her best friend from elementary school days; they had been separated a long time. Mawinei had attended middle and high school in Palangkaraya, living in a boarding house nearby her school. She then had moved to Yogyakarta to attend college while Danum had stayed in the village. Her parents could not afford to provide her with a higher education. That distance had kept the two best friends from seeing each other all those years.

“How are you?” Danum grinned.

Mawinei grabbed Danum’s shoulders, then stepped back and took a good look at her friend. “Good, and you?”

“I’m good too.”

The two young women hugged each other tightly then took a seat on the porch chairs.

“It’s awfully hot, isn’t it?” Mawinei fanned her face with her hands.

“Yes, it’s abnormally hot.” Danum took a deep breath. “At first, I thought the unusually hot weather was causing villagers to get sick. But now, after what happened to Hanjak, I think we’re getting sick because the Kahayan River is so polluted.”

“The Kahayan is polluted?” Startled, Mawinei looked into Danum’s troubled eyes.

“The river we used to play in is now very dirty. The water makes you itch. The miners have been dumping their toxic waste into the river.”

“Miners?” Mawinei couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Danum nodded.

Mawinei thoughts turned to the children she had seen playing marbles. They all had scabs on their legs.

“You have a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences, right?” Danum smiled. “You can check the river water yourself.”


Their walk to the river, took Mawinei and Danum through a durian and rattan plantation owned by a shaman elder. They passed the cempedak trees, which reminded them of the sweet, creamy, durian-like fruit they had enjoyed as children, and arrived at a footpath overgrown by weedy grasses. The hillside was covered with a lush green of thriving vegetable gardens.

At the river’s edge, Mawinei halted, shocked. “Oh, my God, the water’s brown!”

“Five years ago, it was still clear,” Danum said sadly. “People say that the destruction of the peatland upstream is doing it.”

“I don’t think so,” Mawinei said, examining the riverbank. “The river water used to be crystal clear, and now it’s muddy. This is strange.”

“Do you remember how, when we were little, we sometimes drank the water straight from this river? And yet we didn’t get sick.” Danum looked at the river of her childhood, now a slimy stream of mud with sparkling oil lines on its surface.

Mawinei nodded. She remembered playing there with Simpei, Ekot, and other children at low tide, when the clean, receded water left a sloping riverbank covered with white sand ⸺ not mud.

They had a lot of fun. She remembered the day they pretended to hold a wedding there, in the light rain. Danum was Simpei’s bride. Ekot, as the village priest, was given a beard made of coconut husk and attached to his chin with jackfruit tree sap. He officiated on a sand mound they had shaped like a throne. Mawinei and another child posed as witnesses, while other children watched them, giggling. The drizzle had suddenly turned into a heavy rain. The make-believe wedding was instantly forgotten, as everyone scurried to the betang. But the slippery footpath made some of them fall on their behinds. Those who did not fall laughed at the ones who did and held their butts with a painful grimace. When they arrived at the betang, the children were scolded by their parents, and the next day, on their way to school early in the morning, some showed the red pinch marks their mothers had left on their thighs.

Mawinei smiled remembering the incident. Danum tapped Mawinei’s shoulder, and woke her from the daydream.

Mawinei scooped up a handful of river water and brought it to her nose. “It stinks!” She scowled and sniffed again. “It is polluted.” The river water looked oily from waste liquids that did not mix with the water. The heavy wind blew Mawinei’s waist-length hair across her face. She quickly tied her hair back and said, “I want to see those mines you mentioned. Let’s go there.”

“We can’t go now,” Danum said. “It’s too far upstream. We have to take a boat. Let’s go tomorrow and ask Ekot and Simpei to come with us.”


The next morning, at daybreak, the four friends gathered at the entrance of the small pier by the river. They wanted to leave early so they would have plenty of time and still get home before dark. The dawn wind was refreshing.

Lantings lined the water’s edge. The traditional stilt houses were built with sturdy Kalimantan ironwood and floated atop pilings driven deep into the riverbed. Several boats, tied to wooden poles or concrete pillars, rocked in their moorings. Several lanterns still glimmered in the boats and stilt houses, casting a hazy light on the water’s surface.

Mawinei and her friends walked along the pier to the end of the ulin-planked bridge where the boats were moored. The eastern horizon turned a bright yellow. The river water sparkled when the morning light hit its surface. The soft morning light energized the workers.

A man approached Ekot and, pointing to several ketintings docked along the river, began negotiating a price. Ekot rented one of the dugout canoes, outfitted with an engine and outriggers, that could hold up to ten people to go as far as possible upstream.

Mawinei felt happy; it had been a long time since she had sailed on the river in a ketinting. Danum also looked happy when she boarded the boat.

The engine roared. It pushed the boat forward, splitting the water into wakes. In the old days, sturdy ironwood paddles rowed ketintings to their destination. Now, technology quickly transported people from one place to another.

The helmsman sat at the back of the boat, controlling the engine. He moved the rudder to the left and right as needed, adjusting to the river’s current.

Ekot sat at the front; Simpei sat behind him; then came Mawinei and Danum.

“Do you remember when we used to swim there?” Ekot pointed to the water behind the stilt houses.

“Sure, over there, right?” Simpei pointed at the biggest stilt house.

“Yeah, right!” Ekot’s face brightened while talking about their happy childhood days.

“But you were afraid to do a backflip ⸺ chicken!” Simpei teased. “You were only brave enough to jump.”

“At least I jumped!” Ekot retorted.

“Yeah, but still, you were too much of a scaredy-cat to do a flip.” Simpei slapped Ekot’s arm.

Ekot screamed theatrically, then grinned mischievously. “Okay, I admit defeat, but who dared to swim across the river? Come on, tell me, who?”

Simpei could only nod and point at Ekot, who was indeed the most courageous swimmer in the group. The others, too afraid of being swept away by the current, only swam along the riverbank.

Like other Kalimantan children who lived by the Kahayan River, the four friends needed no one to teach them how to swim. Their ancestors never lived far from the river. When they were babies, their mothers had bathed them in the river, laying them on their backs atop the water until they quickly learned to float naturally on their own. In elementary school the children usually went home at noon, the hottest part of the day.They would plunge into the river and swim as long as they wanted, using whatever style came naturally to them. Some swam like a frog, others like a dolphin — or anything else, as long as they remained afloat and kept from drowning. Sometimes they brought a ball to throw back and forth among them. The one who caught the ball would throw it randomly, and everyone one would race to catch it.

As the river widened, its rippling water grew browner. Several boats passed them, traveling in the opposite direction. On one, a fisherman was preparing to cast his net into the river.

Both sides of the riverbank were overgrown with small groves of bamboo, coconut, and fruit trees interspersed by patches of brush and flowering rose myrtles. The fruit trees — bananas, jackfruits, durians, cluster figs and cashews — thrived in the fertile soil of Kalimantan’s peatland.

The great Kahayan River river was six hundred kilometers long, spilling from its birthplace in the Muller Mountains; it divided Palangkaraya, ran through the Pulau Pisau dan Gunung Mas Regencies in Central Kalimantan, until it emptied into the Java Sea.

Simpei lit a cigarette and took a long drag. He offered the pack of cigarettes and lighter to Ekot, who politely refused. Simpei relaxed and enjoyed the cigarette and the breeze.

The cluster fig trees that grew on the riverbanks helped prevent erosion. Their red fruits were favored by monkeys, squirrels, and birds.

The boat moved farther and farther from civilization. The stilt houses were now out of sight. Above the noise of the motor, they caught the occasional birds chirping and monkeys squealing from the forest.

Cruising under a bridge, they continued upstream. Now the scenery changed. Large areas of vegetation had been cleared away for community activities. The river water turned darker and dirtier.

“People are quick to jump on the bandwagon,” Ekot complained. “As soon as the price of rubber skyrocketed, everyone started clearing land in the forest to plant rubber. Now everyone is clearing land to plant palm trees. Privately-owned palm tree orchards aren’t that large, but when big corporations build palm tree farms, they can stretch across thousands of hectares, and the forest trees are done.”

“The price of rubber dropped a long time ago,” Simpei added. “People don’t want to tap rubber anymore. Now people are mining gold. Just look at them!” Simpei pointed at a group panning gold along a destroyed section of the riverbank that was completely void of vegetation.

The sodden land was riddled with stagnant, grimy puddles. Long, narrow sluice boxes, used to separate gravel from gold, extended far into the river. Huts that housed the miners were scattered around the diesel engine. The forceful spray of water, gushing from giant hoses, had eroded the riverbanks. At those places, the river had become shallow.

Some of the mining equipment was installed directly over the river. Just like the lanting houses, they had been built on pilings made of ironwood. A maze of pipes gouged the earth, spewing toxic waste directly into the river.

The river was not only muddy, it was contaminated by diesel fuel spilling from the engine. Rainbows of glistening oil shimmered in the sunlight, swirling on the river’s surface as the current moved them.

Engines roared ceaselessly while tearing up the riverbed in search of gold ore. To separate gold ore from gravel, the miners used mercury. The elemental metal mixed with oil and sparkled dangerously on the water’s surface. The environment was under attack.

“Now it’s obvious,” Mawinei said. “These mines are causing the sickness in our village.”

Danum nodded.

Their boat slowed. Ekot took out his camera, and began capturing pictures of the gold-mining activities. Some miners looked at them suspiciously.

“History is repeating itself.” Ekot was clearly distressed. “But now, we’re not fighting the Netherlands or Japan. Instead, we’re fighting against human greed that is destroying our habitat. And the saddest thing is that the culprits are our own people.”

“God’s gifts are priceless.” Mawinei murmured.

The boat continued upstream, and Mawinei became increasingly alarmed at the ubiquitous gold panning along the riverbanks. They passed a group of people using a set of equipment different from what they had seen earlier. The powerful dredgers and giant water pumps caused even more destruction, turning the riverbank into one giant mudhole.

“Tomorrow, I’m going to see my friend Idris,” said Ekot. “He’s involved with a non-governmental organization that advocates for environmental issues. We can’t let this continue to happen,”

“Look!” Simpei shouted. “Look what’s happening, in the hills over there!” He pointed to a barren field on the hill to their right. “That large coal mine caused this deforestation. And they’re not the only vandals! Don’t forget the corporate-owned oil palm plantations.”

Ekot’s face flushed with anger. “Worse than that, some children drowned while playing in an abandoned mine pit.”

“The one that has become a lake?” asked Simpei.

Ekot nodded.

“We can’t let all these crimes continue!” Mawinei shouted.


A few days later, Idris, Ekot, and Mawinei met with the local government official assigned to deal with mining issues. Danum and Simpei had to wait outside because only three people were allowed in the official’s room. They had brought a water sample they had taken from the river, which Mawinei had examined in a laboratory in nearby Kuala Kurun, the capital of the Gunung Mas Regency. The test results showed an unacceptably elevated level of pollution.

“Most of them are unlicensed,” the official said of the gold miners. “We can’t restrict their activities because they’re using their equipment on their own property, and they have proof of ownership.”

“Regardless, sir, they are destroying the environment, and the pollution they’re causing is impacting all of us,” Idris said, irritated. “Our lives are centered around this river, which is now making us sick.”

“The problem is that gold mining is their livelihood.” The official became indignant. “If we stop them, will you give them jobs or provide food for their families?”

“You must do something, sir,” Ekot joined in. “It’s not about allowing them to keep their jobs and feed their families; it’s about not allowing them to use dangerous toxins like mercury in their operations.”

“Please don’t wait until we have fatalities, sir.” Mawinei added, obviously upset. “Many villagers are suffering — and dying — from strange illnesses.” She handed the official a piece of paper with signed complaints from people in her village.

Ekot gave him the photos he took that evidenced the destruction caused by the mining activities.

Idris presented the lab results from the river water tests.

As the official carefully read thorough the documentation, he frowned. He was holding sufficient evidence of a potentially deadly situation. He looked up slowly. “Please give us time,” he said. “We will take action. Immediately.”


A month after the meeting, the unlicensed mines were prohibited from continuing their operations. All materials that contained mercury was confiscated. Even so, many other mines still operated. A big mining company, with the backing of powerful people, retained lawyers to dispute the reports Idris had presented. This stymied the local government officials.

“At least we tried, and the pollution of this river has been reduced,” said Mawinei, trying to calm Idris who still couldn’t accept their setback.

Danum sighed and looked anxiously into the distance.

Simpei took a long drag on his cigarette.

“Big mining companies, especially coal companies, are nearly unstoppable because they generate huge revenue for the government,” said Ekot.

“So we still have a long way to go, my friend.” Mawinei ’s words were greeted by nods from her friends.

“Yes!” they cheered. “And we won’t give up easily!”









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