Podium

If it works in Borneo, why not here?

Robert B. McClure August 25 1980
Podium

If it works in Borneo, why not here?

Robert B. McClure August 25 1980

If it works in Borneo, why not here?

Podium

Robert B. McClure

'We Canadians know so little about high density living’

One of the great changes in Canada I’ve noticed in the past 50 years has been the increase in high-density living. We think of our past in terms of The Little House on the Prairie, but actually about 50 per cent of Canadians living in cities now make their homes in “multiple-unit dwellings”—high-rise apartments and townhouses. And urban planners predict that by 1985, 85 per cent of us will be living this way.

When I was 15, in 1915, my family moved to Toronto from China and from 1938 until 1960 my wife, children and I lived in a detached house in north Toronto. We knew our neighbors. Our kids all went to the same schools. We were part of a community. We were happy. Since returning to Canada from abroad to retire in 1968, my wife and I have lived in highrise apartments. We don’t dislike it but it is so different from the atmosphere of the old house in north Toronto. We don’t feel part of a community at all. In many ways, to tell the truth, it falls far short of living in 100per-cent happiness.

This doesn’t really surprise me. It’s understandable. We Canadians know so little about high-density living.

We’ve been at it for such a short time.

When I was a student at college, I worked on a farm one summer. I had a motorbike and the farmer said that was just as well because otherwise I might feel lonely. There was just his farm on this side of the road, a cousin’s across the road and two km up at the crossroads there was a little store and a gas pump. Today that is part of Brampton, Ont., pop. 129,000.

In thinking about high-density living and how it could be improved in quality, it seems to me natural and scientific to look at other societies that have lived that way for centuries and appear to have a pleasant existence. My wife and I lived in one such society from 1971 to 1974 in Sarawak, North Borneo.

In the Sarawak countryside there live the people of the Iban tribe, and similar tribes, 1.5 million of them. They live in longhouses. They can’t remember a time when they lived in separate dwellings. A longhouse may be anything from 10 to 30 family units side by side. They seemed to us a very happy people. What was their secret, we wondered, living as they did in those pressed-together circumstances?

A longhouse is simply a high-rise on its side, propped up on piles to keep it out of the water during the rains. The flooring is of one-slat-on-one-slat-off split bamboo. This makes for easy cleaning—you just swipe your foot sideways and everything falls down below where the pigs and chickens live. When a couple marries, the others get together and build an addition at the end of the longhouse in one day. All the apartments are the same depth front to back, about five metres. In front of each is an uncovered porch about five metres deep and perfectly lined up with those on either side. These porches make a “deck” that runs

the length of the longhouse. Back of this is a similar but covered porch section. Then comes the “family room,” about four metres by five metres with wooden partitions three metres high and a door in the front for privacy. Back of that is a kitchen and a storage space for firewood and food. The apartment houses parents and children until puberty when the boys sleep on the covered veranda and the girls in the attic above the living room.

Within the apartment there’s complete privacy. Individuality has full scope. My wife and I discovered there to be three simple “rules” that allowed the tribal people to live pleasantly and peacefully: tremendous mutual support, nonviolence and non-covetousness.

A mother and father would bring their sick baby two days downriver by canoe to our hospital. They would stay around even when we kept the baby as long as a month. I would ask, “Mamma, what’s happening to the children at home?” She would say, “We are Ibans and our neighbors are looking after them. Next month my neighbor will come for her hysterectomy and I’ll look after her kids.” If a man breaks his leg and cannot work his fields, his neighbors take care of them until the leg has healed.

Nonviolence is another essential. At about 10 years of age every boy and girl is given a machete some 50 cm long. An Iban carries it for the rest of his or her life. On the trail it is ready at their side. Shopping in town the woman carries hers stuck down between her spine and her little backpack with a handle at the back of her head like a hair ornament. The “parang” is often taken to bed because of snakes. The knife is essential to cut vines on the trail, split kindling or hollow out the keel of a canoe. There were many accidents, but in my time I never saw a cut made in anger. Everyone wears this tool that can kill, but self-control is taught at the mother’s breast. I never saw children scrapping, never heard of adults fighting. The tribe would have exterminated itself many years ago if it had not learned nonviolence.

Finally, the Ibans don’t steal. Not because they might get caught and punished, but because they have, down through the ages, learned not to covet. It’s just not in them anymore. Perhaps Moses had something when he carved the Tenth Commandment in stone, “Thou shalt not covet . . . that the days may be long in the land the Lord gives you.”

Of course, now the question is: how to persuade a Canadian high-density community to adopt these simple rules of the Iban lifestyle? I fear I haven’t the foggiest notion. They are basic, they are obvious even. I suppose it’s a matter of many individuals in still moments concluding they would do well to do so.

Robert B. McClure is a missionary-surgeon and a former moderator of the United Church.