Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Autobiography - Introduction

I first thought that an actual autobiography would be good reading for my children and grandchildren but it seems that a blog will do as well. I can edit add whatever comes to my mind as I go along.

I was born in Kg. Kelerek, Jajahan Tanjung Pauh, Bachok, Kelantan. It is interesting to see the word "jajahan", which means acquired or conquered territory. Even during the doa after the sermons (khutbah) of the Friday prayers in Johor, the words "...jajahan takluknya" are still used. Well, Johor did pretty well during its heyday of the Johor Empire, with ruled territories including Pahang, the Bangka Islands and Riau in Sumatera. But Kelantan? The state was under perpetual subjugation of Thailand - together with Kedah and Trengganu, sending out the "Bunga Emas"(Golden Flowers) to Bangkok annually.

I was not exclusively raised in Kelantan - I am not even sure I was conceived in Kelantan! This is due to the fact that during this period my late father, Haji Mohamed bin Mat Saman, was in the process of acquiring some agricultural lands in the state of Kedah. It seems that during his travels to the state during the rice-harvesting season, he was told that there were jungle lands in the interior that were up for grabs. During those days (and even nowadays), the Kelantanese need to get out of the state to acquire wealth. They might not starve but they were dearth of cash. So the men especially the young ones, traveled to Kedah during the rice-harvesting season, which was usually around 2 months of so, depending on ripening of the rice, which might be different in various parts of the state. After the harvest some stayed on, doing odd jobs especially working for pay falling timber and sawing the logs into planks. Mechanical sawmills were rare in the 1950s and 60s.

My father finally settled in a remote village in the district of Padang Terap, in north-eastern Kedah by the name of Kampung (village in Malay) Kubang Juluk. "Kubang" is a Malay word for wallow i.e. like buffalo wallow it also can mean a pond. "Juluk" is a shortened version of the work "jejuluk" a kind of grass. Actually there is such a pond or a rice field at the end of the village but I never saw any jejuluk grass in it.

All the good land near or besides the sluggish Sungai Tekai (sungai - river), a tributary of Sg. Padang Terap, were spoken for by the early settlers. The land besides the river is flooded during the monsoon but it is also the land where you can grow fruit trees such as the durians, mangosteens, rambutans and other tropical fruits. The dry season in this part of northern Kedah tends to be long and harsh, some time up to three months or more. The weather is similar to the season of southern Thailand than other parts of Peninsular Malaysia. Therefore, to have a piece of land near a water course is a boon. Even coconut trees grown far from a water course wither and die during the dry season.

The river also a source of water supply and place for taking baths and washing your laundry. Other sources of water a bit further inland are from two tube-wells build by the government. These tube well served around 10 to 15 families nearby. One is dubbed "telaga hilir" (the Northern Well), while the other is called "telaga hulu" (the Southern Well). Our family relied on the "telaga hulu".

My father, Haji Mohamed Mat Saman managed to secure a piece of land to built a house for my Mom, Hajjah Siti Liah Binti Yaacob, his new bride. He married her after he converted some virgin jungle into hill rice fields (huma). These lands are mostly hilly lands shunned by the locals during those days. To them these hilly lands were only good for hunting the mousedeer (pelanduk or kancil) or other wild animals, not for agricultural purposes. Later, my father planted rubber seedlings between the rice bunches. The process is time consuming and labor intensive. Some of the trees he felled were so huge that he needed to built platforms (sigai) on the upper trunk instead of chopping the trees at the buttress level, which had a wider girth. Fire and time slowly reduced the buttresses bulk.

He also dug wet rice paddies at the narrow valleys between the low hills. These rice paddies became larger through time especially when he could hire a "brozo" (bulldozer) to do the job instead of using the "cangkol" (hoe), which is a backbreaking job.

Our first house was built on the piece of land no other villager wanted due to its location besides a creek that flows into Sungai Tekai, therefore the land tend to flood occasionally. But my father's choice was due to its location with one of the two tube wells (Telaga Hulu) only 40 meters away. He did not want himself and my mother have to walk a long distance for to take baths and carry water for the kitchen. Later the children (actual more of myself and my younger brother, Aziz) thanked my father for that right decision.

The house, which was on stilts was made of locally acquired lumber with thatch from the sago or rumbia palm and weaved hill-palm fronds for the roof. The one-room house dimension is approximately 20 x 10 meters, with a section about 30 cm lower than the other. The upper part was used receiving guests, sleeping etc while the further end of the lower section used as our kitchen and dining area. There was also an unroofed but stilted section before the front door, which has a large container of water (tempayan) for washing our feet before entering the house. Malays call this jemuran as it is used for drying unhusked rice etc. The house was built with the upper part 1.5 meter above the ground. Under the house some farm materials were stored and occasionally our cows used it as a shed.

That was our family first house as I remembered it. When we had problems with mosquitoes (which were often), my father burned some dry cow dungs under the house. It would get rid of the mosquitoes but we also had problems breathing and our eyes would water as well as problems getting some sleep!

Poverty was the rule of the day in the village. Some of the original families of Kg. Kubang Juluk were land rich and their houses were also larger than ours but we basically ate the same kind of food. The village had no electricity, no water supply, no telephone lines and no plumbing. These basic facilities of the modern world only came some time in late-80s. I am not sure which one came first as I was studying in Iowa then. Maybe it was electricity, followed by water supply and later the phone line. I have to ask my Mom or my brothers to confirm (my brother Aziz confirmed that electricity came first).

The two-kilometer dirt road to Naka was without good drainage, therefore the road was muddy during the rainy season and dusty when the dry season set in. I always make a joke how we kids were "worn" by the shoes during the wet season - we carried the school shoes strung with the laces across our neck and to be worn only we passed the last mud hole and when we found the closest well to wash our feet.

When I mentioned poverty, I always remember the relative scarcity of food during my childhood. For breakfast we ate boiled tapioca or sweet potato. Occasionally we ate "pulut" (sticky rice) with salted, grated coconut plus dried fish (ikan tamban teleng). My late father preferred the "pulut" before a day of heavy labor. As he said, "it stick to your ribs". Lunch was always boiled rice with a dish of fish (fresh or dried or pickled). We ate raw vegetables with chilli paste (sambal) or the Kelantanese version of fish sauce (budu), which is similar to the Thai's nam phla or the Vietnamese nguoc man. My parents still being Kelantanese by cooking Kelantanese recipes. Instead of cooking just the Mamak-style "karipulai"-tinged scomber (kembong) fish curry, which is preferred by my brother Aziz, my Mom cooked the turmeric-based "gulai kuning Kelantan" preferred by my father. I ate both kinds of curries with relish :-)

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Gunung Ledang, 21 February 2010

Gunung Ledang, 21 February 2010
On the Peak of Gunung Ledang after the MNSJ Strategic Planning

Malaysian Nature Society, Johor Branch


I am the present Chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society, Johor Branch (MNSJ) (2010-11) and was duly elected as the President of the Malaysian Nature Society at the 63rd AGM at Taman Rimba Lagenda Ledang, Tangkak on 25th Sept. 2010. It is MNSJ's standing policy to engage directly with the relevant Federal and State agencies/departments on issues related to Nature and the Environment. This non-hostile approach is more effective than the hostile "in your face" attitude but we would have our say if necessary.


About Me

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Skudai, Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia
I am an academician in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia situated in the southern state of Johor, Peninsular Malaysia. My fields of expertise are watershed management, water quality and water quality modeling. I did my B. Sc. and M. Sc. at the University of Iowa (1978 - 83) and worked for the Department of Environment (DOE) until 1990, when I joined UTM and later did my PhD in Watershed Science at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado. I was the Chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Johor from 2006 - 2011. I was the President of the MNS from 2010 to 2014.