Encountering Others: An alternative perspective

My blog site is called Continually Learning, and this summer I have been doing a lot of learning! I’ve been reflecting on what it means to encounter others. Encountering others is a theme in my soon to be submitted PhD so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around this for some time (well seven years!). However, this perspective is a little different.

We were lucky enough to go to Borneo for a three-week holiday. As part of this holiday we spent two nights in Iban Longhouses in Sarawak. When we booked the holiday, we had the option of visiting a longhouse for a morning, but decided we wanted to really experience life amongst the Iban people so opted to stay in a very traditional longhouse overnight, camp in the jungle and then stay in modern longhouse for a third night. It surprised us that very few people opt to do this. It used to be fairly popular, in the past backpackers would just turn up at longhouses and be welcomed and provided with a bed for the night. This is rare today, in fact our guides had not led the experience we opted for, for three years.


The Traditional Iban Longhouse we stayed in.

So why was this encounter so special?

Firstly, we were welcomed into the heart of the Iban home.

We cooked in their kitchen, we ate at their table, we slept in their lounge. In the second longhouse in particular we had got to know the tribesman as he had been one of our boatman as we travelled into the jungle. He opened his home to us, we drank rice wine with his family, we prepared food and shared stories. However, this sense of welcome is for all. We saw people from different families continually going in and out of each other’s homes. There was a sense of shared community space, and less a sense of individual ownership.


Our youngest son prepares very long beans at the second longhouse


Our son, Samuel, helps cook dinner


Sleeping quarters in the second longhouse

Secondly, there was a sense of mutual learning i.e. learning from one another.

From our perspective, we were there to experience Iban life, to learn about their culture. We learnt a lot about growing and drying pepper, about traditional crafts, about education and so on. However, we also felt that the Iban people wanted to learn from us. They wanted to know why we had chosen to stay with them, they were interested in our two boys and their education in particular. We became more than just observers, we began to have conversation (if through a translator!) We tried hard to understand one another, and our lives are the richer for it.


The second modern longhouse


A family group eating together and sharing their day in the communal space.

So, if you ever travel to Borneo, stay in a Longhouse. Experience the real, true hospitality of these wonderful Iban communities. And yes, I think we can learn much from this for RE in our schools too.

Do we really encounter others’ beliefs and traditions so that we feel we are sitting in the heart of their home?

When we study religion and belief do we anticipate a sense of mutual learning, or are we just ‘observers’?

These, and many other questions, are ones I hope my PhD thesis begins to address.



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I’m an independent Religious Education Consultant. I work mainly in the Eastern Region for the Diocese of Norwich, and also for Culham St Gabriel’s Trust managing their TeachRE course. The views here are my own, and do not represent any of the organisations I work for.

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