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The Semai Essay

1593 words - 6 pages


The Semai are among the most peaceful people known. The Semai see themselves as helpless in a hostile world that is beyond their control. Physical violence is extremely
uncommon: adults do not fight; husbands do not beat their wives, nor parents their
children (Denta & Charles, 1997). Homicide is so rare as to be virtually nonexistent. Semai subsistence depends on swidden gardening supplemented by hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. Each band occupies a well-defined territory, usually a small river valley or a segment of a larger one (Denta & Charles, 1997). Settlements are clusters of extended family or multifamily households that moved up and down the valleys, cutting new fields each year and leaving the abandoned gardens to be reclaimed by the forest for a fallow cycle of 30 years or more (Denta & Charles, 1997). Although a great many changes have occurred since the early 1970s, bands in the less accessible highland and deep jungle areas still largely persist in the traditional way of life, although they are increasingly being drawn into the economy and politics of the Malaysian state (Robarchek & Robarchek, 1998).

THESIS: Semai of Malaysia is one of the most peaceful societies known and they are horticulturalists who resist all violence, have strong social organization based in fear and believe in the power of their culture for relief in sickness and healing.

The Semai as Horticulturalists

For the Semai, sweet manioc is one of their two staple crops and the second staple is hill rice. They also cultivate a number of minor crops, including corn, and they cultivate forest trees for fruit (Robarchek & Robarchek, 1998). Semai food sharing are distributed throughout the community and consumed immediately. When a large animal is killed it is divided equally among the households in the hamlet, among kin and non-kin alike. The hunter gets no more than anyone else, but he and his family can expect a share when other hunters are successful (Robarchek & Robarchek, 1998).

This sort of exchange, paying into the system when you have it and drawing out when you need it serves, as Semai themselves were well aware, as a kind of insurance against bad luck, illness, injury, and hard times (Robarchek & Robarchek, 1998). Where food was concerned, the constantly restated ideal was that anyone in need had a claim on any food in the community. This ideal was realized in practice to a striking degree and was an expression of a key component of Semai world view that the world is a hostile and dangerous place in which humans are essentially powerless; only the nurturance and support of the band makes individual survival possible (Denta & Charles, 1997). In such a world, individual survival is impossible without the nurturance and support of the community (Robarchek & Robarchek, 1998).

This interdependence is both symbolized and expressed in the exchange of food,
this is supposed to be contingent only on need. No calculation...

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