Laura Appell, A Rungus At Heart

Although I heard and read many things about George and Laura’s work among the Rungus during my undergraduate years, back in 1989-1992, I only managed to meet them for the first time in 1997 soon after the completion of my Masters thesis. I first met Laura in their modest field house in Kg. Guomon, Matunggong, where they stayed for most of their fieldwork among the Rungus. It was about 10 o’clock in the morning and George quickly took the opportunity to discuss his Rungus-English dictionary. Soon, our conversation led into lunchtime and Laura insisted that I stay for lunch. I found this invitation interesting because there were only three of us and Laura was the third person. I didn’t realise that she had gone to prepare a meal in the kitchen, because in fact she never left the conversation.


She returned with a plate of steaming hot noodles. Then I realized that instant noodles were what they used to have for lunch during their fieldwork. My admiration for their dedication in pursuing their academic interests among the Rungus grew even greater that day.


Now, I myself am an anthropologist and actively involved in the Sabah cultural scene. Now and then, I will proudly announce that the Rungus are the best documented indigenous ethnic group in Sabah when it comes to cultural documentation as well as social change, thanks to George and Laura Appell. Laura’s work among Rungus women is truly amazing. Younger Rungus scholars, including myself, will find it difficult to expand on her contribution. I recall that at one point my Ph.D. supervisor in Kent asked me why I couldn’t come up with something more original about the Rungus, noting that my thesis was full of references to the Appells’ work. I replied that their work describes genuine Rungus culture.


George and Laura’s lifelong dedication to the Rungus community was a defining period in the history of anthropological research that helped make the Rungus of today a proud ethnic group. Young Rungus people are proud of their Rungus identity, because who they are and what they are is well documented. For me, this is a healthy sign for a community that enables them to embrace changes because they have access to the cultural past through deep ethnographic research, and this access, borrowing the Appells’ words, provides “a springboard to the future.”


Laura was not Rungus, but her work and cultural knowledge qualified her beyond identity. She herself helped define what is Rungus.


Rest in Peace, Laura.


Paul Porodong, Ph.D., Rungus Anthropologist and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty
of Humanities, Arts and Heritage, Universiti Malaysia Sabah




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