Making Penan Language Books Come to Life — by Brandon Hill

Brandon Hill has been working on the layout for the our Indigenous Language Books over the last 6 months. This is his account of his experience working on the books, and being introduced to Penan Culture. 

We are currently fundraising for these books on Please consider helping us out with a small donation!:

All frog images are by Emily Simons/Beehive Collective. 


Six months ago I began working on the design and layout of two book projects featuring indigenous folk tales from Penan communities in Borneo. Ian Mackenzie, an Anthropologist and Linguist, has worked with the Penan people extensively and has been collaborating with the Borneo Project to preserve their native language and culture in short publications that will soon be returned and distributed for free. My work has simply been to provide a pleasant format to engage with the material but has additionally created a unique cultural experience for me. Despite my peripheral role and lack of direct relationship with folks on the ground in Borneo, I have had the privilege to emerge myself in the stories and art work of one of the last nomadic cultures on earth.

While imagining the the layout of one of the book projects, a series of short myths about several frog species in the rainforest of Borneo, I quickly recognized an excellent opportunity for professional scientific illustration of the frogs. This idea, which we have successfully moved forward with, presented the first opportunity for reflection of cultural differences.  For the Penan, photographs are uncommon enough that close-ups may be confused for actual size of the animal and so what kind of interpretation would a foreign illustration create? Another concern has been the inconsistency of species identification – as the Penan understand amphibian life-cycles differently. Fortunately, draft illustrations, donated by the Beehive Design Collective, were able to be shared with and approved by community leaders in Borneo. The result of this collaboration will be an exciting combination of scientific watercolor illustration and traditional indigenous myths to be returned to children, parents and elders in Penan communities.

A second story entitled, “The Story of the Flying Dragon and the Turtle who went Foraging for Food” has complimentary illustrations by a Penan artist, James Galang. This story too has inspired in me a strong reverence for the culture and myths of the Penan people of Malaysian Borneo. I am humbled to be a part of this project – which, in the face of increasing deforestation and indigenous displacement, celebrates a culture and traditional way of life. You can help us bring these stories back to Penan communities in Borneo by visiting our fundraising initiative online , and donating what you can to preserve this disappearing culture.