Borneo Calling

01 June 2017

Kaamatan and Gawai are each celebrated throughout the months of May and June in Sabah and Sarawak, respectively. At the heart of both Harvest Festivals, it’s a time for Borneans to commemorate the end of a bountiful rice harvest in goodwill and merriment. In Peninsular Malaysia, both Harvest celebrations are often celebrated together by the East Malaysian diaspora in Penang and Johor Bahru, with the biggest celebrations held in Kuala Lumpur.

For almost nine years, Sabah native Elfie Jane has been working in media and PR in Kuala Lumpur. Just a year ago, she founded The Borneo Blog focusing on covering events in Sabah and Sarawak to make up for the dearth in East Malaysian lifestyle content. She’s also the woman behind the Borneo Blog Kaamatan-Gawai party, held in Changkat Bukit Bintang for two years now.

“When I threw my Kaamatan party last year, I had friends who helped me bring lihing, a type of rice wine from Kota Kinabalu and helped me spread the word to their friends,” says Elfie. This year’s Borneo Blog celebration was held at Pisco Bar with early attendees getting a welcome lihing shot. Twenty women also received products from Love, Lusie, the first ever tuhau-infused body scrub.

Featuring Sarawak DJs, a Borneo-Malaysian menu, an assortment of rice wines and traditional performers frocked in colourful beads and feathers, similar Kaamatan and Gawai parties have spread throughout town, with Sid’s Pubs in TTDI and Havana Club in Changkat chiming in on the festivities. These parties are a far cry from the more traditional celebrations back home, but for East Malaysians outside of Borneo, it’s a taste of home, a chance to party with their community and more.

“There are about 500,000 East Malaysians in Malaya based on the churches' statistics and probably 200,000 are in the Klang Valley,” estimates Kuching-born Agustus Sapen, founder of Spirits of the Harvest, a freelance event management entity specialising in Gawai and Kaamatan celebrations in the Klang Valley.

This year, Jarrod & Rawlins in Bukit Damansara hosted Spirits of the Harvest’s Gawai Dayak Celebration, where they symbolically performed the miring ritual, an ancient blessing ceremony on Gawai eve. Offerings of tuak and celebratory items like glutinous rice, kuih penyaram, tobacco and cigarettes, eggs, pinang (areca nut) and kapur are carefully arranged on plates. Through this ritual, the house would request that the spirits of deities, legends and ancestors come bearing good fortune and good health, allowing for another year of good harvest, peace and prosperity for the community.

As an active organiser of East Malaysian cultural events, Agustus is practically a household name among East Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur. He is also co-organiser of the Borneo Hornbill Festival Kuala Lumpur, which started in 2009 with a Sabah and Sarawak ethnic pageant and dance competition.

“The festival is a platform for Borneo people to get together, practise and uphold their unique cultures. It allows for other Malaysians in Klang Valley to interact with Borneo people thus increase the awareness, understanding and appreciation of Borneo people, culture and heritage,” explains Agustus, who adds that the competition’s Road to London campaign sends the top ten grand finalists to London to vie for the title of Miss and Mr Borneo.

As for Sabahans like Kadazandusun Cultural Association Klang Valley (KDCA Klang Valley) vice chairperson, Debbie Disimond, organising Kadazandusun cultural events is in her blood.

The Borneo Blog founder Elfie Jane (far left) at The Borneo Blog’s Kaamatan-Gawai party at Pisco Bar.

“For me, I’m very close to my roots and close to Kaamatan,” says Debbie, who’s been living in Kuala Lumpur for 23 years. “My sisters and aunties are all involved in the Kaamatan celebration in terms of being part of the organising committee, state Unduk Ngadau committee. It is important to preserve our culture, seeing that the younger generation are not actually very well versed about their culture. Even myself, I am actually learning every day about our culture.” As a mother raising a family in Kuala Lumpur, Debbie also does her best to impart her Kadazan heritage to her children.

A major event by KDCA Klang Valley is the annual Unduk Ngadau cultural pageant, which has qualifying rounds for Sabahans in the Klang Valley and Johor Bahru – the only places outside of Sabah that can participate in the competition. Winners from these two regions will then compete in the main event at Hongkod Koisaan, Kota Kinabalu against representatives from Sabah districts and tribes. The most famous Unduk Ngadau Klang Valley winner has been actress and TV personality Daphne Iking.

Much like the events by Elfie and Agustus, the Borneo events by KDCA Klang Valley are done to out of passion to strengthen cultural roots as more East Malaysians seek opportunities in the peninsular. Debbie professes that despite being the indigenous majority of Sabah, the Kadazan language is dying, and while the annual Harvest Festival processions will continue, she fears that her cultural heritage is facing extinction.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. Debbie notes that local Sabah entities like KDCA are doing their best to have Kadazandusun languages taught in schools; meanwhile in the Klang Valley, Borneo-themed markets and eateries are popping up. And with the rise in Kaamatan and Gawai events in Kuala Lumpur, Elfie plans to shift her focus towards hosting East Malaysian themed networking events throughout the year instead.

After successfully pulling off their Kaamatan and Gawai events in Kuala Lumpur, Elfie, Debbie and Agustus never fail to return to their respective home states to celebrate Harvest Festival with their families. For them, while it’s deeply gratifying to be able to share their cultural heritage with the rest of the country, all three agree that the uniqueness of Borneo can’t be replicated: the warmth, the people and the food. For Sabahans and Sarawakians there is indeed, no place like home.

Kotobian tadau tagazo do Kaamatan. Gaya Guru Gerai Nyamai.

By Nadira Ilana

This article is related to CULTURE SARAWAK SABAH BORNEO

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