THE harvest festival of Gawai is always a good time to visit the mystical Land of the Hornbill, and a Gawai experience is never complete until you’ve visited a Dayak long-house.
Unless a local resident invites you, the only way to visit a long-house is via a tour operator who organises a homestay at a designated long-house.
I opted to visit a non-commercial Iban long-house in remote Kapit so as to experience an authentic Gawai spirit.
Kapit is the largest division in Sarawak, making up one-third of its total land area. It is 309km up the mighty Rejang River from Sibu and is only accessible via express boat.
Jessie Anak Mangka, Sarawak Tourism Board tour coordinator, revealed to us how some of the settlements, like Kanowit and Song, got their names.
Back in the colonial days, the White Rajah was travelling up the Rejang River to meet with the tribe leaders. As he passed a village, the people called out to him to stop over. He shouted from his boat that he “Can not wait” because he was in a rush, and that was how Kanowit got its name.
Further up the river, he heard mournful music from a funeral procession and so he turned to his officers and said, “Song”, and that became the name of the place.
When he finally reached his destination, a red carpet was rolled out to welcome him and he exclaimed, “Carpet!”, and so Kapit got its name.
I found the story rib-tickling.
After three hours in the freezing air-conditioned express boat, we reached the small Kapit wharf and were greeted by local guides, Alice and David Chua, who took us to the Kapit Division Resident’s Office to obtain tourist permits to visit the long-house.
Then we got into a rundown, dirt-covered Wira and hit the road to Rumah Jugah. It was an hour’s journey on logging roads.
I was amazed that the driver could drive so fast despite terrible road conditions. Along the way, we stopped at a small shed that had been converted into a temporary arena for cock-fighting. The sport is illegal but a license can be obtained to host one in Sarawak on special occasions.
We watched with fascination as the men released their prized cocks equipped with sharp razor blades on the legs. The fight was over in mere seconds and left one rooster dead.
I was shocked when David told us that a winning cock can fetch up to RM10,000 or more, as the owner will use the animal for illegal gambling purposes.
As we continued our journey, we were told that a long-house is normally named after the long-house head (Tuai Rumah), so no prizes for guessing the head of the house we were about to visit.
A Tuai Rumah is appointed by the community, and the title is usually handed down from father to son when he dies. If the tuai only has daughters, or the son is unsuitable, the title will be passed down to a close relative.
There are over 200 people living in 17 houses or bilik in Rumah Jugah. Each bilik houses one family. Tuai Rumah Jugah greeted us himself and we were escorted to his bilik for tea.
He seemed imposing at first with his warrior tattoos, but turned out to be a gentle man. He showed us around his wooden long-house and introduced us to the people living there. The place was alive with activity as children played in the common area and extended families, who made the trip back for Gawai, helped elders with the cooking and preparations.
As we were feeling quite hot and sticky from the ride over, the residents invited us to the river to bathe. We eagerly agreed and grabbed our toiletries as the cooling waters sounded really refreshing. It was quite an experience, and the locals taught us how to drift down the river by filling up our sarongs with air and then using it as a float.
Gawai in an Iban long-house usually begins on May 31, the eve of Gawai, and the celebration varies from place to place.
At Rumah Jugah, it began with a miring ceremony in front of each bilik to receive blessings from the gods for a prosperous year, as well as to give thanks for the bountiful harvest. The rooster used in the ceremony was then sacrificed. Although many Ibans are now Christians, they still perform the miring.
After the official ceremony was over, the party began with the serving of food and tuak (home-brewed rice wine). We were not aware that we would be served food so many times within an hour and so were quite stuffed after visiting only three bilik.
The tuak seemed to come from a bottomless jug as well. We were advised not to refuse food or drink as it would offend the host. The most polite way to decline tuak is by touching the rim of the cup to the lips.
I had the impression that Gawai would be celebrated with costumes and traditional dances but was wrong. Unfazed, I decided to persuade the locals to dig out their traditional costumes and put on a show for us. They agreed, but on condition that I wore a costume too and do the ngajat, their traditional dance, with them.
A resident affectionately referred to as Ibu (or mother), taught me how to move to the music and we were later joined by a few other girls. Although the dance was not choreographed and the costumes were not complete, we managed to liven up the place and bring cheer to the long-house.
We were also treated to a kuntau performance, the Iban version of silat.
The party carried on way past midnight with most youths singing and dancing to Malay and Iban tunes played on their guitars. The ones who couldn’t make it through the night fell asleep on the floor in the common area, undisturbed by the merrymaking.
I realised that besides its traditional values, Gawai is a time when families gather to bond and give thanks for each other and what little they have.
Looking at the simple yet closed-knit Iban community and how they accepted complete strangers into their fold, I couldn’t help but feel proud that Malaysians of different cultures could live and celebrate together in harmony.
Source: www.thestar.com (25 Juni 2007)