Words by Chrishandra Sebastiampillai
Photos by Hamza Delbar and Tan Meng Yoe
Like some of the best things in life, we ended up at the Kaamatan festival of Kampung Kiau Nuluh earlier today by accident. Our guide Sintiah told us that his village would be holding their celebration of the harvest festival on the 30th of June when he first picked us up at the airport. It was particularly interesting to be able to attend a festival we had read about in our school textbooks for years, and so the entire group was excited to be there. Our first taste of the festival came the night before when we arrived at Kg. Kiau and heard the sounds of the gongs drifting down the hills as the musicians practised for the big day. Revelry for the event was already taking place, with several villagers in high spirits and drinking tapai or lihing, the traditional rice wine.
Children at play during the festival. Some are wearing their costumes for their performance
When we arrived at the open field where the festivities were taking place, we were greeted by a bustling site full of children, dogs and excitement. Unlike in the city, children ran freely and unsupervised, weaving their way in and out of crowds and throwing small poppers to the ground at each other’s feet. The old and the young were all present, some wearing the traditional costumes of black and gold. Babies were carried and suspended in brightly coloured batik sarongs by their mothers, and soothed when fussy by feeding from that same position. To get a better sense of the festivities, I approached several members of the community to ask them what role they played in the festival and what the celebration meant to them.
I started with the children that performed the first dances of the day. Ranging from 8-22 years old, the children practised for several weeks to perform a dance that depicts the harvest and sing a song; each girl dressed in the different costumes of the Dusun people. Their dance movements were graceful and gentle against a backdrop of woven wooden baskets and farming implements. Around their waists, the girls wore a silver belt called the botungkat, and decorative metal fringes along the bottom of their outfits, making a pleasant jingling sound as they walked. In addition, their costumes were adorned with multicoloured beads in intricate patterns, lovingly sewn by their mothers. The boys added an extra splash of colour to the predominant blacks and golds with a hint of red trimming to their costumes.
Dancers Natasha, Ivy Grace, Ellyevela and Felicity after their performance
Manning the sound system during the event is James Suleiman, who has been performing this duty for the past 18 months. When asked why the Kaamatan festival in Kg. Kiau Nuluh is later than the more common date of May, he replied that the sponsors of the village, the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) Gompito, chose to set the date then. Aside from being the sound man, James also sits on the task force for the festival, which has been planning for the event since the beginning of the year. He told me that the sound system is used mostly for Kaamatan, Good Friday, Christmas and the occasional wedding. He also mentioned that there is a bigger festival, the Moginakan that is held every seven years. Sintiah told me that the number seven plays a particularly important role in Kadazan-Dusun culture, and is something of an auspicious number. The Bobohizan, or priestess often carries out rituals that bear the number seven, such as the slaughtering of seven white chickens for the yearly sacrifice to the spirits of Mount Kinabalu, the monolob, and tying seven stalks of rice together as part of the harvest festival rituals.
When the guests of honour arrived, they were welcomed by the gongs, played by a mixed group of four women and two teenage boys. Curious about the gongs, I approached Usinas, one of the ladies who I had seen playing earlier. Aside from playing the gongs, Usinas is also one of the senior members of the community. She explained that the festival of Kaamatan is in thanksgiving for the bountiful rice harvest and to appreciate the semangat padi (rice spirit), the Bambazon. In terms of the ritual for the Kaamatan, a pig was to be sacrificed later that night in thanksgiving. I was curious to see if there was an overlap between the majority Catholic faith and the cultural rituals that were to take place later in the day. Usinas told me that Mass is rarely said on these cultural days, and expressed a distinction between religion and cultural practice. She also tells me that the Moginakan is a bigger celebration where family members will return to the village from near and far to share a meal.
Usinas (fourth from right) playing the gong with her fellow musicians
The Kaamatan has been a highlight of her year since her childhood, when she first began to play the gongs. Now aged 69 years old, Usinas is determined to help preserve the art form by teaching it to the youth. As part of the celebrations, the programme included a gong competition (Upacara Paluan Gong) where four different groups of youths will compete against each other. I also expressed surprise that the majority of the gong players were women. Usinas explained that men and women were equal in society and were free to participate in all things. The gongs are traditionally a means of communication to spread news, part of the indigenous animistic ceremonies, a means to send signals and also part of festivities, such as the harvest festival.
I also spoke to the women who cooked the delicious spread of lunch we were treated to. Ritah Moguring explained that six women cooked early that morning to prepare the feast, many served in bamboo with a lid cut into it. These natural containers can keep food for the whole day and imbue the food with a unique taste. The packets of rice we were served were also wrapped in tintap and deringan leaves which gave the rice a pleasant fragrance and a convenient means of packing individual servings.
Ritah proudly explained the lavish spread that we were privileged to share
The highland rice was mixed with tapioca and yam to give it a moist and dense texture. In one bamboo container was pinoniyan, a dish made of wild boar and buah kepayang, a fruit commonly used in the days before modern refrigeration to help preserve meat. Another popular dish was labi-labi; pork cooked with turmeric, ginger, galangal, lemongrass and spring onion shoots. There was a spicy chilli and vinegar pickle and another unique dish with the distinct taste of mature spring onions.
Several of the dishes, including pinoniyan (centre) and labi-labi (top right)
Unfortunately we were unable to stay much longer as we had to head back to Kota Kinabalu that evening. But we left with fond farewells and an open invitation from the village to return and celebrate the festival with them in the future. The sights, rhythms, sounds, tastes and people of Kg. Kiau on their festival day remain a highlight of the trip to many. The theme of the celebration was unity, and we certainly sensed the unity of the village. In the united chorus and movements of the children, the synchronised melodic notes of the gongs, and the cheerful welcome we received from each member of the community –semoga berjumpa lagi di Kg. Kiau (may we meet again in Kg. Kiau)!
Chrish likes chilli pan mee, Coke, and long walks on a moonlit beach. In reality she can be found eating chilli pan mee with Coke, or toiling past midnight over another self-imposed 25,000 word deadline (stay out of school, kids. These days 2,000 words is barely enough for an introduction).