INTERVIEW WITH ADAM GONTUSAN, THE YOUNGEST SHAMAN Of THE KADAZANDUSUN

SABAH

I am at Monsopiad Cultural Village, in Penampang, Sabah, Borneo. I came to learn more about the culture of the dozens of ethnic groups gathered under the name of “Kadazandusun”. During my visit, I had the immense privilege to interview the youngest shaman of the Kadazandusun and one of the very few that is struggling to keep the shamanistic tradition alive, when the old shamans are passing away and the arrival of Christian religion is burying shamanistic rituals and ceremonies.

Q.-What are the main practices of shamanism in Sabah?

A.-In history, the shaman, who we call “Bobohizan” is a healer who uses a lot of herbs. Bobohizans also perform many kind of rituals. You know, they are connecting the world of humans and the spiritual world. Because we believe that every living being, the trees, the rivers, the mountains, every living thing has a spirit. And we have to appease those spirits, so that the connection between the human and the spiritual live in peace and harmony. We can see nowadays that many people don’t respect nature. There’s so much pollution! Because there is no respect for nature or for the spirit. It didn’t use to be like this. Everything was more peaceful because of a greater respect. Bobohizans nowadays have to perform many rituals. However, many of these rituals are disappearing because old Bobohizans are dying and, with them, their knowledge. I consider myself an apprentice, I’m learning from old people but I can tell you that of these, the old Bobohizans, only 3 or 4 remain. And they are very old. Going and learning with them is difficult. In many cases they cannot physically participate in rituals, which makes learning from them very difficult. This is why becoming a bobohizan nowadays is very hard.

Q. -Is that the reason why shamanism is disappearing? Is it because no one is interested anymore? Is it because people don’t have the chance to come to shamanism anymore? Why do you think is it going to end?

A. -It’s going to disappear because, like you have mentioned, younger generations don’t want to perform or want to learn to become bobohizans. Another thing is that we have new religions, like Christianity. A part of our population is also Muslim. Since we have these religions, it’s not allowed to practice these rituals.

Q.-Do you have any element of nature which is particularly sacred to you while performing a ritual, like bamboo or anything that you consider more special than anything else? A totem?

A.-Yes, I do. I can show you if you like.

[Adam goes to take a few things].

There are a few sacred instruments that we use. This one in my hand is actually made of a root of a plant that grows in a swamp. We call it “kombuongo”. We believe that there is a spirit that dwells inside this particular object. We call the spirit “Divato”. The spirit will lead the bobohizan throughout the rituals. Everything that will be performed when you are sick, for instance, bobohizans will ask the Divato for guidance. The Divato stays inside this particular plant, the kombuongo. There’s a prayer or chanting. The way the bobohizans are going to awake the spirit in this plant is by blowing it. They will blow it and they will say the prayer or chanting, asking for the spirit to guide them and to tell them what is the sickness that you are having. Kombuongo will tell the bobohizans and you will get healed. There is also a wood here, attached to the pieces of root. This is also used by the bobohizans to get answers. If you are ill, the bobohizans can ask if the illness is caused by a spirit. If they can slip their finger throughout the wood until the end without any resistance, the answer is “yes”. If the bobohizan cannot make his finger slip until the end or, if in order to do so, has to force it with a lot of resistance, the answer is “no”. To know how you are going to get healed we also ask the kombuongo, we ask whether you need to perform a ceremony or not. It will depend on your sickness. Sometimes the illness is not very bad. In this case, we will make a chanting and we’ll put  the kombuongo in front of you, and you’ll get healed.

Q. -How interesting! And do you perform this kind of rituals?

A.-Yes, I do. First thing you need is having a kombuongo. In order to become a bobohizan you must have a kombuongo. Because everything is related to it. The kombuongo connects the human and the Spirit. The bobohizan is like a medium. The kombuongo is the centre to get this connection. There is another instrument I want to show you . It’s called “sindavang”, it’s made of brass and when the bobohizans chant, they shake it to make a sound that helps them concentrate during the chanting and also to attract the attention of the Spirit. When the sindavang makes that sound, the Spirit will come and listen to what the bobohizan is telling him during the ritual ceremony.

There is something else. It’s this piece of clothing with many, many bells on it. It’s also used during ritual ceremonies. For many of them, the bobohizans must have this because, in order to enter the world of the Spirit, the bobohizans must make this kind of noise with the bells, just like the sindavang.

Q.-Do they have to spin with it or just wear it?

A.-Just wear it.

Q. -How long does a ceremony take? Let’s say that I come to you and I tell you that I have a back pain that it has been there for over a year and you perform a ceremony for it. How long would it take?

A. -OK. A day and a night?

Q. -Wow!

A. -Yes, one day and one night. Because in order for the bobohizans to travel to the world of the Spirit they must do it during the night-time. Because we believe that when it’s day time for us it’s night-time for the spirit, and when it’s night-time for us it’s day time for the spirit. When you go and speak to someone, you generally do it during the day time, so bobohizans, in order to do the same, have to change the time. During the day time, they are going to prepare everything. During the rituals you must have padi [rice], you must have a chicken for a sacrifice… Because when bobohizans travel to the world of the Spirit, they are not going to find only one spirit. There a lot of spirits, bad spirits too. In order for the bobohizans to protect themselves while they are travelling to the world os Spirit, they must have a chicken, as a sacrifice for the bad spirits, so that these don’t disturb the bobohizans while they are going their way. This part takes the whole night.

Q. -Because our sleeping time is their awaken time and vice versa, when is the bobohizan having the connection? During the whole session, one day and one night?

A. -Only during the night session. When they perform the ritual ceremony, the bobohizans cover themselves with the clothing with bells, and make it sound. They also use the sound of the sindavang. And they speak. When the Spirit enters the bobohizan’s body, because the bobohizan is on a trance, his voice suddenly changes, because of the Spirit. You can listen to what the bobohizan have been through during his way. He will keep on chanting. And this chanting is in a very old language that no one knows how to translate, not even the eldest.

Q. -So, you go, you make the prayers in your way to the Spirit world, you make the offering to the bad spirits so that they won’t disturb you, and you keep on going and speak to the good spirits on a trance. How difficult do you find that? You just know what they tell you even when you don’t speak the language?

A. -Yes. When the bobohizans are on a trance, they don’t remember anything. They automatically change their language into that language. Because we have the spirit’s guidance, the Divato, that leads during the ritual ceremonies. But when not on a trance, when the ritual ceremony is over, you could ask me: “What do you remember?”, and there is nothing I could tell you. I’d say “I have no idea. I was on a trance”. And the spirit Divato was leading me throughout the ceremony.

Q. -Throughout the ceremony you are just a medium. You don’t understand the words that you are speaking and you can’t remember them after the trance, but somehow these words are healing.

A. -Yes.

Q. -The words themselves are healing the person.

A. -Yes. The words are working on the person.

Q. -So when the spirit of the person who is sick listens to those words the body gets healed.

A. -Yes. Exactly.

Q. -So going back to the main element that you need to have, the kombuongo, where the Divato resides, do you have to keep the same one for the rest of your life? Do you have to produce it yourself? Or someone else, older, senior, will do it for you?

A. -For this one, I asked an older bobohizan to do it for me. It’s not like you can do this on any day. You need a special day to do these things. To choose the day, the bobohizans are going to observe the moon, because the moon is like a calendar for us. And on that observation, the old bobohizans will choose the day. Then I will have to pay a kind of a “penance” (we call it like this): a chicken and a saron like this one I have here. It’s a gift, an exchange because he’s helping me.You must do it.

Q. -An interchange to keep everything balanced?

A. -Exactly!

Q. -And what about this? (holding the brass clapper). Is this given to you? Has it been made by you? Have you bought it?

A. -You can not buy it. It’s been made from a broken brass gong, actually. The one you are holding is very old, and it was given to me by the same old bobohizan. He said: “No one is going to take care of it, so, you have it as well”.

Q. -So you have this because you are a shaman. You don’t have conflicts with your new religion, then…

A. -I’ve met many people so far and many people have supported me. Even my family. Because, yes, at the beginning it was very hard for me, you know? Because we are Christians and this is what you are. But there is something important to take into account: when you become a shaman, you don’t do bad things. You heal people. Sometimes you go to hospital and the hospital cannot heal you because your illness might have other causes, like a spirit. So only a shaman can heal you. Only a bobohizan can communicate with them. I have people around me that ask how they can learn to become a shaman, because this kind of gift. But it’s not like anyone can be a shaman. It is chosen. And if you are chosen, you need to learn it from a very early stage of your life, since you are 12 or so. In the past we didn’t use pen and paper to write everything down. We listened and, through observation, you put everything into ourselves. This was the way of becoming a shaman before.

Q. -How did you discover that you are gifted?

A. -It’s difficult to explain, it’s very spiritual. The Spirit is everywhere. I could see it, I could feel it. From that, from that aura of the Spirit, from that feeling it, I was pushed to learn to become a shaman, to become a bobohizan.

Q. -So you feel that you have been guided.

A. -Yes. I feel I have been guided by the Spirit.

Q. -So it’s a real vocation, an inner call.

A. -Yes [a big smile is now on Adam’s face]. You can say that.

Q. -Is it a long journey to learn and become a shaman?

A. -It’s a very, very long journey. I, myself, only know a few chantings and a few ritual ceremonies. In our region, there is only one ritual that communities keep on performing every year, and it’s a cerimony for the padi, the rice. The ritual is called Magavau, and we perform it during the harvest festival in order to appease the Paddy Spirit, called the Bamba’azon. So there is only this ritual that has been maintained in our tradition until today. The other rituals are not performed anymore.

Q.- Now they have you and -if I am not mistaken- two other young shamans to preserve this invaluable traditional knowledge.

Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation.

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A PHOTOGRAPHIC JOURNEY IN THE CULTURAL VILLAGE, SARAWAK

SARAWAK

Sarawak Cultural Village is a living museum that portrays the lifestyles of major ethnic groups in Sarawak. It has also a theatre, where traditional dances are performed every day.

Extensive information can be found on its website. This is only my Photographic Journey of one day in the Cultural Village.

BIDAYU

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MELANAU

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IBAN

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MELAYU

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ORANG ULU

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CELEBRATING LIFE WITH THE IBAN

SARAWAK

I couldn’t think of a better title. This is a short documentary on my visit, for one night, to an Iban longhouse in Rumah Nelson Surau, Durin, Kanowit, Sarawak.

I start my journey in Kapit, in the southbank of the Rajang river, also known as the “gateway to the heart of Borneo”. I came to learn more about the culture of the once fearsome headhunter tribe, the Iban. From Kapit I arrange a visit to a traditional longhouse, close to another major village along the river, Sibu, about three hours away by express boat.

On my way, I learn that a special cerimony is being prepared to honour my arrival. It will be hosted by the owner of the house inside the longhouse where I’ll stay overnight.

I meet Alex, Ben and Moilan in Sibu and after one hour driving we arrive at the Iban residential area known as Rumah Nelson Surau. The longhouse I’ll stay in is very antique. Though equipped with electricity and other facilities, it still preserves its original wooden arquitecture.

When we arrive, the ceremony, known as Miring, is almost ready.

Alex introduces me as a member of My Mobile University and explains that my mission is to learn about Iban culture.

We are having a Miring Tujúa, a basic cerimony for welcoming special visitors. Mirings can be done for different reasons: to celebrate the harvest; to bless a soldier that is sent to war, before a marriage, or even if a member of a family is suffering from persistent nightmares.

We see that is a Miriang Tujua because there are seven dishes per raw; for a soldier protection, for instance, there would be nine. All dishes contain rice, in different varieties. Another two important elements are rice wine and eggs.

They start the cerimony preparing the rice wine: one for the gods and one to be drunk by the people gathered. Apart from the first glass of wine, other presents are offered to the gods and spirits, such as tabacco and penang leaves. A chicken has also been brought and, for the ritual, it will be used alive.

The lady on the right is the daughter-in-law of the wiseman hosting the cerimony. Her husband is one of the very few young xamas among the Iban. In his 20s he became very ill, and in his dreams he was given three choices: dying, being paralised for the rest of his life or embracing his gift and become a xaman. He chose the 3rd option. His father, the ritual performer, even when he is not a xaman, he’s still gifted, and began celebrating cerimonies after receiving messages from the Iban omen.

All food from different dishes has to be put together, along with the leaves and the rest of elements. Only then the ritual will begin.

Ooohhaaaa is the sacred word for the Iban, and with its invocation the ritual begins. The master of cerimony is making a rhyme explaining that I cam efrom overseas with the purpose to learn about them. He invoques the Father God, the Mother God, the Grandfather God and the Grandmother God.

The wiseman addresses the Gods to express his gratitude for my visit.

The word “revai”, meaning foreigner, is emphasized. I wasn’t aware, at the moment, that my presence there was seen as a message of hope from the Gods, to let them know that the children in the community will be successful, will be able to have good education and will have the chance to go overseas one day.

In his final pray the wiseman emphasizes that the children will have good education and will become successful.

After the miring it’s time for joy and celeration. Everyone, men and women, dance. Children are allowed to stay, even when it’s late at night. It’s a special occasion. Those who can, play instruments too.

We are now in the main corridor of the longhouse, outside the door where the miring took place. What is hanging form the ceiling, on the left, are the skulls of 11 warriors, some of them Japanese soldiers from the Second World War, some older that that. On my way to the longhouse I had been strongly warned against taking pictures or recording the skulls before the miring. I could only do that once then the spirits were praised and the Gods were present.

Iban dancing resembles animals movements, and it requires more technical expertise than imagined from a first impression.

There isn’t a shortage of alcohol tonight. When Ibans celebrate, they do it big, and they even challenge each other. “Gods are present, you have to be strong” Alex told me at some point.

Iban dancing resembles animals movements, and it requires more technical expertise than imagined from a first impression.

There isn’t a shortage of alcohol tonight. When Ibans celebrate, they do it big, and they even challenge each other. “Gods are present, you have to be strong” Alex told me at some point.

The news about the miring has spreaded throughout the neighbourhood, and youngsters from here and there join us in our party, as children, one by one, go to sleep.

It calls my attention the tatoos that some of them still have them made on their bodies. Tatoos were very mportant for the Ibans in the old times, when they were ,mainly, warriors andheadhunters. They believed to be invisible to the Gods eyes unless they had tattoos on their bodies.

This is a major tattoo in the Iban iconography. It’s generally worn on both shoulders, on the front side.

This other is intended to protect the headhunters from losing their own head. It is said that, when made on someone’s neck, this becomes unvulnerable to weapons.

Tonight I’ve heard a thousand stories about the fearsome Iban, and I’ve had the chance to contemplate 11 skulls that give good testimony of their fame. But I leave this place with the sole impression of having been spoilt by the most warm, friendly, happy and hospitable people that I’ve met in a long long time.

 

KADAZANOLOGY

SABAH

The Kadazansun Cultural Association’s (KDCA) defines the Kadazandusuns as the definitive peoples of Sabah, comprising 40 different dialectical ethnic groups (www.kdca.org.my).

Dr. Benedict Topin is a key specialist in KDCA. Author of different studies on the matter, very generously shared with me some of the slides of his last book. Listening about Kadazanology and the Kadazandusun cosmovision, as well as their conception of the genesis of the world and humanity, transports me to Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the Tibetan Buddhism Cosmogony. Though I’d need years of study to start understanding such an extraordinary complexity and cultural richness, I’m honoured to share some of the diagrams on the Kadazandusun genesis and cosmovision, so much linked to nature and to Mount Kinabalu.

I just translate here the seven compositions of the human being, being 7 the most sacred number in Kadazandusun spirituality:

K7: Breath of Spirit/ Divinity in Humanity;

K6: Spirit of departed/ ancestors;

K5: Animal Spirit/ our part of fauna;

K4: Hidrosphere/ our part of water;

K3: Wind/ our part of atmosphere;

K2: Flora/ our part of it

K1: Earth and minerals/our part of them.

 

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KADAZANDUSUN FACES AT TAMU TAMPARULI

SABAH

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Tamu Tamparuli, about 42 km from Kota Kinabalu, is one of the most authentic and traditional markets of Sabah and also a perfect spot to explore the way of living of the largest ethnic group in Sabah: the Kadazandusun.

In a very antique cafe, a group of women called me and asked me where I was from. With my camera hanging on my neck, I couldn’t refrain myself from joining that table of curious and friendly eyes. “I’ll never have the chance to go to Spain, so please take my picture there”. A fascinating photographic session began there and continued in the market stalls…

 

BAJAU FACES IN PULAU GAYA

SABAH

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The bajau are one the main indigenous groups in Sabah, only following the Kadazandusun. Originally nomadic sea people (they are known as the “sea gypsies”), they used to trade fish and other goods as a way of living.

Little by little they have abandoned their ancestral tradition of living in boats and have moved to piling houses in the coastal shallows instead. In Malaysia, the more settled land-based Bajaus are also excellent equestrians.

Most Sabahan Bajaus are originally filipinos. Even nowadays, most of them are arriving from the Phillipines coasts and settling around Kota Kinabalu and surroundings.

I chose Pulau Gaya to know more about them, mainly for its proximity to the capital and also for the large population of Bajau.

Pulau Gaya is an island of extreme contrasts. Being only 10 minutes away by boat from Kota Kinabalu, it hosts both a couple of luxurious 5 stars resorts, accessible only by ferry from Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal, on one side, and one of the largest illegal bajau communities in Sabah, whose settlement is not officially recognised by the government and that is commonly linked to crime and illegal trafficking, on the other.  The latter was the main reason why I was advised not to go there, so I chose the part of the island that holds a big school to explore the territory.

What I found was there was a village of incredibly friendly people, very poor but extremely hospitable, who opened the doors of their houses for me. “I have no furniture, but in this house there is a lot of love”, told me a man who posed for me with his two children. “You are the first visitor we have had in a very long time, and I don’t understand why. Why are they so afraid of us?”, a lady told me.

I guess that the paradox of many of them being illegal while many others are legally recognised by the government as Bumiputera (indigenous native) under the name “Bajau” doesn’t help much to create sympathies amongst the sabahans. But what I can trully say is that none of the fears I built before my visit turned out to have a correspondence in reality. Very far from it. My visit to Pulau Gaya’s people was one of the highlights of my trip to Sabah.