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?
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.
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?
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.