Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Ka'amatan: The spirit of merry-making

This is going to be a long post, so I suggest you set aside more than your usual time in reading my usually bite-sized postings! :)

Every year, Kaamatan, or Harvest Festival, is celebrated by the Kadazandusuns of Sabah, Borneo on May 30 and 31. A similar celebration is also observed in the neigbouring state of Sarawak, called the Gawai Festival, but that is celebrated on 31 May and 1 June instead. For brevity's sake, here is the extremely condensed version of the story behind this celebration of the rice harvest:

According to Kadazandusun folklore, this event is celebrated in thanksgiving to Kinoingan, the god who created the Kadazandusun and the world, for a year's bountiful rice harvest and also for blessings for a better harvest the following year. It is also in remembrance of Huminodun, the only daughter of Kinoingan, who was sacrificed to become the first seedlings of rice so that people may plant them and have food to eat.

If you want to read a more detailed background concerning much of what the whole Kaamatan festival is all about, you can go here.

The Kaamatan Festival is perhaps the most famous among all the tribal celebrations here in Sabah. It usually starts at the kampung (village) level, then it goes on to the district level, and finally it climaxes with the state-level celebrations on the two last days of May. If you visited the Kadazandusun Cultural Association building here in Penampang, be prepared to be a witness to lots of fascinating events: there will be the stilt-walking race, tug of war, arm wrestling, finger wrestling (!), and catapult shooting competition. Those are just some of the competitions held in the quest to see which district in Sabah is tops. Those are in addition to the many cultural performances like dancing, singing, gong-beating. You'll also get to savour some traditional food and drink. The climax of the whole celebration is the crowning of the lass who wins the Unduk Ngadau (beauty contest).

But, be prepared as well to face throngs upon throngs of people. But it's well worth it if you've not experienced it before.

But, there is perhaps a darker side to this whole cheerful celebration. You see, a rather indispensable element for this whole merry-making activity is the drinking of spirits. As mentioned above, rice is the whole reason for the celebrations, and so the traditional brew tapai, or rice wine, is common company as far as Kaamatan is concerned. You'll often see people drinking tapai with long straws from earthen jars where they've been left to brew for months. And since such merriment often starts from day and continues on till late, what you get is a whole lot of drunken people. Such people are fine on their own, but the danger arises when they go to the roads, whether as drivers or pedestrians. They pose a danger not only to themselves but other road users as well.

You've probably read about Tong Ju, that Chinese national, who had dreams of trekking through 193 countries recently in the national papers. He was killed three days ago, and police have classified his cause of death as a hit-and-run incident. His body was found by the road side along one of the village roads in Penampang. The police have appealed to witnesses or the driver of the vehicle to come forward. If and when that happens, I would not be surprised if alcohol was part of the cause.

I remember driving at night in a residential area and I came to a part of the road where it was somewhat darker because the street lights were not working. I wasn't driving very fast and it was a fortunate thing as well because I suddenly saw a black heap in the middle of the road right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and I stopped just in time. I was wondering what the heap was when it rose and started walking wobbly, oblivious to my car which was less than 5 metres away! That guy was drunk to the core, and to make it worse, he was wearing all black! Just imagine what would have happened if I hadn't even seen him lying on the road and just ran him over...

I like these kinds of celebrations for they are a wonderful testament to the uniqueness and diversity of the people of Sabah. The only thing that puts me off are the people who seem to lose all measure of self-control when drinking, and so put other people at risk.

When you drink, stay off the roads, please!


maslight said...

Since my car rosak during harvest festival. I didn't get to go anywhere, well except go arena for Killing Floor, itu pun my fren pick me up XD

Nick Phillips said...

I've never really seen or even experienced a harvest festival in person. It sounds like a blast. Must experience it one day :D

Order Pharmacy Online said...

I agree. excessive drinking can turn the happiest occasions a prelude to tragic endings. People should be more responsible on how they enjoy themselves and remember that they are responsible for the lives of other people not just their own when they hit the road.

Perry R. Lim said...

maslight: sedih...