Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Gawai festival

On Saturday night, we went to our second Gawai celebration, but in a different kampung (yet same district). It was a fascinating study of contrasts. The first ceremony that we had attended is the only warrior ceremony to be held here in Sarawak. Because a lot of the native population these days have converted to Christanity, 'pagan' ceremonies like these have been abandoned. To be part of something special and rare, made that experience more humbling for me.

Last night, the priestesses were going into their trance, swinging on a metre-long wooden swing. It would have taken them all night, swinging and chanting before they go into a trance. The youngest priestess was already in her 40's or 50's. It is really sad because she may very well be the last of a dying breed. It is very difficult to be a priestess -- for one thing, you have to be chosen by the spirits. First you have to suddenly fall very sick, and when you are on your deathbed, you make a choice to become a priestess. After that, is an arduous path in which you are confined to your house, village for a year or more. You will also have a spirit husband, who guides you. My grandmother was a priestess, but she died before I was born. You cannot imagine how much I regret not knowing her.

We have a really old studio photograph of my native grandparents. My grandmother, she is wearing a native costume - the full regalia of a head priestess - that she made with her own two hands. She has a gentle smile on her face - she is beautiful. My grandfather is wearing white 'Western' clothes, with a dark tie, all of which cover his multiple native tattoos including his neck tattoos indicating his status in the local community. He looks shy and has a small moustache.

I was looking forward to a quiet ceremony, not unlike one I attended many years ago. Yes, there was gambling happening in that village but at least it was far away from the ceremony which had its own quiet dignity.

Yesterday was different. I knew my friends were disappointed and also, amused by the carnival atmosphere. There was gambling happening right in the open. When we arrived, a gong competition was already in full swing. Beautiful young girls in their native costume were wandering around, waiting for the local beauty pageant to start. There was a live band with really bad karaoke singing. Mini-bar stalls. There must have been a couple of hundred people present, people from other villages visiting. There was even a tv crew. In comparison, the priestesses quietly swinging in one corner of the 'Gawai House'. It was like they were not present. Curious people would peek in now and then but no one was really paying attention to them.

I have mixed feelings about this. I know my friends were commenting on how 'westernized' the festival was -- I really hate that word, 'westernized'. What does it really mean? Are we aping the West when we have beauty pageants? The thing about village beauty pageants is that the contestants are also judged not only by their beauty, but also the quality of their costumes, their knowledge of their culture and language. I just heard about the state beauty competition being rigged in favour for well-aligned political families and their daughters. But I'd still like to believe that the smaller ones, especially in the villages, help promote cultural pride in the young.

I like the idea of a gong competition too -- it has the right idea in keeping the traditions alive. My suggestion would be to encourage the youth in competing, for example have an age-group gong competition.

Gambling, I really hate. But it is prevalent in the native culture for as long as I remember. Are we going to blame the West for it too? Honestly, for me, it's like reverse racism. It annoys me that a lot of foreigners have this romantic notion of indigenous cultures. Like we are incapable of anything bad. Like we are children. It's patronizing.

The festival, despite its carnival atmosphere, raises money for the local community. They charge RM2 per entrance, and they also make money through drinks, food and selling handicrafts. Is that a bad thing? Yes, I do feel bad about the trance ceremony being sidelined but you have to let the community decide for themselves.

We initially planned to spend the night -- the village provides homestay accomodation. But it was just too packed and really noisy. So we left around 12 a.m.
I was adamant about not drinking because I was really missing my mornings where I wake up eager and clear. Hangovers are really bad.

There's another ceremony happening next weekend, this time in my dad's village. I would love to go but my best friend's getting married on the same day, reception on the same night. I'm the bridesmaid!! Already there is some wedding drama. Why must there always be drama??


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