05/28/2024, 16.30
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Christians in Borneo celebrate the harvest festival with colourful traditions

by Joseph Masilamany

The event brought together people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds in Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost states. Christian communities, formerly animist, combine traditional dances and rituals with parish celebrations. This is an opportunity for families to gather and give thanks to farmers.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – Between the end of May and the start of June, the Malaysian states of Borneo of Sarawak and Sabah celebrate the annual rice harvest festival.

In Sarawak, indigenous Dayak people call it Gawai – celebrated on 1 and 2 June – while in Sabah, indigenous Kadazandusun call it Kaamatan – celebrated on 30 and 31 May.

In both places, the festivals showcase similar practices that consist of brightly coloured clothes, ceremonial rites and rituals, music, songs, and dances.

Despite the ethnic and religious diversity of the two states, the two share distinctive traits that are easily recognisable, such as this festival dedicated to the bounty of the earth, which is an important event in their respective calendar.

Formerly animist, the local populations are now staunchly Christian, Catholics, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, and a strong community of Evangelicals led by the Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Assembly).

However, the annual rice harvest festival unites them into a single community. Each ethnic group celebrates this event at home and in churches, with special liturgical services celebrated in local parishes.

On 24 May, an indigenous dance group led the entrance procession at St Anne's Church, Diocese of Kuching, followed by altar servers and readers, as well as communion ministers and lay leaders.

Members of the congregation came dressed in colourful native clothing, turning the pews into a sea of colours. The dance expressed their gratitude for God's bountiful harvest during the previous year.

The parish choir and the ministers of the Word also participated in the festivities. Everyone, whether Iban, Bidayuh or Orang Ulu, attended the Mass wearing the colours, designs and stripes of their own tribe and clan.

In his homily, Father Ramirez invited the faithful to stand up and celebrate the harvest feast.

“This Gawai is historic. We must thank God, that the full brunt of the historic global pandemic has eased,” Fr Don Don Ramirez said.

Indeed, “we can now celebrate the annual festival with the rich blessings of the new grain once again, just as we had celebrated in the years before.”

In another Eucharistic celebration on 14 May, before the rice harvest festival, parishioners showed up at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Diocese of Sibu, in their traditional costumes and indigenous headgear.

Fr Raphael Samosir celebrated the Mass in Iban, the local language. During the entrance procession, a group of indigenous women, walking ahead of the celebrant, danced the ngajat, a slow traditional Iban dance, while a gong-and-drum ensemble called taboh accompanied them.

Before the end of the service, Fr Samosir blessed the bottles of Ai Pengayu brought by parishioners, containing tuak, the traditional bitter-tasting rice wine that serves as a ceremonial drink, usually consumed during harvest festival and other important indigenous events.

“The celebration of Gawai highlights the ‘coming together' where Dayaks try to get home for the auspicious day from near and far,” said a parishioner, Trinny Nakai, speaking to AsiaNews.

“Whether one works on a farm, or in town, apart from the festivities, Gawai is a family occasion,” said Stanly Michael, another parishioner.

“Even in modern times like the present, the Gawai harvest festival reminds us that we have a lot of reasons to be grateful to our farmers,” he added. In fact, a “farmer’s success” is the “success for the entire nation” and that is another reason to celebrate. 

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