Are the Spirits Angry?

KAMPUNG STASS, SARAWAK – “So where are the spirits?” I ask Direp Nyoheng, a Bidayuh who arrived at the priestesses’ hut towards midnight, at the height of a gawai in kampung Stass.

“They are just around,” he says, his face lighting up.

“But aren’t they outraged at what is going on?”

He stops short, confused. In a small room just a couple of steps from the loud gong contest, near the sacred food offerings, three duyong buris on a swing are chanting prayers while people mill around, shooting pictures.

Direp Nyoheng has been involved in documenting the tribe’s religious rituals in the past few years, and he is happy that a religious ritual with real duyong buris lapsing into a trance is going on in a Bidayuh kampung during gawai. But my question now has him looking more closely at his surroundings.

Jennifer Rubis, who heads the community-based eco-tourism project in Krokong Bau, explains that the gawai ritual in kampung Stass is one of the very few “authentic” ones in the area, although it is also set up to attract tourists.

Downstairs, just a couple of steps from the duyong buris’ hut, crowds are deep in various betting games while a number of young women who later turn out to be Christians are preparing for a beauty pageant, donning beads and the duyong buris’ hats.

Among the Bidayuh, the beads and the priestesses’ hats are sacred, says Rubis. “You just don’t walk around donning a nun’s habit or a priest’s cassock,” she comments.  “But why are they wearing the beads and the duyong buri’s hat? Their intrinsic lack of respect for this culture manifests itself in how they treat these objects.”

“What I don’t understand is why did they hold that contest right inside the ritual hut where the duyong buri’s chant their prayers,” adds Diweng Bakir, a new generation Bidayuh holding fast to his culture.

“They shouldn’t even wear the beads,” Rubis says. “They have rejected the meaning of the beads, in the first place, when they converted to the new religion. They were once required to crush and destroy them. So, why wear them now?”

When the loud shouts and noise drown the duyong buris’ chants, I ask Nyoheng again if the spirits are angry.

He says by way of an explanation, “Christianity is a religion. But for me, if Christians can accept gawai as a festival, then it should be okay.” Nyoheng himself married a Seventh Day Adventist but has resisted conversion. He and his mother are among the few Bidayuh (less than 10 percent of the tribe) who still practice their people’s ancient beliefs.

Nyoheng says that festivals like this gawai, where real duyongburis do the rituals, could delay the dying of the culture.

“In 10 years time, when they (the priestesses) are already below ground, this culture will die,” he says. “We won’t be able to do it alone.”

“Besides,” he adds, “The kampung is earning money from tourists.” He nods to indicate the crowd flocking to the various betting games and stalls that have sprouted all over the place. It is now close to midnight, but the roads leading to Kampung Stass are clogged with cars of people streaming in just for the gawai.

“I just hope,” Nyoheng says, “the spirits won’t mind.” – Germelina A. Lacorte