21 June 2012

Spirits, skulls and sweets

Hello! I’m breaking my 54-day blogging hiatus with a slightly unusual post, but I thought this was really interesting…

M is a primary school teacher in southern Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. She is a Bidayuh, one of the indigenous (Dayak) groups of Sarawak. It’s the second largest group, with a population of around 200,000; the largest group is the Iban, whose name means ‘sea Dayak’. The word Bidayuh means ‘land Dayak’.

I’ve been working with M on the British Council’s English Language Teacher Development Project (ELTDP) since February 2011 and she very kindly agreed to give a short interview on Bidayuh culture past and present, to help me with a coursebook I’m writing. I thought what she said was fascinating and decided to post (a slightly edited version of) the interview transcript, which M has seen and approved, on ptefldactyl.

Could you start by telling us about Sarawak?

In Sarawak there are many races – Bidayuh, Iban, Malay, Chinese – but we all respect each other, and when we see people from other countries we tend to smile and try to make them feel like they’re at home. And when somebody comes to our kampung we have to see they are looked after.

Bidayuh longhouse (click here for photo source)
Can you explain what a kampung is?

It’s like a village. Almost like one family. Before the missionaries came we all lived in longhouses, but those who converted to Christianity had to move out and build their own houses on their own land because they had different beliefs. In my kampung all the longhouses have been replaced now.

We have rules. We can’t interfere with the other families’ affairs. But even though we mind our own business, we care for other people in the community. When somebody passes away, or gets married, all of us go to that house and give money or food, or we offer help.

How has life changed since you were a child?

I still remember when I was young we lived in a wooden house on stilts and every day I had to go and take my bath in the pond because there’s no river in our kampung…

Why was the house on stilts? To protect the house during the rainy season?

I don’t think so. It was to protect us from animals and maybe headhunters.

Bidayuh women in traditional dress (click for photo source)

Many years ago both the Iban and the Bidayuh were headhunters. My grandfather told me that other tribes used to come along the river to attack our village. He said they used black magic – that when they heard a battle gong, they could travel from one place to another in minutes. Sometimes I was very scared at night.

People took heads and brought them home. They tried to get as many as possible…it meant they were the best warrior, and they could lead the people in their kampung. We don’t practise headhunting now. It gradually stopped when the missionaries came, around the 1940s I think, before the Japanese occupation. But some people still believe if you build a bridge there should be a skull in the construction, otherwise it will quickly collapse. It might just be superstition.

Sorry, I interrupted! Tell us what you remember from when you were a child.

We had to get water from the well and carry it up the ladder, and we had to collect firewood. There was no electricity and no roads – we went everywhere on foot. When I went to primary school, a mission school, I had to walk through the jungle for half an hour. We didn’t have shoes, bags or umbrellas, so on rainy days we used banana leaves to cover our heads. By the time we got to school our uniforms were wet. But if I compare nowadays to that time, I prefer that time because at least when we walked there were trees to shade us from the sun.

The rice that we ate we grew ourselves. My father reared fish in the pond, many types of fish. We also had kampung chickens, not like the chickens we get now, and jungle products like bamboo shoots and tapioca leaf. He went to town once a month, on foot. It took hours. He went to a Chinese shop to buy agricultural tools like hoes, and knives for rubber tapping, and sweets…10 sen [US 3¢] could buy a lot of sweets at that time.

We were very poor. We only had a few dresses and our houses didn’t have much furniture, just simple things, and we slept on the floor. But now it’s totally different. We have electricity and cars and we can move easily from one place to another.

A baruk, or head-house (click for photo source)
What does Bidayuh culture mean to you?

Both the Bidayuh and the Iban celebrate Gawai on 1 June because we are both involved in agriculture. Gawai marks the end of the rice harvest. Compared to the past the celebration is different now…these days we have open house. We invite our relatives and serve them food and drinks. But what I saw from my mother-in-law was a different kind of celebration. You had to stay in the baruk for three days, and the spirit of the rice would be there so next year you would have a fruitful harvest.

You have to be careful with spirits. My ancestors still have the sword, we call it a parang, which was used to cut the heads off people, but it’s got a spirit. You were supposed to put human blood on it because if not then it may do something bad. We don’t do it any more. Many people don’t want to keep the swords now.

Is it important for children to learn Bahasa Bidayuh?

Yes, but Bahasa Bidayuh is not one language. We have nine dialects if I’m not mistaken. If we meet someone from Serian [a town approximately 30km away] we can’t understand each other. We have to use Bahasa Malaysia or English.

How do you think life will be different for your children?

We’ll still maintain our way of life but not totally. Before, people didn’t understand the importance of education but now it’s a must, especially for the Bidayuh in urban areas. They care about their children’s education; they know it can change their lives. A lot of young people will migrate to town because they no longer want to be farmers. They all want to work in government agencies or the private sector because it’s the best way to earn a living. The elders will stay in the kampung I think, they will still be farmers but now they can go into town and sell their goods.

In the past Bidayuh only married Bidayuh but because of these socioeconomic and political developments it’s mostly intermarriage now, even marriage with foreigners. It can change the traditional culture. If you still live in the village then you continue to practice Biduyuh culture, but if you live somewhere else maybe not. It depends on the race you’re married to. If you marry a Malay and convert to Islam then of course your culture will change. But from what I’ve seen, if you marry a Chinese for example then you can celebrate Gawai and also Chinese New Year. That’s the good thing about Malaysia!


  1. Good stuff. I particularly like the skulls in bridges bit that 'might' be superstition!

  2. Fascinating stuff. May I pinch for lessons?

  3. Andy - the bridge skulls were my favourite bit too! I was driving today with M and we crossed a bridge and she was like, 'Ahem. Bridge.' and laughed :) Alan - thanks for reading and yes, please do!