By Aqilah Bahar and Elyana Sofia
Just like any other year, May heaved into sight as a month full of joy and festivities for the indigenous ethnic groups in Sabah, the Kadazandusun. Welcoming a month-long of celebration and gratitude, surrounded by the warmth of family and friends and honouring centuries-old tradition, Kaamatan or Tadau Kaamatan has to be the most celebrated festival for the Sabahans.
An annual event in celebration of the sacred beliefs and a time to honour the sacrifice of Huminodun goes way back in history. The tale has it that their God, Kinoingan sacrificed his daughter to save the people from a period of scarcity where he planted Huminodun’s flesh into the soil and over the rice fields which then saved the people from extreme famine. The successful rice harvest and each of the grains is said to have the spirit of Huminodun recognised as Bambazon.
Tadau Kaamatan, also known as Harvest festival, is an important time for the Kadazandusun tribes as this event marked their God’s sacrifice that helped preserve lineage and ethnic tribes. It is also a moment to appreciate and honour the relations that they share with their God and to commemorate “the conception of sacrificial love for the realisation of salvation”.
In the past years, the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) took it to a larger scale by holding exhibitions and activities at the Hongkod Koisaan Cultural Centre for communities across states and tourists to be part of what started as a festival celebrated only by Kadazandusun. This cultural village that has been a home to welcome the annual Kaamatan festival is also a centre that holds the identity of Kadazandusun tribes and showcases their rich traditions for almost 32 years now.
The year 2020, however, an unwelcome ‘friend’ coronavirus has been residing since early February and Malaysia has never been the same ever since. Festive occasions have to be celebrated while observing the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and it had been no different for the Harvest festival. Governed rules have put everything and everyone into a grounded space which led us into this new concept of normalcy.
A festival that was supposed to be celebrated for a month-long had to be cancelled to ensure safety of the community at large. A cultural village that used to welcome people with the sound of music and pull the crowd in with the divine smell of ethnic delicacies, enticing every five of our senses had to be left empty, filled only with the sound of birds and swirling wind.
Still and all, this did not break the spirit of Sabahans to make the most out of the Kaamatan festivities by turning physical events into virtual functions.
Sugandoi which is a singing competition where participants from 41 districts strictly from Kadazan, Dusun and Murut ethnic groups will have to compete among them and the winner from each district has to battle it off in the final rounds in a grand scale at KDCA on 30 and 31 May. They need to wear traditional clothes to showcase their unique tribal costumes and to lock extra marks.
Usually, this event is divided into four categories, mainly for kids, teens, adults and veterans. It is a platform to search for talents who have been long hidden among the Sabahans as well as to express their gratitude and praise for the wondrous gift of life. This is, unfortunately, a scene that the Sabahans and people across Malaysia could witness before the COVID-19 outbreak.
For the Sugandoi singing competition this year, those who were eager to be part of an event that is somewhat significant to the festival were asked to confirm their participation by submitting pre-recorded videos on Facebook. There were two categories made available, open category and Dazanak category (also known as the junior category).
From there, the committees shortlisted participants to compete in the final round with each wearing their own traditional tribe’s attires at the comfort of their homes through Zoom platform and live-streamed through KDCA and Sabah Era Facebook pages. These participants were also judged by juries who remained in their respective homes following restrictions of the conditional movement control order (CMCO).
Another crucial aspect of Kaamatan festival is Unduk Ngadau, probably the grandest and most anticipated event usually commenced on the last day of the festival, would normally be held at KDCA. This event is associated with the legendary tale of Homunidon who after her death was observed as the ultimate beauty for sacrificing herself to protect the people from starvation with a bountiful harvest.
In honour of Huminodun, Unduk Ngadau also alternately translated as Harvest Queen was scheduled to be organised online. The chairman of the committee announced that participants were to be chosen online and shortlisted and the final round to be arranged physically in KDCA hall with a restricted number of audience which caused a ruckus among the Sabahan community.
People across districts in Sabah were against this idea as it does not serve any purpose and has no significance especially amid global crisis, COVID-19. Many said that the proposed funds for this event could have been used to help those in dire need or channelled to the front liners who put up their best defence for this country.
State-level Unduk Ngadau event was then cancelled not solely because of the petition and the voices that went against the organising committees but it was due to the risks and fear of not being able to observe social distancing.
The idea of Unduk Ngadau is to embrace the spirit of togetherness and sacrificial act for the community—which the Sabahans have successfully embodied by caring for the communities and having the people’s best interests at heart instead of celebrating one of the momentous events for the people of Sabah.
Sabahans made applaudable efforts by fully adapting the idea of new normal, celebrating Kaamatan with intimacy and virtually instead of the usual gleeful occasion. Although joyous Kaamatan programmes and a month of exhibitions at KDCA could not be held, they believed that this festival is not just about preserving their heritages but to reinforce familial relationships between friends and family. Indifferent to the limitations that COVID-19 brings, they ensured that the excitement would still be present above all.***
(This article is written as part of special reports assignment for Feature Writing class)