By Chris McBeath

We had been dancing like birds for over 40 minutes, feeling more like a species of funky chicken than the graceful, Malaysian egret we were supposed to be imitating. But to our hosts, participating in this traditional Samazau dance of Borneo was a distinct honour, so with arms out to our sides, hands gently waving in the wind, we pivoted rhythmically around one foot, before dizziness cued a change of direction to have us pivot around the other foot. And all the time we smiled, since it was surely impolite to do otherwise. It was, after all, all part of the ritual to rice in which we unwittingly found ourselves bound.

Nowhere in the world is rice so revered than in Sabah, Borneo, and as the padi harvests are reaped this month, they herald the start of a state-wide party, made all the more celebratory with lashings of home-brewed, rice wine (tapai), 24 by 7. The celebration is called Kaamatan, and is a month-long cultural feast that starts the day the last grain is plucked. Usually early May.

For the Kadazandusuns, an indigenous group who represent almost 30% of Sabah’s multi-ethnic population, rice cultivation is steeped in cultural and religious tradition; it is their life work, and fulfills their family, community, and spiritual needs. Generally, everyone in the village (kampong) practices mitatabang – a kind of harmonious co-operation focused solely on the production of rice. From the clearing of the land for padi cultivation, to planting, field maintenance and reaping the harvest, they labour as a team, working in pre-scheduled shifts so that each family knows their turn and their specific task. Ritual ceremonies are held almost daily, reinforcing their shared responsibilities and sense of community. And because Kadazandusuns believe rice has a spirit (bambaazon), padi is always treated with utmost reverence, although during Kaamatan, protocols seem to fall by the wayside.

There are, in fact, over 30 ethnic groups in Sabah which produce rice, and therefore celebrate a variation of Kaamatan based on their own beliefs and legends. The most popular of these speaks of the deities Kinoingan, creator of earth, and his wife Huminodun, creator of humans who, she soon realized, needed food if they were to grow and prosper. For this, legend tells how Huminodun sacrificed her only daughter who, at death, transformed her body into all manner of plants, including rice that grew from her flesh and blood.

When Kinoingan learned of his daughter’s sacrifice, he became so distraught, he started to cut down the young rice plants in front of him. “Father, why are you hurting me so?” cried his daughter’s voice from the rice stalks. “I died to provide food for the people, and yet you still want to hurt me some more” At this, Kinoingan fell to the ground, and wept. “Do not cry Father, you will see me again if you do what I ask. Tend the rice field properly, and the padi has ripened, bring seven of the tallest stalks to the house, placing each inside of a jar, and covering the jars with tarap leaves. When you hear a knocking against the wall of the jar, it is a signal for you to open it.”

Kinoingan did everything his daughter told him to do. One day, he heard knocking inside the seven jars and when he opened them, out stepped seven beautiful maidens. One was his daughter.

That night, there was great feasting and thanksgiving (magavau), after which Kinoingan announced that their task of creation was complete and it was time him and his family to return to the heavens. But he promised they would continue to work for mankind through intermediaries. Thus, the six remaining maidens became the first priestesses (bobohizans), who, after passing their art on to humans, became invisible, and to this day remain the guardian spirits (miontong) of every Kadazan home and rice field.

Bobohizans are still very much a part of Kadazandusun village life. They are the spiritual advisers, able to recount the creation of the world, the action of the deities, and the wisdoms of a community’s social and cultural fabric. Spirit mediumship is also a prerequisite for becoming a ritual specialist. And as the harvest commences, it is the bobohizans who will select seven of the best rice heads, and bring them ceremoniously to the owner of the rice field, to symbolize the homecoming of the rice spirit. In many villages, magavau is often performed in the rice field, and rituals can still involve sacrifice – albeit of chickens or pigs, so that their flesh and blood may guarantee a bountiful padi harvest. Blood may also be used to ritually cleanse household tools, jars and gongs since some believe they are inhabited by spirits.

For most Kandazens, and other rice-producing tribal communities, the village kaamatan is merely a lead-up to the modern-day, state-level celebration in the cities of Kota Kinabalu, and Penampang. Here, rice is celebrated with a vast multi-faceted country fair showcasing traditional crafts, such as blow-pipe demonstrations, a rice wine drinking contest, cultural dancing, basket (raga) weaving, sports, games and rites. Ladies come bedecked in beads and bangles, brass and silver, while the men, not to be outdone, come in flamboyant feathers and animal skins. Everywhere there is food, dancing, and bamboo musical instruments being beaten in rhythm to gongs and pipes. There’s even a highly touted beauty pageant, named in honour of Huminodun, which, over the years, has garnered such prestige that winners become sought-after brides, who can command hefty dowries (usually in the form of water buffalo) from potential suitors, and are the source of wealth for her family.

Through all of this, though, you might well find yourself dancing, as we were, with rice wine flowing: it’s sweet, hot taste passing our lips in multiple sips from shot glasses made from hollowed bamboo. It was fuel for the dancers – young, lithe, tawny skinned nubiles whose wide, brown eyes sparkled with laughter at our attempts to bird-dance. It is their Malaysian custom to keep dancing as long as the guests keep smiling, just as it Western custom to keep smiling in appreciation of hospitality and kindness. And so the dance kept going; all smiles and waves, like birds of a feather caught in a never-ending cycle of the padi itself.