Hospitality knows no gender or race.— Danny Meyer, entrepreneur
Most Iban children are taught to be polite and hospitable to visitors, including guests at festivals and events, funerals included.
I was no exception and in fact looked forward to occasions where the virtue of hospitability could be exemplified. As such, from an early age, I had to be familiar with the different utensils usually featured in serving guests during these occasions, most of which were funerals over the years between 1963 and 1974.
For our longhouse Kedap since the sixties, the typical dishes served to guests during meals for weddings, funerals and other events included at least two types of meat, a dish of vegetable and perhaps one soup, if any, plus rice, served using a talam (big tray). However, not all families offer similar number and array of dishes — it all depended on preferences and vitamin M too.
Meals of rice and those dishes were served for dinner (around 8pm) as well as for a very early breakfast at predawn around 5am or earlier (pertaining to funerals, as the journey for burial started from the longhouse when it was still dark — but of course, nowadays, this has changed a lot as burial can be done much later).
Around midnight, coffee or tea was served together with pancakes, biscuits, porridge and bread, similarly as the present practice. This was what I liked the most — especially doing the Kaya (jam made from coconut, caramel and eggs) spread for bread to be served to guests and taking my own share too.
In fact, I felt rewarded when I noticed the eager smiles of those whom I served as a loaf of bread was considered a rare item and a luxury in those days — not many families could offer it due to distance from town and other constraints (those were the days when rubber price was only 48 sen per kati).
Guests then would be seated at the ruai gallery on special mats and most of the time stay put until around 1am (after coffee) and thereafter ready to be invited by other families as guests for rice wine tuak and other drinks (decades prior to the present restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic).
However, the serving done in Bawang Assan, Sibu since the early 70s, was an eye-opener for me. During a funeral there that I attended circa 1971, we were given a plate and a cup each and then guests were served with rice, meat and others by different servers — using a pail or container.
In Bintangor, Kanowit and Julau up till the early 90s, similar serving was the order of the day. For the Krian and Saribas basins, I did not come across such practice.
But now everywhere, either in the Rajang basins or in Krian and Saribas, all have gone modern by using the common buffet style, served on tables and seated on chairs and the mat, whichever is applicable.
Longhouses, most of which have gone modern and enjoying 24-hour electricity supply, find this method very suitable.
For our longhouse, every family has been supplied with a long table for this buffet purpose. Now guests are free to go around and take from any table along the common gallery. Even during Gawai Dayak eve dinner, our longhouse residents will also go around to taste the dishes from their neighbours’ tables, thereby enhancing rapport and unity.
Since the pandemic hit the nation, two deaths (not Covid-19 related) dealt a blow to my fellow longhouse residents. In June last year, my niece Regina, 47, departed due to a long illness where last week my first cousin, about six or seven years my junior, made an untimely exit from this dunya injau (borrowed world).
He died on Sunday, the very day he was born six decades ago and was named Minggu at birth but was fondly called Kachui (after a shopkeeper in Saratok’s cowboy town of the sixties) but better known as Apai Ugo till his death.
Typical of our Iban community, the father is usually given the moniker of Apai so and so; therefore my late cousin was named as such despite his eldest engineer son Ugo’s real name is Marshall.
Due to the restrictions during my niece demise last year plus other constraints I had to give it a miss but his father, my elder brother Jon, understood my situation then.
Similarly, I had to also miss my cousin’s funeral too but did send my condolence to Ugo via Facebook.
Nowadays, there is less one meal to serve as guests usually leave after the bejaku (official ceremony of obituaries and tributes) where a few people would make an address each. This event ends around 1am and most guests will leave, thanks to easy road access.