KUCHING: Celebrating Gawai Dayak is once again permitted after two miserable years of enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, but not all Dayaks can enjoy the festivities at home in Sarawak.
These Dayaks are outside the country for various reasons — working, studying or travelling. Some are economic immigrants while others are married to foreigners and have settled down in their host countries. Whatever the reasons for being away from home, many can’t help feel some twinge of homesickness every time Gawai Dayak comes around.
Just like other Dayaks forced by circumstances to go where the grass is greener, Nigel Senin Amok (a 40-year-old application development team leader), Melville Ugap (a 28-year-old nurse) and Christine Dior (a 32-year-old mechnical engineer) understand what missing home during Gawai is like. People say that time can heal pain due to various ailments of the body or the heart. This is true, and yet around this time of year, every year, they feel something in their hearts or soul calling, pulling, reminding them that something is missing.
Long time away from home
Nigel has been working in Shah Alam for 22 years and the last time he went back home to his longhouse in Lubok Antu was in 2018.
“So it’s been five years since the last time I went home for Gawai. Unlike the companies in Sarawak my employer does not give leave from work for the season. There is no public holiday for Gawai Dayak outside Sarawak. That’s the main reason,” he said.
As for Melville, he has been in Singapore for 10 years. The last proper Gawai he had was in 2019. The following year, the pandemic and having a baby after Gawai was the reason why he has been unable to go home.
Farther away than Nigel and Melville, Christine has not been home because the prices of air tickets have been prohibitive. She has been working in Melbourne, Australia for over five years and hasn’t been home, pandemic or no pandemic.
Celebrating Gawai in their own way
What to do when you can’t have the real thing? Be creative and make do with whatever is appropriate for the occasion. The same goes for Gawai away from home.
Nigel said when missing home very badly just celebrate with fellow Sarawakians or even Sabahans. He has done so with a family in Shah Alam by organising Gawai-style camping and having a picnic.
Christine, on the other hand, thought that celebrating without her community won’t work. After all, the festival is more meaningful when enjoyed together with family and friends.
“I have thought of doing some cooking and inviting friends over but it would feel weird because they don’t know anything about Gawai. So I will just share the joy of friends and family by looking at their photos on Facebook,” she said.
It is not too bad for Melville, though, because his mind is pre-occupied with a more pressing matter – he and his wife are expecting their firstborn.
What they love and miss most about Gawai
Festivities in and around Gawai can be organised or spontaneous. When it involves a lot of people such as members of associations or a whole village, some programmes are organised. Elsewhere, the most enjoyable occasions are in the eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and visiting friends and relatives. It is mostly fun chaos or chaotic fun, whatever that means.
From experience, this was the part that Nigel liked the most about Gawai. He found the chaotic scene in his longhouse exhilarating as it was a far cry from the hard, sombre grind of earning a living.
“Whenever I celebrated Gawai in the past I lived for the moment … enjoyed the family gatherings, ‘pekit kumang’ and ‘keling’, and of course the abundant food especially ‘pansuh janik’ (pork cooked in bamboo stems), various friendly competitions, and so on,” he said.
Then with a hint of sadness in his voice, he admitted that those things have become things of the past as most of his loved ones are no longer together with him. They have passed on. He will miss the Gawai again next year due to work commitments.
For Christine, the thing she loved most about Gawai was re-connecting with her roots.
“It’s a great reminder of where I came from,” she said.
She also enjoyed visiting her friends and, oddly enough, the chaos of preparing for the coming of visitors because “it’s something to look forward to”.
Sadly, the possibility of her missing the Gawai again next year is quite high.
Melville did not speak bout “roots” but pointed out family times as his most cherished moments during Gawai.
“Being alone away from Sarawak for so many years has made me realise that spending time with family is precious. If you still have a village, make an effort to go home. That’s the best place to celebrate because that’s where most of your old friends and relatives are,” he said.
For the time being, Melville and his wife are not going to fly anywhere as their baby is coming. Next year, however, they will definitely return home.
Don’t forget your roots
When asked for advice for Sarawakians who are living abroad and can’t be back for Gawai, Nigel said as the festival is all about fellowship with family members and friends, the spirit of it should be maintained.
“If you can’t go back for the festivities, just hold a gathering with your loved ones and friends and bring the Gawai spirit into it and enjoy.
“Also, technology nowadays enables us to interact in real time online, so have a group video call to catch up. Just don’t get too attached to your gadgets during Gawai,” he said.
Christine has a simple message for Sarawakians who live abroad.
“Don’t forget where you came from. We as the indigenous people of Sarawak are special because we make up such a tiny fraction of the billions of people in the whole world. Diamonds are precious because they are so few.
“Maybe you can’t have a community of your own people where you are right now. Our numbers are small and we are spread out, so connect with one another so as not to feel isolated.”
Melville noted that even though Gawai Dayak falls on June 1 and 2, the celebration of it takes a month or so.
“You see, we also have the closing, ‘nutup Gawai’ or ‘Gawai ngiling tikai’. For the lucky ones, there is ‘Gawai Melah Pinang’ (wedding ceremony).
“But most importantly, remember the reason why you and I are working or studying away from Sarawak.
“When you’re fortunate enough to be able to go home, spend quality time with friends and family. Remember, there will always be another Gawai but our loved ones won’t last forever,” he said.